Reasons to Watch Cosmos? Billions and Billions

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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.

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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:

  • Gord Jackson

    We definitely lost Carl Sagan far too soon. I loved the original COSMOS series and wish he was still with us to see the stunning progress we have made since then, especially with the new planetary discoveries we are getting courtesy of the Keppler.

    My only other comment is about religious activism. I realize that the so-called Christian Right is probably less than sanguine with a lot of Mr. Sagan’s notions, or indeed the whole idea of an evolutionary process. However, not all of us of religious faith are inclined to assent to the take of the Christian Right. Indeed, a good many of us see value in living a faith-based life while also recognizing the immense wonders and keys to scientific understanding that technology is unlocking. I don’t think for a minute George you were necessarily putting all religious folk into the same category, but unfortunately there are many who will see words like ‘religious activism’ as applying to all. Something about everyone being tarnished with the same brush. What can I say?

    Thanks for a great take. I’m personally looking forward to the new COSMOS series (altho not the commercial interruptions that will accompany it, lol.)

    • GeorgeDAllen

      I had something of a variation of this conversation just the other night – because it seems to become necessary on occasion to point out that I don’t reject “faith-based” people out of hand. I’ve probably said this a few times in this space (since the collision of these topics with movies, etc. tends to interest me), but what I’ve decided for myself is that I’m a devout agnostic. To be true to that means maintaining that live-and-let-live attitude and being pleased to learn about any version of “the truth” about the biggest philosophical questions of life that folks have worked out for themselves.

      Where I absolutely take issue is when those beliefs intrude dishonestly or abusively on others—and that includes the peddling of religion to children and unsophisticated adults by dressing up false science as real science.

      • Gord Jackson

        Thanks George. We are in general agreement because I too strongly dislike any religious group (or individual) of dressing up false science as real science. To be honest, I do not see them in conflict altho I am well aware many on both sides do. But then I am secure enough in my beliefs to the point that I don’t feel threatened (a) if someone doesn’t share them and (b) science discovers new and wonderous things. Indeed, when you get right down to it faith can only be offered – it can never be imposed, whether its religious faith or faith that only science has all of the answers. It’s offered and one either accepts it completely, partially or not at all.

  • Movie Fan

    This is why I love the DVR. I’ll record the series, then see it when I can. If it’s done well, the show will be worth watching. Getting someone else’s point of view, with updated information, will be refreshing. I loved Carl Sagan’s COSMOS and even joined the Carl Sagan Book Club! The religious aspect regarding science is only one point of view in a field full of opinions. Everyone is entitled to believe what they will. There are any number of religious/atheist/agnostic beliefs out there and every one of them thinks only they are right. People of science can’t agree on much either because data changes all the time.

    • GeorgeDAllen

      “Carl Sagan Book Club”? Far out! :)

      As I elaborated to Gord below, I’d reject the “entitled to believe what they will” equivalency between religion and science. I’d say that quote accurately describes how I feel about faith in general, but this is not the approach taken by science at all. It would be an exaggeration to say that the fundamentals of our scientific understanding “change all the time” or that scientists “don’t agree on much.” Science functions as the best tool for comprehending the natural world because a) widespread agreement about proofs, evidence & observation is required, while at the same time, b) legitimate corrections and challenges and new observations are always encouraged, and no previous theory is ever too indispensable to be tossed away with the revelation of repeatable, provable new data–as advancing technologies make this ever more possible (that is, to confirm or revise what we “know” about the universe).

      That is the polar opposite of how religion works, so the attempt to place these disciplines on the same playing field is, to my mind, misguided.

  • Tom K.

    As soon as Voyager proved that there were ” Rings Around Uranus ” the easily offended / politically correct changed the pronounciation of ” Your Anus “. That’s when I stopped watching the program.