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Sagan Stands 2

Why Cosmos is the best show about science ever made

35 years on, Carl Sagan’s mind-blowing journey through space and time is as relevant as ever

Thirty five years ago, an uncommonly clever collection of organic molecules called Carl Sagan ushered viewers on board his ‘ship of the imagination’ in a quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Cosmos, a 13-part documentary series that Sagan co-wrote with his soon-to-be-wife, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, was a science show like no other, with an epic narrative sweep that took viewers from the first stirrings of life on earth through a brief history of human ideas and on to our current fork in the evolutionary road, as potential agents of our own destruction. Presiding over it all was Sagan, a kind of tweed-suited, benevolent anti-Dawkins whose passion for the scientific method was matched only by his enthusiasm for funky polo-neck sweaters and contagious sense of wonder at the world. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” he says at one point in characteristic dulcet tones, just one of many poignant lines strung like jewels through the programme. First of all, though, you should really get to know Cosmos. Here’s what makes it continue to resonate thirty-five-laps-round-the-sun after it first aired.


“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love,” says Sagan of humanity’s humble station in the universe, and indeed, for his daughter with Druyan, Sasha Sagan, Cosmos’ script was a labour of love in a very real sense. “(My parents) wrote books, essays, and screenplays together, working to popularise a philosophy of the scientific method in place of the superstition, mysticism, and blind faith that they felt was threatening to dominate the culture,” she wrote in a moving piece for The Cut in 2014. “They were deeply in love – and now, as an adult, I can see that their professional collaborations were another expression of their union, another kind of lovemaking.” Not for nothing do “people have phrases that one of us wrote tattooed on their body,” as Druyan put it to the Guardian last year.


Cosmos may have been conceived in part as a rebuttal to religion, but one of the programme’s great pleasures is that Sagan treats spirituality with the respect it deserves, i.e. as a fundamental human impulse, rather than something to be wished away as a stain on our collective character, à la Richard Dawkins. “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” he says in the series’ celebrated opening sequence. “Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height – we know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.” Can you imagine Dawkins getting off his anti-religious soapbox long enough to write a line as good as that?


Vangelis might be best remembered for his work on Hollywood epics like Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, but the Greek synth wizard’s score for Cosmos is up there with the best work he ever did. His majestic soundtrack is to the the show what Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting theme is to Twin Peaks, using slow-motion synths and spare piano chords to evoke a sense of the eternal, but also of the fragility Sagan alludes to when he observes that “this is a time of great danger” for our species.


Time and again throughout Cosmos, Sagan returns to the theme of the environment, which in 1980 was not the hot-button issue it is today. Indeed, as he notes ominously, the study of global climate was “funded poorly and grudgingly” at the time of the show’s writing – and really, how much can be said to have changed in the intervening 35 years? Despite all that, Sagan remains an optimist at heart, and never lapses into easy cynicism about our potential fate. “For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves,” he says. “This is a time of great danger, but our species is young a curious and brave it shows much promise... I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”


Cosmos saves some of its most jaw-dropping revelations for its historical asides, from Eratosthenes’ deduction of the earth’s shape and size – to within 66km! – in 200BC to a Nasa lunar mission that appeared to corroborate the claims of a 12th century monk who witnessed a meteorite strike the moon. Cosmos is really good at reminding us of the debt we owe to the people throughout history whose dedication to the observable facts, often at great personal cost, brought us to our current understanding of the universe, and episode three – without doubt, one of the most poignant and hearfelt hours of telly you’ll ever see – brings the point home beautifully. The episode tells the life story of Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer whose modelling of the planets’ orbit of the sun paved the way for Newton’s discovery of gravity. But Kepler also penned an early work of science fiction, Somnium, which imagined what the Earth might look like from the moon: cue footage of the Apollo moon landings, some four centuries after he wrote it.


Sagan may be a generous host, but he’s not immune from getting angry. He throws some memorable shade on Ptolemy, an Alexandrian scholar whose work laid the basis for western astrology, proving, as Sagan witheringly puts it, that “intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong”. Even worse for Sagan was Greek maths bod Pythagoras, who tried to suppress knowledge of the square root of two (because it’s an irrational number, and Pythagoras was definitely a whole numbers kind of guy), and his disciple Plato, whose high-minded embrace of ideas over scientific method propped up a lot of what was rotten in western thought.


Nasa’s discovery of flowing water on Mars was not foreseen by Sagan, who echoes Charles Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace in contending that the planet’s atmosphere is “much too cold and thin to permit the existence of liquid water”. But some of his other Martian musings are bang on-point. For instance, he argues that, if microbial life were to be found on Mars, it’s not for us to interfere with, a POV that scientists are hotly debating this very moment. Why? Well, because Nasa could send the Curiosity Rover to the site of the discovery, except that it isn’t sterile and therefore may have brought microbes along for the ride, risking contamination of any life it does stumble upon. Says Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who was instrumental in bringing Cosmos back to the screen for a second series in 2014 (yes, you did read that bit right). “‘Mars then belongs to the Martians,’ (Sagan) said, even if Martians are only microbes.’ How amazing is that? The man advocated for the rights of imaginary Martian germs! He cared more for theoretical space bugs than I personally care for just about any of my actual co-workers.”