Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Almost 30 years ago, a television series debuted which had a profound impact on our popular understanding of science, especially the science of astronomy. The series, Cosmos, was hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan. The series was the most widely-watched public television series in history until Ken Burns' series, The Civil War, was produced in the 1990’s. Cosmos is now available in its entirety (and for free) on

[Image of Hulu video. If the video does not show up, click through to original post]

Despite its age, the series is still worth watching. The passage of time does date the film somewhat. The special effects are pre-Star Wars and the pacing is much slower than today’s quick-cut-editing television. But the writing is beautiful and the pace actually lets you contemplate what is being said.

Sagan, who died in 1996, reminds me a lot of Lewis Thomas, another lyrical scientist who wrote several wonderful books of essays on science including The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. Both men manage to convey that at the bottom of all we know there is still an awe-inspiring mystery that is capable of humbling us if only we will pause long enough. We need to look up at the stars or down at a flower at least once in awhile to stay connected to a bigger reality. Sagan said that we are made of “star-stuff”, the very atoms that were once parts of stars are now what make up our bodies and everything else in the universe. As we get bogged down in the daily grind of the 24-hour news cycle about the latest economic disaster or the Celeb-of-the-Week Club, we would do well to remember that “This too will pass”, as will the stars themselves. But the mystery will remain.

Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilisation and perhaps our species as well.
- Carl Sagan

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