Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage


Now that Neil deGrasse Tyson has made a sequel to this, we thought it might be fun to take a look at the original series before we watched the new one. It would be a real treat for me, too, since I never saw the first one. When you stop to think of just how much we have learned about the universe in the twenty-four years since Carl Sagan first took us on a tour of the cosmos as we knew it in 1980, it boggles the mind. To name just one example, though we knew to a 99.99999% certainty that there just had to be other planets orbiting other suns … we couldn’t prove it. The first tentative detection of an exoplanet wasn’t until 1988, and there was no actual ironclad confirmation of it until 2003. And in the eleven years since then we have found no less than 1800 of them, with another few thousand candidate planets identified by the Kepler telescope. We have actually managed to photograph at least one of them. Based on this information, we have been able to estimate that there must be around 100 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Discoveries within our own solar system have been almost as stunning. Advances in computerized animation have been exponential. I expect that the special effects that will be used to illustrate many of the things Carl will be showing us will look pretty primitive compared to today’s high-definition CGI. So, away we go, on our initial voyage of discovery through the cosmos, which I’m sure will cover billions and billions of light-years …

1. “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean.” … and my guess about SFX was quickly confirmed. Mr. Sagan takes us on a trip across half the universe, starting about eight billion light years from Earth. We travel in a spaceship modeled on a dandelion seed, and it’s a pretty pathetic spaceship. It is well to remember, though, that this was the best available SFX of its day. Our host explains how the mathematician Eratosthenes calculated the size and shape of the Earth around 200 BC, which is truly amazing, considering the data he had to work with. Then we get our second special effect, which is to see Carl walking through the legendary library of Alexandria, which was the center of knowledge in the ancient world. It was said to have contained one million volumes, and was burned. This looks a little better than the spaceship, and back then few people would have been familiar with the greenscreen techniques that made such a thing possible.

2. “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue.” This one tackles the always-controversial topic of evolution. (There have already been voices raised against the new series, complaining that Tyson didn’t give supporters of so-called “creation science” a chance to respond. Sure, and why not a lecture on phlogiston, too?) The most fascinating stuff is at the very beginning. There is a legend in Japan about a seven-year-old emperor who was drowned after his troops were defeated. Afterward, they found some crabs that seemed to have the image of a samurai warrior on their carapaces. When they caught them, they would throw them back. When you look at these crabs today, it sure as hell looks like a samurai warrior. So what’s up with that? It seems that it’s a case of human-driven natural selection. By sparing those crabs that have the image on their backs, we have given them a better chance to thrive, and the better the image, the more likely they are to be thrown back. After a thousand years, the image is damn near perfect. Fascinating!

3. “Harmony of the Worlds.” Most of this episode is devoted to the life and revolutionary work of Johannes Kepler, who figured out that planetary orbits are elliptical rather than the perfect circles theology demanded. Some of it is fascinating, as in the relationship to the greatest observational astronomer-astrologer (the two were inseparable back then) of his time, Tycho Brahe, he of the brass nose. (His own was chopped off in a duel.) Tycho was filthy rich, a glutton and a libertine; Kepler was an ascetic, dirt poor. Both of them did all their work before the invention of the telescope.

4. “Heaven and Hell.” Comets and asteroids, and the possibility of a collision with one. He covers the Tunguska Event and concludes that it was a comet exploding in the atmosphere. Then we spend a lot more time than I would have liked on that nut, Immanuel Velikovsky and his cockamamie theories. I guess he was still a pretty hot topic when this was new, but he’s largely forgotten now. I hope. Then he covers what we knew about Venus (not too much, and we still don’t know a lot), the greenhouse effect that turned it into an inferno, and the early signs of climate change on our own planet.

