Anthony's Film Review
(TV Series, 1980)
Astronomer Carl Sagan's documentary masterpiece remains a timeless contribution to science...
Since the dawn of television, there have been many knowledgeable people who, through this medium, have popularized science for the general public. You may be familiar with some of them if you regularly watch science-oriented programming and/or just happened to hear about them in a science class at school. Although there are plenty of good science educators on TV, there is one that I think truly stands out. He is astronomer Carl Sagan, best known for his 13-part mini-series Cosmos (whose full title is Cosmos: A Personal Voyage). Written by Sagan himself along with writer Ann Druyan (who later became Sagan's wife) and astrophysicist Steven Soter, Cosmos was a true landmark program when it aired in 1980.
To illustrate, let's talk about two notable segments in the first episode, titled "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean." Sagan first takes us on a journey through the universe and what we would see on the way. He explains that light travels at roughly 300,000 kilometers per second, the distance light travels in a year is a light-year, and many stars are billions of light-years away from Earth. That's how incredibly vast the universe is. Once the journey returns to Earth, Sagan describes how Eratosthenes determined the circumference of the earth based on two sticks. Using the lengths of their shadows, the distance between the sticks, and geometry, Eratosthenes made the calculation, and modern technology proved it to be precisely correct.
When Sagan speaks to the audience, he does it in a graceful and fascinating way. He introduces scientific concepts while using analogies and imagery to help us understand the topic. He also presents it in a deliberate step-by-step manner so that the audience isn't forced to make huge leaps from one fact to the next. Best of all, he is poetic and appreciative of what he is talking about. The result is that the host of Cosmos is an optimistic intellectual who loves the universe for what it is, and as the audience, we can't help but look at things the same way.
As you can see, Sagan is quite down-to-earth. I'm not referring to just his presentation style. I'm also referring to the content of the episodes. Even though Cosmos is primarily oriented in astronomy, it's not entirely so. Instead of describing only what is outside the Earth's atmosphere, Sagan connects what is up in the heavens with what is down on our planet. He does this by narrating historical accounts of past scientists and exploring various cultures from around the world. He also discusses other scientific topics that may seem unrelated to astronomy but are ultimately linked still. As a result, Sagan is a well-rounded intellectual whose knowledge isn't limited to pure astronomy.
I'm sure you're curious about what the other episodes of Cosmos have in store. Here's a sample of what I thought was exciting. There's the story of Johannes Kepler and his laws of planetary motion, including the notion that planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular. Other episodes explore planets in our solar system in detail, including Venus with its thick atmosphere and searing temperatures, Mars with its freezing temperatures, and Jupiter with its constant winds, not to mention the spacecraft that helped gather data from these planets. Other topics featured in Cosmos include the origin of life and natural selection, the life cycle of stars, the theory of relativity, the possibility of time travel, the possibility of life on other planets, and the human brain's capacity for memory.
What's quite notable is the final episode, titled "Who Speaks for Earth?" Here, Sagan takes somewhat of a departure as he warns us about the possibility of self-destruction by nuclear war or any other means. It does give the episode a somber tone, but he doesn't end the series on a sad note. Instead, he reminds us of the fascinating birth of the universe from the Big Bang and the many successes that the human race achieved over millions of years, all aided with a montage of clips from the first twelve episodes. Then he ends the episode, and the program, with a simple message: there is so much in the cosmos to cherish, and we owe it to ourselves as humans to continue learning about the universe and who we are.
From an intellectual standpoint, Cosmos is a masterpiece. I would even add that Cosmos also works on an artistic level. Each episode features different kinds of images, including footage of Sagan as he speaks to the audience, realistic historical reenactments accompanied by Sagan's narration, and computer animations of celestial bodies. Two segments are worth noting for its artistic quality and creativity: a cosmic calendar that compresses the 15-billion-year history of the universe into a 365-day calendar (with humans appearing in the last minutes of December 31) and an animation that illustrates evolution from the spontaneous formation of DNA to the dawn of modern humans. Finally, the opening title in each episode features a beautiful musical piece by Vangelis (also known for the music in the film Chariots of Fire) that captures the fascination and wonder of the universe.
When Sagan passed away in 1996, the world truly lost a great man. I could remember the news media announcing his death and how millions of people were moved and inspired by Sagan when he was alive. I was one of them. While some first listened to Sagan as children, I never heard of him until one of my high school science teachers showed an episode of Cosmos to me and my class. What was sad for me was that this took place a year before he died. I had only started to get to know Dr. Sagan, but I could already understand how much he meant to people on Earth.
It would be years before I finally watched all 13 episodes of Cosmos. Once I did, I never saw the universe the same way again. Sagan truly open my eyes and reminded me that there is much more to life than our routine habits and endeavors on a specific spot on Earth. There is much to appreciate about ourselves as well as everything around us, especially things we cannot see just yet. Maybe someday, with much better technology, we will travel to the stars and see the rest of the universe. Most importantly, Sagan celebrates the miracles of science at large and what it can achieve. If humans do eventually meet intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms, it would be great if those other beings learn about Carl Sagan. After all, he was a brilliant scientist who truly understands the universe and has, through Cosmos, helped the rest of us do the same.
For more information about Cosmos, visit the Internet Movie Database.