When I was around the age of 17, I was struggling to decide the topic for my final high school project. After having spent a night stargazing with my father and talking about the wonders of the Universe, I struggled to fall asleep because I was so scared of the mysteries of life. The following day I decided to make my project about astronomy, a subject that my school barely educated me on. I was bad at math, even worse at physics, but I still wanted to learn about astronomy. The first thing my tutor did was give me a CD with the name ‘Carl Sagan – Cosmos‘. At first, I didn’t understand why my tutor, who also happened to be my philosophy teacher, was giving me a random CD of an old television series instead of guiding me on the format of my project, deadlines and bibliography. After I finished watching the first three episodes of Cosmos, I understood why.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is an American documentary series consisting of 13 episodes that aired in 1980. It was written and presented by doctor Carl Sagan with the collaboration of Ann Druyan and Steven Soter. The series was highly successful (as successful as a scientific series can be) and, in 2014, a follow-up series named Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, written and presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson, started airing. Tyson said the following words on Sagan’s influence in his years as a student:
Why? Why Cosmos? Why Carl Sagan? What is it that makes the series so special?
If you strip a human being of everything around them that’s been human-made, they will instantly look up at the sky and marvel at the sight before them: pure, bare nature. As a matter of fact, the reason why so many of the names of constellations and astrological myths are as old as the Paleolithic Period is because, in the absence of technology, our ancestors would look up at the sky every night and wonder what’s out there. What are those little shiny dots in the sky? Why are they moving? Where are they going? Where are we? Human beings are naturally curious, which is why little kids are always asking questions. As technology advanced, physicists like Galileo, Copernicus or Kepler were able to get closer to the truth: we are not in the center of the Universe, the Sun is a star, and all those shiny dots are stars too, only very far away. A few centuries later, human beings started moving to big cities and technology started growing in an vertiginous exponential way. What happened? We forgot to look up, but even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to see anything due to light pollution. Science is now something left to the scientists, human beings whom we perceive as cold and unapproachable. Ironically, it’s in the time when we are doing most of the advancements that people have seemed to stop caring about what’s up there. The universe is “too complicated”, and “what is the point of doing such expensive research on something that will never be useful to us down here?“. Even though Sagan died in 1996, he already warned us of this dangerous irony: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology”. Scary, isn’t it?
These are some of the arguments and questions that Carl Sagan raises in his series Cosmos. There are plenty of documentary series on all the fields of science that limit themselves to giving away information with no context, but there’s a reason why Cosmos is regarded as the most engaging scientific series and even as an icon of pop culture. The aim of Cosmos was to educate, but also to (re)awake the interest and passion that all human beings inherently have towards the Universe and, ultimately, the meaning of life. The goal is to make the audience become aware of something that we have forgotten due to the superficial urgencies of modern society.
Here’s the thing: you don’t need to like astronomy or even science to enjoy Cosmos. The magic of Cosmos is not only that Sagan turned complicated concepts into something easy and fascinating, but the fact that the series has a universal feel to it that makes science attainable to all human beings, from anywhere in the world, any age and any level of education. Sagan saw the Universe as something that makes us all one and the same: mere creatures of the Earth who know nothing about who they are, what they are or where they are headed.
Carl Sagan’s ability to turning science into poetry, his charisma or the gleam in his eyes whenever he talked about the stars were some of the things that inspired generations to pursue their passion to answer the greatest of mysteries. He inspired successful scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and he inspired viewers like me to be someone who carries Sagan’s wisdom and passion for life everywhere she goes.
“We are made of star stuff”
Talking about the Universe is not talking about something that is foreign to us. Everything we are, the objects we use or the ground we walk on is the Universe too, which is why it’s called. Talking about the Universe is an invitation to explore ourselves, to be more tolerant of others and to appreciate everything around us. It’ an invitation to wonder how things work and think about how we can make the world a better, richer place.
“The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the cosmos stirs us. There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 1
It has often been said that, whenever you’re feeling down, you should think that your problems don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The Universe is indifferent to our problems as a species. If I ever had to give advice to anyone who is suffering from an existential crisis, it would be to invest a few hours in watching Cosmos. I will always be thankful to my philosophy teacher for giving me that CD that day and I will always remember my last year of high school as a year in which I discovered a part of myself I had lost when I stopped being a kid. My classmates would give me strange looks for spending recess with my teacher talking about science and philosophy, but those were the happiest months of high school to me. I might not have been a scientist, but the best I can do is to pass on Sagan’s words to inspire other people to love science. After all, isn’t loving things with a passion what makes us geeks?