Cosmos with Cosmos was a weekly series that encouraged Society members to re-watch Cosmos with a shared group, a cosmo(politan), or other drink of their choice. The Planetary Society published weekly episode discussion pieces to complement the original series before the Neil deGrasse Tyson-led 2nd season in 2014.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- "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."
- "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."