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Cosmos With Cosmos Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

In which Sagan puts us in our place (between immensity and eternity)

Posted by Casey Dreier

14-10-2013 14:37 CDT

Topics: fun


Cosmos with Cosmos is a weekly series that encourages people to get together and watch Cosmos with a cosmo(politan) or drink of your choice. We're posting weekly episode recaps and discussion through February of 2014. This series is made possible by members of the Planetary Society. If you like what you're reading, please consider joining the Society or donating $10 to help support projects like this in the future. To learn more about this series and find out how to watch Cosmos, see our introduction.


« Introduction Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue »

It's full of stars. The screen. Packed with them, really. Single notes on a piano, followed by the sound of soft strings fade into our consciousness. The stars move, gradually gaining complexity and form, but slip by slowly, gracefully. Our view is interrupted only the the simple titles, "Cosmos. By Carl Sagan. A Personal Voyage."

It's hard to imagine the impact of this opening to the first viewers of the series back in 1980. Space had seen a resurgence in popular culture with the release of Star Wars three years earlier, followed by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Empire Strikes Back, and Alien, all setting higher bars for special effects and movie-going experience. But instead of competing with these big-budget, action-oriented science fiction movies, Cosmos took the opposite track. It's more "2001" than "Star Wars," confidently moving along at a deliberate pace.

This understated yet bold opening tells us from the very outset that the show will be about more than just those stars passing by. It will be a show about ideas. About our struggle to define ourselves within immensity. That the show will make us feel things, not just tell things, with the assistance of carefully selected visuals and music. It won't shy away from emotion and reverence and awe, a decision that sadly makes it unique among science shows to this day.

There is something else unique about this series, something I'd like to touch on before going into the details of this episode: why is this show called Cosmos? Why not, "the Universe" (or something similar)? The answer to this provides a key to understanding the entire series.

The etymology of the word gives it away, though Sagan helpfully spells it out for us midway through this first episode. Walking through the Library of Alexandria, he turns to us and explains that cosmos is "a greek word for the order of the universe. In a way it's the opposite of chaos. It implies a deep interconnectedness of all things. The intricate and subtle way in which the universe it put together." This is the reason this show is called "Cosmos" and not "Universe". Cosmos implies order, and order implies predictability, and predictability leads to understanding. Without predictability, science is not possible and chaos is all there is. The realization that the universe has patterns is the very basis of science, and this show isn't merely about what we see in the universe, but a celebration of the fact that we learned to see and comprehend it. That seemingly disparate things are interconnected, we just have to figure out in which way.

It's no accident that Sagan states the core idea of the series within the great library of Alexandria, where human beings first began to systematically collect knowledge in order to understand the world around them. That this effort – which ultimately developed into what we call science – is the only way we begin to comprehend the immensity of space and time in which we find ourselves. That the hidden order of nature provides a slim foothold with which we can appreciate our role within it.

As the first episode in the series, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" had the burden of introducing itself and its narrator its audience, defining the tone and expectations for the coming series, and trying to teach you something about universe, the birth of science in human history, and our place in cosmic time. It mainly pulls this off, though I feel this episode is more scattered than others. Much of it serves to preview ideas to come, though it does do a good job of communicating its thematic core: the immensity, both in time and space, in which we find ourselves.

As the show opens, we see a lone figure standing near the cliffs of a rocky shore, beneath which roils a violent ocean. This wide establishing shot with a small figure dwarfed by his surroundings underlines our fragile, nearly insignificant existence within the great scope of nature. As we zoom in, we're quickly introduced to Sagan, who opens with possibly my favorite line in the series, telling us simply that "the cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."

He quickly sets out the ground-rules of the show: a strict adherence to the facts, but with a willingness to speculate. This allows Sagan to serve more effectively as the viewer's representative in the series, simultaneously providing us with information but also acknowledging and validating our natural thought processes. It's normal to wonder about things, particularly when presented with new information. It humanizes our narrator to see that he shares our own desires to speculate about what might be given what little we know. It can be thrilling, stirring, even, and is one of the reasons the show was ultimately so successful.

Opening Scene from Cosmos
Opening Scene from Cosmos
Carl Sagan, like you, also faces the immensity of nature.

After our initial ground rules, we are introduced to the big picture. Literally. Sagan takes us on a grand tour of the entire known universe, starting with the structure of galaxies and traveling in towards Earth in the Spaceship of the Imagination (SotI). Now, I feel that the Spaceship of the Imagination is easily the most ham-handed concept in the show, though it's arguably one of the most important. It grounds the audience with its narrator. It again emphasizes Sagan's humanity and prevents implications of omniscience by showing Sagan as a passenger, not just a disembodied voice guiding our way through the universe, a metaphor I imagine they worked hard to avoid. And despite the general lame-ness of the name, it does repeatedly serve to remind us that the show's travels through the universe are thought-experiments, not reality. Regardless, the SotI is what we have, and I'm pretty sure it's making a comeback in the new series.

