You can have expression in science, so says Carl Sagan
This is not just a review, but a personal story about Carl Sagan, his show Cosmos, and life. Cosmos was a small show run in 1980 and was based on work done by Carl Sagan, who was a famous astronomer. His work brought science down to Earth for me and the way he presented it felt almost like reading good literature, exploring a good analogy, or thinking about a painting. Thanks to Carl Sagan, I’d never look at science the same way again.
I was way too young to watch Cosmos during its first run on PBS in 1980, but was later subjected to it in school. I say subjected because I really dreaded video days in science class. My high school science teacher was a passionate guy, but strange, having somewhat unusual hobbies and interests. He loved science obviously, but he liked history and collecting rocks. He loved the Edmond Fitzgerald, and the sorta corny song based on its sinking. He celebrated Carl Sagan’s birthday and loved astronomy. Despite all this, he was right about one thing: Cosmos is pretty cool.
I don’t remember what my teacher said about the show or Carl Sagan. It doesn’t really even matter, because the show gives you all you need to know. 60 million people across this entire planet agree with me when I say that Cosmos was a wonderful production. The quality was just perfect. I can remember Carl Sagan walking on a beach, talking about his own loves and passions, and mixing in some science for everybody to understand.
Carl Sagan did not present things in a typical way, like you might expect from a lecture. No, this science video contained wonderful connections to imagination, history, and discovery. What’s out there? How many stars are there? What’s the history of that thing there in the ground? Carl Sagan showed us.
Carl Sagan was much more than an astronomer. He was into the natural sciences and evolution. One of the episodes of Cosmos focused on crabs, the calendar, and the constellations. You might think that those three things couldn’t possibly be related, but he brought it home.
I’ll always remember his voice. He sounded calm, and he used an expressive recitation for the whole series. He wasn’t trying to be mellow. That’s just how he was. He would tell us about the stars and it sounded like your father reading a bedtime story. The picture would always return to Carl Sagan and he’d be smiling. Those stars held something special and he knew it.
We are made of Star-Stuff. This is the most famous quote from the series and it is the most remarkable. Just the thought of it, the contemplation of this quote is really inspiring. What does it mean? Is he trying to be allegorical? No, Carl Sagan is being literal here. We share something with the cosmos. Something big, something old. The raw materials, the elements, and the “stuff” throughout the deepest parts of space is here on Earth too, in us. It’s Star-Stuff. All the dry science I hated was boiled down to a generic word that was both mysterious and humorous. What a great concept. And when explained by Carl Sagan, it sounded like an inspirational speech, as if to note that we have something worthwhile in us, no matter how small.
I was also inspired by Cosmos and by Carl Sagan. When I was a little older, I remembered Cosmos and sought out an original copy of Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s book, but it was way out of print. I searched for a couple years for the original softcover and eventually found one. Because of the depressing ending, I think Carl Sagan was determined to deliver a better follow-up, so he wrote Pale Blue Dot in 1997. It is also a book containing a lot of popular science, but it contains a lot of theory and encouraging thoughts. Carl Sagan was one-of-a-kind. If Star-Stuff or Cosmos isn’t in our cultural lexicon, it should be. What’s out there? In answer, Carl Sagan would ask us to picture it and explain.