Many of you will remember with fondness the groundbreaking television series from 1980, fronted by a geeky but passionate scientist, bedecked in a beige jacket and packing an infectious smile. That series was Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and that scientist was Carl Sagan. And if you have yet to experience the wonders of Cosmos, then you’re in for a treat.
Cosmos examines what we have learned – particularly since the 16th century – about the universe in which we live. Sagan was a hard-nosed sceptic, but his enthusiasm for scientific endeavour and the knowledge that it uncovered runs through every episode.
So much of Sagan’s world was a glorious miracle – the unimaginable magnitude of a universe, the manufacture of elements heavier than hydrogen in the hearts of stars, the production of organic molecules in interstellar space, the extraordinary complexity of intelligent beings evolved under the direction of natural selection.
Now re-released on DVD after more than a quarter of a century, Cosmos shows some inevitable signs of age. A short update was added to many of the episodes a decade after the original broadcast, but these have little impact on the energetic message of the original.
At the time of its release, Cosmos was praised for its use of special effects. Today, they can seem a bit dated and cheesy, and the musical soundtrack is comically melodramatic at times. In spite of this, Sagan’s irrepressible sense of wonder is still the dominant impression.
Sagan believed that the knowledge uncovered by science bestowed upon us a great responsibility. We now understand the great lengths of time that have passed in the story of the cosmos. We recognise the contingent nature of biological evolution. We know that what we lose we will never get back.
Written during the Cold War, the series contains many warnings of the perils of nuclear conflict. Today the geopolitical situation may have changed, but his stark warnings serve as a reminder that we’re never too far from total self-destruction.
The subtitle of Cosmos is A Personal Voyage. Sagan viewed the universe with a religious sense of awe and reverence. This series is an attempt to articulate his search for a place in that vast and wondrous cosmos.