Life, etc

Cosmos – the final frontier; these are the voyages of the starship Neil deGrasse Tyson…

By J Brooks Spector 13 March 2014

Way back in 1980, the late Carl Sagan first brought the multipart Cosmos series to television. The programs explored exciting new discoveries, the theories behind them - and the speculations beyond that about the nature of universe and man’s place in it. The series was such memorable television – with astronomer Carl Sagan serving as host – that it inspired a generation of young, would-be scientists to follow their muse. For the rest of us, the programs reminded us science was about wonder and mystery – and that scientific inquiry begins with deceptively simple questions like 'why' and 'how' something happens. Now, nearly two generations later, yet another astronomer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, stars in the re-envisioning of Cosmos. The first episode premiered in the US on 9 March, and will be seen by South Africans one week later. J. BROOKS SPECTOR affectionately recalls Carl Sagan’s continuing impact and influence – and what “Cosmos” has meant to us.

When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

— Walt Whitman

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

The writer has this memory of a live TV broadcast, direct from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, back in 1964. That was when the early interplanetary spacecraft, Mariner 2, was slowly transmitting its first photographs of the Martian surface back to Earth, once the picture had been captured on a magnetic tape recorder inside the craft. JPL was in control of the Mariner craft, once its launch on a NASA rocket had sent it on its way towards Mars.

It was late in the evening and America’s Public Broadcasting System was broadcasting the celebratory scene at the JPL, as pixel by pixel, the image was being received back on Earth from the Mariner craft. Projected onto a big screen, the image slowly resolved into a view of that big, roughly triangular feature of the Martian landscape, Syrtis Major. The on-air commentator was none other than the young planetary astronomer, Carl Sagan. And his voice was already bringing his trademark enthusiasm for the wonder of science to what might otherwise have been the painfully slow accumulation of new scientific evidence. Years later, one of his frequent pull quotes would become the rapturous exclamation, “billions and billions of stars!”

Flash forward years later as the television series, Cosmos, starring Carl Sagan, exploded onto television screens across the United States – and around the world. It became an instant hit and one of the top-rated shows ever to appear on American public television. Critics and scientists alike praised its no-holds-barred exploration of the big questions in astronomy (and so much more) – as well as sheer quality of its entertainment as television.

Watch: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos original trailer

Sagan, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and a specialist in planetary exploration and exobiology, had become one of the first American scientists to co-author a major scientific study, Intelligent Life in the Universe, together with a Russian scientist, IS Shklovski?, right in the midst of the Cold War, in 1966. Later on, no stranger to controversy, in 1983, Sagan co-authored an article in “Science” on the prospects of a planet-killing nuclear winter in the aftermath of an exchange of nuclear warheads in an all-out war between the Soviet Union and the US. While this paper was not the first publication on the general idea, through their thoroughly argued article, Sagan and his co-authors fanned concern internationally about the possibilities of catastrophic climate change at the hand of man – and the article was the first to use the phrase, “nuclear winter”.

Along the way, Sagan found time to write bestsellers like “The Dragons of Eden”, “Broca’s Brain” and the science fiction novel, “Contact”, a book that was turned into that big 1997 Jodie Foster/Matthew McConaughey film about the how an alien civilization would welcome humans into the galactic community. (This writer actually has a modest connection to the film. Part of it was filmed in Washington, DC while I was doing an intensive refresher course in the Japanese language. The man who had the coffee wagon outside the language school where I bought my doses of caffeine was also an actor. He disappeared one week from his street corner and when he returned, I asked where he’d been. He told me to watch out for a big sci-fi flick coming next year. As a result of the money he earned when he had been cast as a senator for several scenes in the film, he opened up a small restaurant specializing in Guatemalan cuisine – riding the wave of Washington’s growing ethnic foods boom.)

Sagan was unabashed in his enthusiasm to connect, somehow, some way, with extra-terrestrial life. He and a team of scientific colleagues were responsible for those gold-plated recordings affixed to the two Voyager spacecraft dispatched in 1977 to travel through the solar system – and then on to the stars. While the craft were designed to monitor solar winds, interplanetary particles and other serious scientific questions, they also included those recordings of sounds and images that had been picked to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth – intended for any intelligent extra-terrestrial life form that managed to snare the two spacecraft well into the future.

When the craft were first launched into space, Carl Sagan explained the point of the recordings, saying, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilisations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

Included were over a hundred images and a selection of natural sounds from Earth, as well as musical selections from throughout human history and across the world’s cultures, greetings in more than fifty languages and a message from then-President Carter: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours”.

Just imagine the bureaucratic battles that had had to be won so a bunch of long-haired scientists could spend American taxpayers’ hard-earned money to create two gold-plated records of bird calls, whale whistles and “howzit” in Russian, Chinese, Esperanto, Twi and Tibetan – and then send them off on a zillion light years’ worth of a trip, thousands of years into the future.

