Returning To The Cosmos

Noting that Carl Sagan’s classic 1980 series Cosmos “is enjoying a renaissance these days, in no small part because of its availability on Netflix,” Tom Hawking pens an appreciation of a show that has “aged well because it’s essentially timeless”:

It seems to me that the key point … is that there’s nothing remotely ironic about Cosmos. “Earnest” is something of a dirty word these days, in this post-millennial age of arched eyebrows and knowing chuckles, but Cosmos is as earnest as earnest gets. It’s popular science in the best sense of that term: accessible, engaging and fascinating. Sagan’s wasn’t at all interested in being cool or flashy or anything else — he was interested in telling the world about the cosmos, and sharing the wonders of the universe.

This, of course, only serves to make him all the more appealing. Watching Cosmos today feels like a throwback to a more innocent, optimistic age — it was made only a decade after we put men on the moon, when the idea of space exploration still sounded like a romantic narrative for the future of mankind, before Challenger and Star Wars and endless budget arguments put paid to what must have felt like an inexorable march toward the stars. So much of that age seems like a faded dream now, in this era where the US government spends more on the endlessly quixotic war on drugs than it does on NASA, when the last man set foot on the moon 40 years ago.

In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who will host a new version of Cosmos that premieres in March, discusses what he hopes viewers will get out of the show:

Q: What new material do you cover on the show?

A: In the original there’s a “cosmic calendar,” which we revisit, but upgrade. The calendar is the size of a football field. I walk on the calendar and it lights up. January 1st is the Big Bang. And modern day is just before midnight on December 31st. You realize that cavemen were walking around 15 seconds before midnight, and Jesus was 7 seconds ago. You realize how late we are to the party, and how small we are in time. Knowing that can really affect you.

Q: How so?

A: It affects you because it’s humbling. You can’t come away with this cosmic perspective thinking that you are better than others and want to fight. … I want to share this cosmic perspective, and help people learn to be better shepherds–to learn to be good rather than evil. Ideally I’d want people to be intellectually, psychology, spiritually moved, and realize the role of science in their lives.

Q: What do you mean by spiritual?

A: If you think of feelings you have when you are awed by something–for example, knowing that elements in your body trace to exploded stars–I call that a spiritual reaction, speaking of awe and majesty, where words fail you.

(Video: Sagan discusses the existence of the divine in a clip from Cosmos)