The decision to start with the big picture and work back to Earth is brilliant. It's the opposite of the opening scene from the movie Contact, in which the goal was to make us feel small and alone. The goal here is still to make us feel small, but the decision to end with Earth provides us with a comforting finish. Throughout the tour, the immense, alien expanses of the universe create a growing tension in the viewer, ultimately relieved by the familiar hues of Earth, an oasis within the vastness of eternity. We come home to a sudden shift in the color palette from blacks and reds to greens and blues. Beethoven's 7th symphony fills the air and we see people and smiling faces and home. We are symbolically grounded.

Sagan uses our return to Earth as a jumping off point into human history, traveling to Egypt to share the story of the 3rd-century B.C.E. scientist Eratosthenes's deduction of the size of the Earth. He then takes us to the ancient Library of Alexandria, a location we will return to multiple times throughout the series.

We jump from the ancient library to a quick rundown of several major eras of science, beginning with the renaissance and the great astronomer Johannes Kepler (one of my favorites), the advancements of timekeeping, and ending with the early 20th century and Edwin Hubble (with tantalizing hints about each era). The show wraps with a walkthrough of the cosmic calendar.

The cosmic calendar sequence, which has some enjoyably dated video effects of Sagan getting progressively smaller, provides the thematic symmetry to the episode. Instead of finding ourselves in the immensity of space, we are presented with the immensity of time. Our own small footprint in the vastness of history is very nicely represented, reminding us that we're not only small, we're so far transient creatures in the universe.

But what's sandwiched between the two reminders of our own insignificance? The story of humanity's first scientist and our first institute of research. The beginning of our species's ability to grasp and comprehend the great unknown. The moments where we first began to fight against the hopelessness of chaos and fear, the discovery that there can be simple rules, ordered relationships – interconnectedness – to help us comprehend the vastness and understand our place within the great immensity. The first time where the universe became the cosmos.

Science Notes

In this section I'll note major scientific changes that have occurred since the initial series began. There's no way I'll get everything, but feel free to send me additional notes via email or in the comment section below.

  • A major development in cosmology that is clearly missing in the first episode is dark energy and dark matter, which accounts for 68% and 27% of the contents of the universe, respectively.
  • The age of the universe has been revised downward and is now known to a much higher certainty: 13.798 ± 0.037 billion years, a remarkably precise measurement.
  • Sagan calls Pluto a planet! Quick: planet vs. dwarf planet! Fight!
  • Remember, when this series was made, Voyager 2 had not yet arrived at Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. There's a lot about those planets they still didn't know.
  • Sagan makes a guess as to what quasars are, but they are now known to be Active Galactic Nuclei.
  • I also think they didn't know that most galaxies had black holes in their centers, since that seems like something he would mention because it is awesome.
  • Understanding of the structure of galactic clusters has advanced significantly since 1980. If you want to embrace the immensity of galactic supercluster, but also see that these structures are flowing and otherwise moving in relationship to the Milky Way, see this recent video from 2013, Cosmography of the Local Universe. Stick through it to the end, it's worth it.
  • I'm not up on the latest archeological news. Does anyone know if this is still considered an accurate reconstruction of the Library at Alexandria?

Stray Observations

This section is for general observations that don't really fit into the flow of my essay above.

  • I should note that I'm approaching Cosmos as a fan, and do not have any insider information about the making of this series or of the new one.
  • Did anyone else catch the proto-version of the now-famous Pale Blue Dot speech? It's right towards the end of the Cosmic Calendar segment, where everyone and everything we know is contained in that one small section of history. It's interesting to see how long some of these ideas had been gestating in Sagan (he wrote Pale Blue Dot in 1994).
  • The poetic language of Sagan's narration is one of the first things we notice, setting the tone of the show from the outset. Notice how often he and his writers work to alliterate or nearly-alliterate his lines. It's a subtle but effective way of creating pleasing narration.
  • And it's not just the language, Sagan could really sell a line. Most scientists (and people!) cannot do this. But his cadence, enunciation, and sincerity are easily apparent. It feels like he's talking to you.
  • I believe that the interior of this series was shot on video and the exteriors on 16mm film. That accounts for the noticeable change in quality between the interiors of the Ship of the Imagination and outside shots.
  • Note Sagan using the term "star stuff" without really defining it. He's priming us for the big reveal in later episodes.
  • I just want to acknowledge how great the cosmic calendar is from a teaching perspective. Many astronomers use a similar "cosmic day" wherein the entire history of the universe is represented by 24 hours. But once you get to really recent events, a cosmic day is defining events in the thousandths of a second, which no human being really has an intuitive grasp of. It becomes a meaningless number, just as a statement of great time is meaninling, because human beings have no intuitive experience of it. It defeats the entire purpose of the exercise. By contrast, a cosmic year runs the gamut from a single year to single seconds. People can really feel the difference between a second and a year, vs. a microsecond and a day. I'm not sure why the yearlong version of this exercise isn't used more often.
  • The style of Cosmos was heavily influenced by "The Ascent of Man: A Personal View" by Jacob Bronowski. It's focused on the birth and growth of civilization and has sadly been neglected. I recommend the equivalent "Brewskis with Bronowski" for watching parties.
  • I didn't talk much about the influences of the Cold War on this show. I'll save that for later writeups, but decreased likelihood of nuclear annihilation is one of the greatest and most unpredictable historical events since the show was first produced in 1980.
  • I received a very nice email from Adolf Schaller, who worked on the art and visual effects production in the series. He's kindly offered to answer any of your questions about how much has changed in the techniques of visual effects production and some of the specific techniques they used in the original series. You can email me or post your questions in the comments below.

