A Cosmos Reborn

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Jul 23, 2013
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In 1980, Carl Sagan changed the face of science forever.

In that year, PBS broadcast the TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Sagan’s words and voice drove the show, taking the 500 million people who watched with him as he showed us the Universe, from the distant reaches of its redshifted expansion to the chemical processes as our brains create our minds.

As Sagan himself said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

That show transformed how people saw science and also how scientists informed the public. But it was more than 30 years ago, and it’s time, I think, to launch it once again for a new generation.

My old friend and brilliant science communicator Neil Tyson is doing just that. With Fox television, and executive producers Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, the show has been retooled and updated. The result is Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, and it premiers in Spring 2014*. A trailer has been released, and it’s beautiful:

(You can also watch it in high-res on YouTube.)

I prefer not to prejudge a show too much on the trailer, but it’s hard to resist a few comments. The opening remarks are from Sagan himself, and they cleverly pick it up using Tyson. The imagery is beautiful, and I like the mix of real images, time-lapse video, computer animation, and more traditional animation. There are several homages to the original, including the use of the “spaceship of the imagination”, the Cosmic Calendar, and the lovely metaphor of Sagan holding a seed in his hand and letting it go to blow on the wind. It’s a teaser trailer, and early on, so I expect we’ll get more info as time goes on.

I’m very much looking forward to this. Sagan’s show was amazing and is responsible for opening the eyes of millions of people to the joy and wonder of the Universe, and doing so on a personal level. So many of us remember it fondly, but truth be told, it was made in a different era, not necessarily transposing very well into today’s television environment. An update—especially with the knowledge and graphic advances made since 1980—is sorely needed.

I’ll note that some people have their doubts about this because Seth MacFarlane is involved. While I generally endorse skepticism, I also am fond of evidence. Having MacFarlane working on Cosmos is great news. First, he is a strong supporter of science (watch the video on that page for proof). Second, he is a huge fan of Sagan. Third, he is friends with Tyson and a self-proclaimed fan of science and skepticism (scroll to the bottom of that post for more).

Also, and this point is very important indeed, MacFarlane has a lot of clout with Fox. Think on this: Do we want this new show to be seen by people who already love science (like those who watch Discovery Channel or PBS), or do we want it to get out to the public at large, to people who may not think of themselves as interested in science? Don’t they need to be exposed to this even more?

We live in a time when the denial of reality is as prevalent (or more) than the acceptance of it. Much of that denial comes from a provincial view of the Universe, a narrowly constrained frame of mind that not just disallows but actively discourages doubt, questions, exploration, and freedom of discovery. The original Cosmos was all about those things, and not in a dry, documentary style, but from a very human viewpoint. This is why Cosmos endures, and why it needs to continue for a new generation.

A final note: Entirely by accident, I happened to attend a breakfast press conference and promotional event for Cosmos at Comic-Con. (I was invited to it by Jonathan Ross, who only told me he was “hosting a breakfast”; imagine my surprise when I show up and there are Cosmos posters everywhere.) I got to pal around with Neil, which was fun as always (we’ve known each other since our graduate days), but also had quite a moment when Jonathan came up to me and said, “After the panel, Ann would love a chance to talk to you.”

By “Ann,” he meant Ann Druyan, a writer, science promoter, and also Sagan’s widow. Sure enough, when the panel was over she came over and we talked at length about science and how to promote it. She was charming and intelligent and possessed a profound discerning of good writing—that is, she reads this blog—and it was an honest pleasure to meet her. It was a highlight of Comic-Con for me.

To all of those involved in creating this new show, thank you. And to those of us who will be fortunate enough to experience it, I say: Exploring the cosmos is an essential part of what it means to be human. Curiosity for and love of the unknown drives that exploration, and that passion needs occasionally to be stoked. Cosmos will, I hope, feed that fire in an entirely new generation of explorers.

* In the original text I used an unconfirmed date for the release of the show. My apologies, and the text has been updated.