Recollections: Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’

Recollections / October 3, 2017

Thirty-seven years ago this month, the 13-part television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by Cornell University planetary scientist Carl Sagan, began airing weekly on PBS. While I was likely a little too young to have watched that premiere broadcast, I definitely remember watching the entire uncut series during one of its many rebroadcasts in the early 1980s. Most likely, these re-airings would have occurred during a PBS pledge drive, when public television stations would air their most reliable ratings-getters to help bolster their budgets. These pledge drives really began to take off in the early ’80s, as the Reagan Revolution began to chip away at public broadcasting. At Christmas in 1982, I received the Cosmos hardcover book as a gift, and immediately dove into its full-color pages depicting the gorgeous speculative art and inspiring animation from the series. Sagan’s elegant prose echoed his narration from the series, explaining the concepts in a clear, concise way that even a 7-year-old could follow.

In the following year, I wrote away to Sagan’s new organization, the Planetary Society, and received a letter a few weeks later, ostensibly from and signed by Sagan, as well as a full-color glossy photo of the rings of Saturn. Sagan’s promenades through the void of space, walking through the orbits of giant models of the planets, inspired me to go to the hobby store, buy styrofoam spheres of various sizes, paint them in the colors of the nine planets, and hang them from my bedroom ceiling. In short, I was much like many other science-mad kids who came of age in the early ’80s and ended up venerating Sagan’s open, friendly, and thoughtful manner in explaining the deepest, most puzzling mysteries of the universe. Thanks to Sagan, I knew what DNA did, what a tesseract was, and how, in order to make an apple pie from scratch, you would first need to invent the universe. But, possibly more important than this scientific education, I received a moral education thanks to Dr. Sagan. I learned a respect for the delicacy of the climate of planet Eartha realization of how the ignorant and violent could destroy humanity’s wisdom and progress, and, yes, a deeper and more profound fear of what the Cold War could mean for humanity’s future.

Why was Cosmos so endlessly intriguing for a kid like me? Speaking purely in terms of the format of the series, Sagan allowed for the importance and necessity of imagination for the mind of a scientist, whether he or she was a 48-year-old astronomer at Cornell or a 7-year-old kid in the suburbs of Boston. The main conceit of the series is that Sagan explores the universe in a “Spaceship of the Imagination,” modeled on a dandelion seed, wandering the winds of the cosmos. This frame allows Sagan to show us breathtaking vistas without having to worry about petty concerns like the speed of light (or the damage that a supernova might do to an observer). The art and animation, as I mentioned earlier, were inspiring and top-notch for their day. Seeing concepts like the Cosmic Calendar illustrated using Sagan in front of a green screen did so much more to explain the concept. And like other popular science series on television in the 1970s on both PBS and the BBC, Sagan was given license to go exploring on our planet, recording segments in Greece, India, Siberia, and the remote former home of the Anasazi in New Mexico.

Another very important component to Cosmos‘ success and accessibility was its ecumenicalism, scientifically and pedagogically. Sagan, an astronomer by training, also discussed the life sciences, given his own research into exoplanets and exobiology. He discussed history and was not afraid to engage politically on Cosmos with the impact of people and historical events on the forward march of scientific progress. Sagan was right there among NASA’s late 1970s projects in space exploration, and was able to bring footage and interviews from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the Voyager missions beamed back live images of distant worlds. Cosmos utilized a full, diverse toolkit of pedagogical modes, using real-life cutting-edge scientific research and exploration, dramatic historical re-enactments, the aforementioned art and animation, and Sagan’s own narration and monologues.

Sagan had been a fairly prominent and familiar figure to Americans before the debut of Cosmos. He had sparred publicly with pseudoscientists, had engaged in the discussion over the existence of extraterrestrial life and the UFO phenomena, and had already begun to act as an ambassador for science on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. With the unprecedented success of Cosmos, though, Sagan became a true household name. An impression of his distinctive tone of voice, sprinkled with hints of Brooklynese, and his quirky, plosive pronunciation of “billions,” became staples in the routines of many celebrity impressionists. Sagan’s unlikely role as pop culture figure at the time sometimes obscured the messages he was trying to convey in his work for the lay audience. As a classic “nerd” type, his popular appeal led to his being very easily pigeonholed and lampooned as an academic who was well out of his depth in the glossy, glamorous world of early ’80s television. A tiny backlash began to form, which diminished Sagan both in the popular imagination and among his scientific colleagues.

