The Sciences

Cosmos: From Grade School to Itunes

The LoomBy Carl ZimmerAug 22, 2008 2:58 PM


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I just found that Carl Sagan's Cosmos, the 1980 TV series on life and the universe, is now on Itunes. You can get it here, at $1.99 an episode. I've downloaded the first two episodes, which I don't think I've seen since they first aired 28 years ago. I remember watching every episode intently as a 14-year old at the end of the Carter administration. The passage of time has revealed some hokiness around the edges. The music, much of it by Vangelis, sometimes makes me think I've walked into a crystal shop. Sagan is fitted in corduroy blazers and what seems to be the precursor of the Members Only jacket. Some of the images still look good--like Sagan's calendar of the cosmos--but there are also painfully long pans across a cardboard diorama of ancient amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. We are so spoiled today by Jurassic Park. For some reason, what struck me as hokiest about Cosmos was the spaceship Sagan uses to coast around space to show off galaxies and pulsars. It is meant as a deeply profound experience--a voyage of the imagination across billions of light years (say it slowly, in proper Sagan style). But Sagan sits in a plastic bucket chair that survives today only in aging bus stations and flea markets. The picture of science Sagan presents is also a bit too simple for my taste now (at least in the first two episodes I've watched again). He offers a black-and-white picture of science versus the forces of superstition, war, and other bad things. Greeks love knowledge, Dark Ages fall, Kepler rises! Only science will save us from the evils of nuclear war! Of course, Kepler's discoveries were motivated by his mystical reading of the Bible. And, of course, science and war (hot or cold) have been intimately intertwined for the past century. The people who sacked the library of Alexandria did not build the atomic bomb. The generation of physicists who taught Sagan did. But as I was tallying up the shortcomings of the show, something funny happened. My daughters, 7 and 4, are pretty well-trained now to stay out of the office. But as I was watching Cosmos on my computer, they snuck in and ended up sitting on my lap, captivated by the stately unwinding of DNA and the majestic trip through the cell. I could see they were starting to understand things that I've been trying to explain without much luck. In an age of hyper-fast editing cuts and soundtracks always turned to eleven, Cosmos can still mesmerize a child and give her an introduction to the natural world. Sagan's accounts are sometimes a bit dated now, but nobody has done a better job of conveying a sense of the scale of nature, from that calendar to that bus-station spaceship to the dive into the cell--and it's thanks largely to Sagan's exceptional ability to talk about science in clear, even poetic terms. It is, I'm realizing, a show that shaped the way I look at the world, even now that I'm getting close to Sagan's age when he filmed it. And for that, I can forgive any fashion faux pas.

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