“The cosmos is all that is, or ever was or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.
The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young and curious and grave. It shows much promise. In the last few millennia, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
With those awed, reverent words, Carl Sagan introduced his ground-breaking 1980 science miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Journey to record-setting audiences on PBS. Conceived by Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter during the Cold War when the bulk of the scientific energy (not to mention the physical resources) of the two most powerful countries on the planet were being funneled into ways of wiping the other off the map, Cosmos was a rallying cry for the power of knowledge and the importance of the quest for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe.
Much has changed since 1980. On the bright side, the Cold War is over and we no longer live in fear of our immediate destruction. The two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, have completed their exploratory missions and have left the solar system carrying recordings of life on Earth and samples of human culture which, at the urging of Sagan, NASA included in case the craft should ever be found by intelligent life elsewhere. We share the International Space Station with our former enemies, and indeed Russia provides the rockets ferrying the world’s astronauts to the station and back again. Most excitingly perhaps, for the first time we’re exploring a neighboring planet with a rover controlled from safety here on Earth.
In many ways though, especially in the United States, we’ve moved farther away from the principles Sagan celebrated. There’s a hostility to science today that was unthinkable in 1980 when it seemed the battle of rationality vs. superstition had been won decisively by the forces for reason. Today, there’s an ongoing fight to offer the bogus and oxymoronic Creation Science as an alternative to children in schools. Federal spending on Research and Development as a percentage of the overall Federal budget continues to decline. The very existence of PBS, which brought Cosmos to life in the first place, is continually under assault by parties in the government who favor ignorance over knowledge and would, given a chance, cut Federal funding supporting the channel. A 2007-2008 Gallup Poll measured the belief in the US of climate change as a threat at 63% while an AP-GfK Poll in 2011 measured belief in angels at 80%.
As we seem to be heading in the opposite direction to that pointed out by the Galileos and Darwins of history, we need the spirit of Cosmos now more than ever. Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, a man whose own scientific career was itself inspired in part by Carl Sagan. His new miniseries, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, airs Sunday nights on Fox with each episode being rerun during the week on The National Geographic Channel. Whereas Sagan used Cosmos to look outward hopefully in the idea we are not alone in the universe, Tyson kind of has to refight the science/superstition debate. Rather than using the first Cosmos as a launching pad to explore all the exciting new advancements in science since 1980, Tyson spends much of the early episodes re-covering similar territory to that covered by Sagan, though in his own voice and style and with his own unique focus. That’s fine. It’s all material that bears repeating again and again and again and if the jazzed up production design and effects draw in a new young audience, so much the better. Interestingly though, more than Sagan ever did, Tyson at every turn offers a direct and pointed challenge, not so much to any specific religion, but to a dead end way of viewing the universe that denies scientific method.
More than the names and the dates and the theories and principles that fill each episode of both versions of Cosmos, scientists like Sagan and Tyson are espousing a way of thinking that is critical to our advancement and our survival as a species. It’s a mode of thought that always seeks proof and is willing to set aside any theory that does not measure up. Whereas faith ends all argument, science is empowered by argument. We haven’t reached this point in history where we’re exploring beyond our own solar system by accepting as fact the Earth is the flat center of a 6500 year old universe. We got here by challenging conventional wisdom, by proposing alternative theories and testing them scientifically. When new evidence challenges an old theory, the old theory is changed and tested again. The theory stands unless and until evidence forces it to change once more. Along the way we understand more and more about how the universe works. Faith might help you sleep peacefully at night, but it’s not going help you drive a vehicle around Mars in the spirit of curiosity and exploration.
What continues to astonish me about the new Cosmos – and even the original one as I rewatch it for the first time in many years – is the nearly overwhelming existential amazement and spiritual uplift it provides. As Sagan says above with a tingle in his spine, the cosmos itself really is the grandest of mysteries and confronting it scientifically is both thrilling and empowering. While Tyson’s style tends to be less flowery and poetic than Sagan’s, the new Cosmos is also at times equally rapturous in its contemplations of the universe. In the second episode, Tyson takes a definitive stand on evolution vs. creation: “Some claim that evolution is just a theory as if it were merely an opinion. The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact. Evolution really happened. Accepting our kinship with all life on earth is not only solid science, in my view it is also a soaring, spiritual experience.” Imagine science and spirituality existing hand in hand. Tyson does.
In the first episode of both programs, the life of the universe as we know it is molded to fit within the confines of a calendar year with each cosmic event getting its relative “date” in order from the big bang, to the forming of our galaxy and our solar system, to the Earth itself and us as a species thriving on it. Then Sagan and Tyson both step back to emphasize that everyone we’ve ever heard of or read about, the entirety of human history in fact, would fit into the last second of the last day of the last month of the entire Universal year. The realization of our tiny place in the immensity is as humbling as prostrating yourself before any god.
The irony of organized religion’s assault on scientific principles is that, for every question science answers, the number of new mysteries increases exponentially. The more we know, the more we realize there is still to know. We’re illuminating the universe with knowledge only to find that the place is bigger than we ever could’ve imagined. There’s more room than ever for the creator being of your choice to thrive and continue to provide comfort amid life’s mysteries. But to probe those mysteries, we need science and to keep our species heading in a rational, scientific direction, we need Cosmos. The Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson of our future might be watching.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs Sunday nights on Fox. As of this writing, previous episodes are available online for a limited time.