Quotes

  • "We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice. We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion year heritage in meaningless self destruction."
  • "Youmans"
  • "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."
  • "Our species is young and curious and brave, it shows much promise."
  • On Ptolemy, "intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong."
« Introduction Episode 2: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue »
 
See other posts from October 2013

 

Or read more blog entries about: fun

Comments:

Adolf Schaller: 10/14/2013 03:01 CDT

That is the most insightful write-up I've ever read. Well done!

Bobby Cox: 10/14/2013 03:22 CDT

Personally, I found the first episode to be a little drab. The first time I tried getting into the series, I found the first 30 minutes when he is showing up the universe to be so boring I turned it off (this may have been due to my previous knowledge of what he was saying). Two months later when I tried again and forced myself through that segment, I found the stories of Alexandria and the discovery of the round earth fascinating. I worry though that other's may have felt the same in that opening sequence.

Dan Cattell: 10/14/2013 04:59 CDT

Great read! Does Mr. Schaller have any information or production photos on the Imagination's interior set design? I'm creating it for an animation, and things like that would be awfully helpful. Especially a blueprint of the proportions.

Dan Cook: 10/14/2013 05:15 CDT

Thanks for doing this Casey. What a wonderful idea. 1000 characters is a bit confining for as long winded as I feel I am gearing up to be during this. Additional comments can be found at cosmosredux.blogspot.com I feel like this episode highlighted one of Dr. Sagan's greatest strengths. Namely the ability to create a sense of perspective without diminishing the human spirit. I have long felt that this was the legacy he left behind. It seems that most people I encounter have a hard time accepting the cosmic time scale and our place within it. Most seem to react with a feeling of worthlessness instead of wonder. That's when I know they have never sat down and watched this incredible program.

jimimaze: 10/14/2013 07:32 CDT

I'm really enjoying reading along with other like-minded Saganists.

Casey Dreier: 10/14/2013 07:54 CDT

Bobby: It's interesting you say that, last night I had a friend watching it for the first time who felt exactly the opposite. She loved the tour of the universe but found the history segments to be a little dull. As I mentioned, I think this first episode suffers a bit from the many things it is tasked to do, and I'm sure the writers felt it necessary to give some kind of context to our place in space. Do you find this happens in future episodes?

Casey Dreier: 10/14/2013 08:00 CDT

Dan Cattel: Here's the response I received from Adolf: Q: "Does Mr. Schaller have any information or production photos on the Imagination's interior set design?" A: I’m afraid I don’t. I had nothing to do with its design. I didn’t work on the sets or directly participated in any live shoots. To be sure, it was a striking space to walk into the midst of, especially as one neared the forward screen. With the soft lighting it was much like the interior of some small temple chapels or shrines. It also had very interesting acoustic properties, which I’m sure were quite incidental to any intention, and for that reason, I think, no sound recording of Carl was actually conducted within that space. The set was reserved exclusively for reaction shots of Carl (reacting to visual effects that appeared on the forward and side screens), especially for the ‘Cosmic Zoom’ sequence. It was adequately large for a full motion picture dolly setup to maneuver around in, although it probably wasn’t as large as many might imagine from its appearance on TV.

Casey Dreier: 10/14/2013 08:05 CDT

Dan Cook: I think that is an excellent analysis. I would go one step further and posit that Sagan didn't fear to tread in the area of spirituality, which is deeply tied into a sense of wonder, and is, at it's heart, invigorating for the self. Also, on a more practical note, if you add an "http://" before your URL, our software will create a link for others.

