When astronomer Carl Sagan’s landmark PBS series “Cosmos” aired in 1980, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was flying past Saturn and its moons, sending back astonishing images of worlds never seen up close.
Some 33 years later, both Sagan and Voyager 1 (and Voyager 2) have left the realm of the reachable. He died in 1996, and we’ll soon lose the faint communications from the resilient Voyagers as they travel into interstellar space.
As just about everyone knows, each craft bears a human greatest-hits disc of our languages, music and understanding of numbers, among other assorted audio-visual samples of Earth’s inhabitants. The thought of anyone or anything ever finding and playing the disc inspires great wonder; just as much, the thought of our little gizmos floating off forever into eternity brings on a chilling sense of loneliness.
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To both soothe and stoke those feelings, “Cosmos” is back as a 13-episode remake/update lovingly shepherded by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who worked on the original series, and hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a worthy heir to Sagan’s legacy, even if he doesn’t quite possess Sagan’s natural ability to captivate viewers.
Though only one episode was made available for review, this new “Cosmos” arrives just when we seem to need it most. Hardly a day goes by where the news feed doesn’t produce some freshly galling example of intellectual backsliding, with age-old fights resuming over science textbooks and religious intrusions on education and governing.
This 2014 “Cosmos” has its work cut out for it in a far different context than Sagan’s series did.
“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules,” Tyson tells viewers in a carefully but beautifully phrased invitation to have an open mind. “Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test; reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.”
It begins much like Sagan’s original did, with Tyson stepping aboard a sleek Ship of the Imagination for a primer on the size of the observable universe. The series takes full advantage of the leaps in computer-generated effects since 1980 (thanks again to some science) as Tyson journeys around the sun and past the planets, then out past Neptune and the “tens of thousands” of planet-ish bits and pieces on the fringe – of which, pathetically, “Pluto is one.”
We are star stuff
In the new “Cosmos,” we have Tyson telling us about the Oort cloud and the particular band of the Milky Way’s spirals where our sun becomes just one of so very many; beyond that, there is the “local group” of galaxies nearest ours; beyond that, the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies; beyond that, eventually, the limits of what we currently understand to be our universe.
Beyond even that, Tyson hypothesizes, our universe might just be a teeny-tiny bubble, one of many universes in a multiverse.
That humbling experience of “Cosmos,” then and now, is precisely what offends some people. The wonder of it, the beauty of it, the enormity of it – with nary a mention of the belief in a God who made all of it. “You, me, everyone – we are made of star stuff,” Tyson informs us, secure in the knowledge of the table of elements.
This random insignificance still strikes a note of heresy for many, but “Cosmos” doesn’t try to skirt the fact that much remains unknown.
One of the co-executive producers is Seth MacFarlane, creator of Fox’s “Family Guy” and other animated series. MacFarlane’s involvement is genuine; like so many others who were youngsters when “Cosmos” first aired, he holds the series in high regard and has used his influence to get it aired.
Looking for meaning
Much of what Sagan hypothesized and rhapsodized about has come to pass; most notably, we’ve detected more than a thousand of the exoplanets he thought were out there in billions and billions. From a science standpoint alone, “Cosmos” has plenty of opportunity to revise and improve on the content of the original.
From a cultural perspective, I hope “Cosmos” will pick up the pace and have the same dazzling and meaningful impact it once did. But unless you’re watching it with a child (which I encourage you to do), fans of Sagan’s show might find the first episode remedial.
Then again, given the tenor and muck of public discourse these days, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to start from scratch and explain to everyone how the Earth is round and revolves around the sun.