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Casey DreierOctober 14, 2013

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

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

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. You can currently watch the original Cosmos streaming on twitch.

« 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.

Stray Observations

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


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

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Casey Dreier

Chief Advocate & Senior Space Policy Adviser for The Planetary Society
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