Palmera: 10/14/2013 08:33 CDT

I love all the episodes but I think my fave is #9, where he explains how the sun works! The 1st time I heard "We are made of star stuff." (I am???) Made in a star! blew my mind! in the best possible way. Casey: Congrats on a great idea.

William Wood: 10/14/2013 09:57 CDT

Sadly, the soundtrack is out of print now. Hopefully, a version will be re-released when Cosmos 2 airs. I spent years listening to many, many pieces of music by the artists represented. I've got gajillions of works by Vangelis, Mozart, Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky. This soundtrack was a wonderful guide.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 10/15/2013 07:56 CDT

Well, this is showcasing the Universe (measurable Cosmos) and the Man (Sagan as reactive and reflective narrator - very efficient). So applause, but not much science to discuss outside of astronomy. Two things though: - Since the 80's, the other sense of "cosmos", cosmology has hit its stride. As the science of the universe as the system, it has even a first self-consistent model. - It just so happens that the two earlier independent ways to measure universe age, IIRC expansion rate and star development ages, gave answers differing up to a factor 2. With 10 billion and 20 billion year ages, a simple compromise was 15 billion years. I'm quite sure that is how Sagan came up with the date. As it happens, despite that we now know "Hubble's constant" is a function of age, Sagan's age is close to the precision date that falls out of the standard cosmology.

Pradeep: 10/16/2013 12:27 CDT

I find this link helpful in understanding how Eratosthenes Measured the Earth http://brightstartutors.com/blog/2012/eratosthenes-measures-the-earth/

Dan Cook: 10/17/2013 12:53 CDT

Casey wrote: "And it's not just the language, Sagan could really sell a line. Most scientists (and people!) cannot do this. But his cadence, enunciation, and sincerity are easily apparent. It feels like he's talking to you." Yes. Not only does it feel like he's talking to you, but he's also not talking down to you. His ability to truly engage and educate people from all walks of life has rarely, if ever, been matched in a popular science program.

Frank Hardy: 10/19/2013 11:20 CDT

I find it interesting how professional astronomy finds this program. Cosmos’ true power, I feel, is in its continued reference within that scientific community and all too often those individuals can’t see the forest for the trees. Cosmos was not Carl Sagan’s doctoral thesis, nor was it intended as such. It was something far more powerful; easily understood facts for the layperson. Dr. Alex Filippenko, of UC Berkley, had a program entitled (I believe) Cosmos Revisited in which he detailed Sagan’s errors. I remember his statement about Sagan’s 400 billion stars verses today’s 100-200 billion in the Milky Way Galaxy. Filippenko missed the point. The layperson cannot comprehend or appreciate the significant difference Filippenko was attempting to state. Whether it is 400 or 100 billion stars, the value is irrelevant for Sagan’s purpose. It is the enormity he was expressing and did it remarkably well. Later he was able to explain a googol and googolplex. I challenge any of us with advanced degrees to explain that beyond the definition like Sagan did. Aristotle, Copernicus and Kepler were wrong in part. However, today every undergrad astronomy student studies them, not because of their errors but because of their contribution. So I ask, why was Sagan (and Cosmos) so beguiled by the learned community? Was it his Beatle-esk haircut or his environmental fever? Was it his Hollywood-driven enunciation? Was he a ham? It is true that Sagan could be “difficult;” but he was much less so than most active PhDs. I believe it was pure peer jealousy about his success and celebrity status. Not since the violin playing, lady’s man Albert Einstein, did the world have a scientist that was beloved and admired by the press and nonscientific public. And if imitation is a form of flattery and admiration about one’s success; then today’s hams (Kaku & deGrasse Tyson for example) have wild hair like Einstein and Sagan before them. Well Tyson has the mustache.

Dan Cook: 10/20/2013 01:50 CDT

Frank Hardy: I don't know if it was peer jealousy as much as a general consensus amongst some researchers that by focusing on educating the public, Sagan was essentially wasting valuable time that could have been spent moving science forward. The problem is that when you have an under-educated public sector you also have an uninterested public sector - which can lead to cuts in funding and an end to research and forward motion much faster. By not embracing the activities of popularizers, organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences are only shooting themselves in the foot. Refusing Sagan entry was a self-destructive embarrassment for the organization, in my layperson's opinion.

Dan Cook: 10/20/2013 02:01 CDT

I could also add that his research on Venus alone should have warranted membership in the NAS.

Jay Remaly: 10/30/2013 08:50 CDT

Recently watched "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean." I have this in common with Carl Sagan, "...if I could travel back into time, this is the place I would visit. The Library of Alexandria at its height 2000 years ago. This place was once the brain and glory of the greatest city on the planet Earth." I wouldn't understand a thing anyone said - at first.

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