I’ve been giving this phenomenon a lot of thought since my youth. Carl Sagan wasn’t the only PBS figure I respected greatly as a kid who found himself lampooned in the larger sphere of pop culture. Fred Rogers was another protector and savior of PBS, whose educational approach was also suffused with a profound kindness, gentleness, and patience. Mister Rogers also found himself the subject of his share of parodies (some of them basically respectful, if a tad subversive). But I find the fact that both these men faced immediate parodying in the face of their success, especially their success in reaching child viewers, quite telling. As a child at the time, I was learning what it meant to be to be a man from depictions on commercial television, dominated by take-charge fictional characters like Magnum P.I., J.R. Ewing, B.A. Baracus, the Duke boys, or the womanizing Sam Malone. Sagan and Rogers were quite clearly a breed apart as male role models. The subsequent distancing of these values of authenticity, gentleness, and inquisitiveness through irony and parody demonstrates, I believe, a real and tangible fear of and discomfort with these qualities in male role models at the time. The culture at large was in the midst of a larger backlash against the “Free to Be… You And Me” 1970s, when macho sports figures like Rosey Greer told boys that “it’s all right to cry.” In the ’80s, parody books like Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche tweaked this backlash but also demonstrated that a large portion of the population wanted us to return us to a more explicitly patriarchal society.

If I were to explicitly contrast Carl Sagan with Ronald Reagan as I did a few months ago in these very pages, I’d note that both learned how to use the medium of television to convey their ideas, and both had a demeanor and a public image that evoked immediate feelings of calm, openness, and friendliness. But there the comparisons end. As Reagan in his first term escalated our conflict with the Soviet Union and committed the United States to an arms race that put the entire world in danger, Sagan was a tireless worker for nuclear disarmament (along with scientists on the other side of the Iron Curtain), for world peace, and for environmental justice. He was baffled by the inherent selfishness of capitalism. He supported unpopular causes like research into and the legalization of marijuana. And while Sagan was often critical of the harm that organized religion could inflict on humanity, he was never dogmatic about these views. Unlike popular scientific figures who today propagate an often explicitly racist and colonialist New Atheism, Sagan knew that part of what makes science so powerful is its ability to answer satisfactorily the aching questions of existence for which philosophy and religion often offer none. Many of the chapters in the Cosmos book open with epigrams from religious and spiritual texts from all over the world and all throughout history. Sagan was a true humanist, using his undergraduate education in a wide array of fields, writers, and thinkers to inform his scientific work.

I would not be the man I am today without the guidance of Carl Sagan, beamed to me through my childhood television screen. While my dreams of being an astronomer or scientist had died away by the time I got to college, I never fully left Sagan behind. My now falling apart hardcover of Cosmos, its dust jacket long since lost, has been close to me ever since that Christmas of 1982; I return to it frequently. I’m obviously not the only person my age to feel this way, given Sagan’s ever-present popularity as demonstrated through pop culture remixes and tributes from Hollywood movers and shakers. But I think it’s very easy today to forget what made Sagan’s position in pop culture so distinctive and unique, so groundbreaking and even dangerous. His careful, measured philosophy of scientific probity and social justice shaped a lot of young minds—shaped them against the currents of the predominant culture of his time. The prospect of a similar figure emerging in today’s social and political climate seems to grow dimmer and dimmer with each passing year, with each assault on our public broadcasting system, with each new celebration and elevation of superstition, prejudice, ignorance, and violence. Carl Sagan’s life and work with the public is a rare jewel, the likes of which we simply may not see again.

Grasso AvatarMichael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.

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