5. “Blues for a Red Planet.” Now we move to Mars, and the stories of Burroughs and Wells. Then on to poor Percival Lowell and the perils of looking too hard for something that’s not there. He made elaborate maps of the canals (original word was Italian for “channels”) of the Red Planet, and the maps were total garbage. It’s a good thing that Lowell started the search for “Planet X,” and that his successor, Clyde Tombaugh, found Pluto as a result. He can be remembered for that, instead of his wrong picture of Mars. (And how ironic that it was sheer luck that Pluto was there, because all his calculations of how the unknown planet was perturbing the orbits of Uranus and Neptune … were wrong!) Sagan then covers the twin Viking landers, the best data we had about Mars at the time. This will be a major difference between the two series, as we know much, much more now. Finally, a speculation on the possible terraforming of Mars, assuming we don’t find any native life forms.

6. “Travellers’ Tales.” The historical figures are Constantin Huygens and his son Christian. Sagan compares the voyages of exploration of that time with the Voyager spacecraft. One of them was just approaching Jupiter, and he was there at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Lee and I visited there on an open house day!) in Pasadena as the images were coming in, live, built up line by line. What an exciting moment that was!

7. “The Backbone of Night.” Refers to what the bushmen of Botswana call the Milky Way. We see the various ways other cultures assigned names and shapes to the constellations. Carl visits his old school in Brooklyn, and he’s very good at interacting with the students there and answering their questions. Then he discusses the amazing findings and theories of the Greek islanders, such as Artistarchus, Thales, and Anaximander, who were literally millennia ahead of their times. And were held back and finally subdued by Aristotle, a man I have heartily despised for many decades. Why anyone would read anything by that close-minded, repressive, vicious asshole is beyond me. He and Plato, another asshole, set back scientific learning by many centuries.

8. “Journeys in Space and Time.” How the stars in “constellations” shift over time, and with distance traveled. Relativity is discussed, and theories of possible time travel. Also Leonardo da Vinci, who could have invented the first flying machine if only he had a power source to lift his designs off the ground.

9. “The Lives of the Stars.” Big, profligate stars burn out fast and become supernovae. In the early universe there was nothing but hydrogen and helium, but supernovae create pressures so vast that all the other elements are formed when they self-destruct and then collapse down to white dwarfs, neutron stars, or black holes. Then those heavy elements are gathered by gravity and form new stars and rocky planets. Thus, everything we are made of was first formed in the centers of stars. As Sagan puts it, “We are made of star stuff.”

10. “The Edge of Forever.” The Big Bang, and the formation of galaxies. Then he explores the ideas of different dimensions, like flatland, and what a fourth linear dimension would look like. (I made a toothpick-and-clay model of a tesseract in the sixth grade, but couldn’t explain it to anybody.) Then there is speculation about an open, closed, or oscillating universe. There has been much progress in this field since Cosmos was made. Just a few days ago an important confirmation of the early structure of the universe and the idea of a mind-blowing, extremely fast “inflation” of the universe was made. Also, theories about dark matter now seem to indicate that, though the universe has always been expanding, the rate of expansion is increasing. (For my own speculations about dark matter, you should buy my upcoming book, Dark Lightning, available in August of 2014.

11. “The Persistence of Memory.” Carl takes us on a tour through the human (or as he always pronounces it, “yewman,” brain, shows us how memories are stored. We’ve got a lot of capacity in there, but it’s not infinite. The way we extend it is through “collective memory.” Books, libraries, recordings, photographs, motion pictures. And just beginning when this was filmed, the Internet.

12. “Encyclopaedia Galactica.” The possibilities of, and the search for, life on other planets. We visit the giant radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a sculpted bowl in the ground with antennae hanging over it. It is still the world’s largest single dish telescope, but there are now arrays of large dishes that can be used as one in the Chilean Atacama desert, and one almost finished in the Australian outback.

13. “Who Speaks for Earth?” The first part is a voyage in the spaceship of the mind, and a return to find the Earth devastated by nuclear war. The rest is an eloquent and impassioned plea for disarmament. In an update, Sagan points out that there has been progress, citing the fall of communism in the old East Germany, and the end of the Cold War, among other promising signs. Of course, today we know it’s a few steps forward and a few steps back, hard to gauge just how much progress has been made. It’s true that there are now fewer than the 50,000 nukes that were stockpiled back then, but there is still an insane number, and some are held by insane, or at least reckless, countries. North Korea, Pakistan, India, soon Iraq … nothing about that sounds encouraging.