Science is not a destination, it is a process, an unprejudiced peeling back of the layers of mystery to reveal the truth beneath, and far from the belief that the expansion of knowledge would slow when it had reached the theoretical point beyond which all the major discoveries had been made, humanity has never been closer to the cusp of becoming able to directly investigate the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.
For that reason, when the announcement was made that one of the most significant science documentary series ever broadcast, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey, was to be revisited for a new generation, the announcement was greeted with excitement and enthusiasm with perhaps only a slight tinge of scepticism over whether any modern effort could match the gentle yet persistent illumination of the original, shaped by the great science communicator and advocate Professor Carl Sagan.
Originally broadcast in late 1980 on PBS and subsequently shown around the world in over sixty countries to an estimated audience of over 500 million people and winning both an Emmy and a Peabody award, the accompanying book sold over half a million copies and was the best-selling science book ever published until Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time. Sagan’s approach was warm and conversational, elucidating wonders and connecting them to the history of the universe, the planet, and the many species upon it, including our own, celebrating our uniqueness and our achievement and possibilities, while also reminding us of our follies and our responsibilities.
Maintaining the format of the original and produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan and written by her and frequent collaborator Steven Soter, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey examines a diverse array of subjects with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson the new occupant of the “spaceship of the imagination.” Set to run for thirteen episodes, they are directed by Brannon Braga, formerly a writer and producer on Star Trek The Next Generation and later Star Trek Voyager, both of which coincidentally featured episodes written by Nick Sagan, son of Carl.
With the lead episode Standing Up In The Milky Way opening with a shot which recreates Sagan’s introduction to the original show, before the titles have rolled Tyson is forced to acknowledge the different climate in which society now operates, where science is looked upon with suspicion by the conservative establishment who seek to sway the uninformed.
Introducing the scientific process, Tyson asks that viewers adhere to a simple set of rules: test ideas by experiment and observation, build on those ideas that pass the test and reject those which fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything.
This done, he then invites the audience on a quite astonishing tour of the solar system, the visualisation of the environments beyond any which have been created for a television show before, easily surpassing even the BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System with Professor Brian Cox, where he proudly showed his own battered hardback of Cosmos as he spoke of the inspiration of Professor Sagan on his own life and career.
From the seething surface of the Sun and the boiling clouds of Venus to the majesty of the Jovian system and the rings of Saturn, then out into the Oort cloud, the trip is one of the most beautiful representations of our home system ever seen and concludes on a celebratory note with the encounter with Voyager 1, the farthest human object from planet Earth. Accompanied by Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack, elegantly picking up the orchestrations of his compositions for Sagan’s Contact, the documentary is rendered as dramatic and moving as any work of imaginative fiction.
Discussing the cosmic address of the Earth, Tyson graphically demonstrates the scale of the universe and the vast possibility of life that expanse represents: “On this scale all the objects we see, including the tiniest dots, are galaxies. Each galaxy contains billions of suns and countless worlds… How many stars, how many worlds, how many ways of being alive?”
Saturated with lens flare, the desire to appeal to the modern audience is clear in these sequences, and it is apparent we travel in a spaceship not only of the imagination but of a certain dramatic licence in the depiction of the asteroid belt and the Oort cloud, both considerably more dense than they really are, but these are minor considerations in a presentation which whose principal objective is to convey the wonder the universe in which we live and the means by which it has come to be known.
Returning to the Earth and focusing on the past with an animated dramatisation of the 16th century philosopher and astrologer Giordano Bruno, Tyson recounts his determination to read books banned by the Catholic Church, his inquisitive mind at odds with the prevailing dogma of the time, eventually leading to his imprisonment and execution.
The thought experiment of Lucretius which inspired Bruno is introduced in a simple graphic manner, but the overwrought dialogue cheapens the effect and at ten minutes the segment is far too long.
Sagan’s equivalent had actors in period costume, but the interludes were silent, narrated by Sagan in his authoritative manner and were less prone to caricature, though in keeping with Tyson’s support of scientific process it is emphasised that Bruno’s conception of the infinite universe was a happenstance as he had no evidence to support it.
Lifted directly from the original is the cosmic calendar, but it is such a powerful and demonstrative tool it is difficult to see how it could have been replaced with anything as effective, and in the same way as the cosmic address sets the scale of the universe, so the cosmic calendar makes clear the deep reaches of time before the present era of humanity, the briefest fraction of the history of cosmic time, though with the inherent implication that time is approaching a cusp as the imaginary calendar reaches December 31st when it should have been explained that the seconds are not ticking down to any event, that time and hopefully civilisation will continue on unhindered.
Concluding the opening episode is Tyson’s reflection on the legacy of Carl Sagan, briefly mentioning his work on greenhouse gases, his prediction of methane lakes on Titan, a subject covered in more detail in the second episode, and his involvement in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the unmanned space programme before leading to his own personal encounter with Professor Sagan in December 1975, a seventeen year old kid from the Bronx Saturday spending a Saturday being shown around Cornell University where he was presented with an inscribed copy of The Cosmic Connection, “For Neal, a future astronomer.”
For those who remember the original show, it is a reminder of why, a generation later, its profound impact is still felt, but for those who never knew Sagan, many too young to be aware of his tragic loss eighteen years ago aged only sixty two, it makes Carl a real person, a caring, giving and generous man, a sentiment which is reflected in Tyson‘s closing statement that “science is a cooperative enterprise spanning the generations, the passing of a torch from teacher to student to teacher, a community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars,” an acknowledgement akin to Newton’s famous comment of “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Whether Doctor Tyson’s odyssey will have the same longevity as Professor Sagan’s cannot yet be judged, but the importance of the message cannot be understated and if the quality is maintained in the later episodes, and there is no reason to believe it will not, this could be the defining scientific educational programme of the modern era, inspiring a new generation to learn what is required to make apple pie from scratch.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is currently broadcasting on Fox and National Geographic affiliates in thirty five countries