Now, over a quarter of a century has passed and a re-do of Cosmos was born. This time around, since Carl Sagan had sadly passed away from a rare form of cancer, some years earlier, a new host – a noted scientist and an enthusiastic science educator – was clearly needed for the series. Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, was involved in this second version, just as she had been in the first one, and she and the rest of the production team almost certainly had only one possible name on their short list – Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, in the renowned American Museum of Natural History. Tyson was already a veteran of numerous made-for-television documentaries on science, but there was one other thing that must have cinched the decision.

Watch: Cosmos 2014 trailer

While Tyson was still a high school student in New York City, learning of Tyson’s growing interest in astronomy, Sagan had invited Tyson to visit him at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ithaca is hours away by bus – and Sagan handed Tyson a note offering to put him up for the night, if Tyson wasn’t able to catch the last bus home. As Tyson tells the story, even then he already knew he wanted to be an astronomer, but that day, “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to be.”

The psychic connection between the two men must have been a deep one; at one point in this first segment of the new Cosmos, Tyson sits on a rock by the ocean and takes out Sagan’s actual desk diary, opened to the page that has a notation that a certain high school student interested in astronomy was due to come by for a college look-see.

Watch: Neil deGrasse Tyson on the new Cosmos

Because the first instalment has already been aired in North America – this time on the National Geographic Channel and Fox Television (the entertainment channel) rather than the relatively less-viewed PBS network – some reviewers have already had a chance to weigh in with their critiques the new version – and to compare it to its forebear. On the whole, the reviews have been laudatory to ecstatic – both for its range of vision as well as its stunning use of CGI and other visual effects. There have been a few carping criticisms such as that the inserts providing historical background on early cosmologists like Giordano Bruno are over-simplistic, or that cartoon inserts to illustrate some scientific concepts pale in comparison to the CGI employed for Tyson’s imaginary trip through the universe. On the whole, however, the new series is racking up plaudits for its vision and effort.

A key backstory for the redoing of this series, of course, is the desire on the part of many to re-ignite an interest in science among young Americans. When the original series came out, the country was in the midst of the Cold War. Science – including the space race – was still seen as crucial to national pride and success. Now the challenges are different and Americans – too many of them – have begun to swallow a view towards science that eschews knowledge and embraces a pernicious kind of deliberate scientific ignorance.

As Audra Wolfe argued in “The Atlantic” earlier this week, “Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos premiered Sunday night on Fox, to rave reviews…. If the conversations on Twitter (#cosmos) and science blogs are any indication, though, people seem to want more from Cosmos than quality edutainment…. As is so often the case with science communication, the assumption seems to be that public understanding of science—sprinkled with a hearty dose of wonder and awe—will produce respect for scientific authority, support for science funding, and a new generation of would-be scientists. If only Americans loved science a little more, the thinking goes, we could end our squabbling about climate change, clean energy, evolution, and funding NASA and the National Science Foundation. These are high hopes to pin on a television show, even one as glorious as Cosmos.”

But the times are very different and the impetus of the Cold War for science support is long gone. Instead budgetary austerity is the name of the game. As an aside, it is ironic that although Carl Sagan became an outspoken critic of many US Government policies such as the Reagan era “Star Wars” initiative and the continued build-up of nuclear weapons – and the politicians and policy makers who supported these projects – Sagan remained a strong proponent of generating popular support for government-funded science. In effect, he had accepted a kind of Faustian bargain in order to gain continued support for scientific progress.

As Wolfe concludes, “Sagan, in other words, was no fan of the military-industrial complex, but he understood that expensive research in fields like astrophysics had historically been supported by the government for reasons that fell short of idealism. And Sagan’s willingness to publicly disagree with other scientists was an acknowledgement that scientists have political opinions as well as technical expertise.”

But even if the new Cosmos doesn’t cause a rush to the physics and chemistry departments of America’s universities – or those in other countries – we should all watch every episode of the series, if for no other reason than that in doing so we will become better acquainted with the what scientists have learned – and what they suspect may be true. Or perhaps watching this series will even impel us out to gaze in wonder at the stars, together with Walt Whitman. DM

(The new version of Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey begins on 16 March at 19:00 hours via several of the satellite television channels that can be viewed in South Africa.)

Photo: Host Neil DeGrasse Tyson under the stars.

Read more:

  • A Successor to Sagan Reboots ‘Cosmos’ at the New York Times;

  • Ignorance, Inc: When science is not so cool anymore, at Daily Maverick;

  • NASA plots daring flight to Jupiter’s watery moon, at AP;

  • How ‘Cosmos’ brilliantly reconciles science and religion at the Washington Post;

  • Explosive, Daring Cosmos Just Launched a New Crusade for Science at Wired;

  • Cosmos: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY, the official website;

  • Cosmos: how Seth Macfarlane has remade Carl Sagan’s classic TV series at the Guardian (UK);

  • ‘Cosmos’ dazzles in debut at CNN.com.

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