Just as with “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” “Elementary, my dear Watson,” and “Play it again, Sam”—Carl Sagan never actually uttered the phrase for which he is most remembered during the entire run of Cosmos; “billions and billions” came from a skit Johnny Carson produced on The Tonight Show ribbing the distinctive speaking style of the beloved television science icon. Sagan, who passed away in 1996, was always good-humored about the misquote, going so far as to make it the title of his final book.
Published the year after Sagan’s death, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium included his explanation of this famous error at the book’s outset, with Sagan also noting that Carson was a kindred spirit when it came to the pursuit of science and was something of an amateur astronomer himself. Who can help but reflect back to the contribution Sagan made to popularizing science education, now that a new Cosmos series is about to launch across our airwaves?
Talk about strange bedfellows: Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey (premiere date: March 9, 2014), represents what looks on the surface to be a profoundly unlikely collaboration between astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (who serves as an executive producer along with Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan), and the Fox television network. The fact that Fox—rather than, say, PBS—would now serve as the home for serious new inquiries about “star stuff” led some fans to react with sideways looks if not outright skepticism and cheeky derision.
I’m going to take the optimistic route, and simply cheer the network’s decision to support the new show, which Dr. Tyson promises will repeat the original’s highly accessible discourse about the history and natural wonders of the universe with a “call to action.” The original series, broadcast on public television in 1980, stood out not only for the manner in which Sagan made some of the most specialized scientific knowledge both comprehensible and thrilling, but also for the passion with which he championed the understanding of the universe as key to preventing mankind’s self-destruction. Addressing viewers during the height of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, Sagan often referenced the possibility of MAD (mutual assured destruction) actually taking shape by way of a nuclear weapons exchange between the two superpowers, and this was no fabricated concern.
In our time, this new series faces the challenge of reaching (and holding the interest of) an extremely fragmented mass audience vulnerable to any number of media-based distractions that were simply not in existence when Sagan captured the public imagination over three decades ago. Our existential threats have evolved; should civilization “choose” to annihilate itself, that extinction might more believably be brought about by a gradual whittling away at the virtues of reason rather than by a cataclysmic military confrontation.
It would be difficult to argue that hostility to the scientific method is not on the rise, be that source of attack from religious activism, or politics, or the highly combustible mixture of the two—and so a new Cosmos series arrives just in the nick of time to address our collective apathy and indulgence of fantasy over fact. It’s also the perfect time to revisit Sagan’s classic program, which on its home video release was helpfully updated with new information that came to light after its original run. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a tough act to follow: Sagan was a wondrous onscreen personality—a hybrid of Galileo and Mr. Rogers, teaching vital lessons with a welcoming smile; confronting while being non-confrontational; making the dispensation of enlightenment seem effortless…and at the same time, worth a lot of effort.
To close, one of my favorite segments from the original series: Sagan explains theories about the “fourth dimension” by way of Flatland. Glorious: