My memories of Cosmos and Carl Sagan
In the fall of 1980 I was a college sophomore majoring in physics. When the Cosmos series aired that year it was a complete sensation to me. I was glued to the television every Sunday for several months as each of the 13 episodes were aired. I went out and bought the book as soon as it was available. I've owned the VHS boxed set of Cosmos for more than five years now and I just recently watched it again.
My favorite episode was #12: Encyclopedia Galactica. This really piqued my interest at the time and the introduction of the Drake Equation by Sagan just floored me at the time. It's a pity that SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) has still not given us a definitive answer almost thirty years after the original Cosmos was broadcast.
In recent years I have come to take a slightly more critical view of Sagan and the Cosmos series. I still think it's a great series and it was way ahead of its time but not everything Sagan says in it should be taken as Gospel. Actually, I think Sagan's best book was "Intelligent Life in the Universe" which was co-authored with the Russian astronomer I.S. Shklovskii in 1966. It has much more detail in it than Cosmos. Anyway, I digress. Episode by episode, here are some of my comments on the Cosmos series:
1.) The Shores of the Cosmis Ocean
The "spaceship of the imagination" seems a curious plot device for a series which is supposed to be about science. The views being displayed through the spaceship's portholes are not realistic as even Sagan shows us in Episode 8 (Journeys in Space and Time). During relativistic space flight your entire view of the cosmos will be squeezed into a narrow cone in the direction you're travelling in. But that's not what we see in Sagan's spaceship. The discussion of Eratosthenes measuring the earth's surface is one of the best in the series. It proves that you don't need fancy and expensive equipment to do science. What is required is a brain.
2.) One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
The Heike crab story is nice. I had not heard of it before. I think some actors playing either Charles Darwin or Alfred Wallace would have been a better choice for an episode on evolution. For the cosmic calendar scene
some explanation of how it is that science measures these vast periods of
time (e.g., radioisotope dating) would have been appropriate. The journey
inside the cell looks a little bit dated. This sequence could be much better
done today with the state-of-the-art special effects.
3.) The Harmony of the Worlds
Kepler steals the show here. It's a pity the actor playing Kepler wasn't
given a speaking part. There's a scene where Kepler gets frustrated while
attempting to create a model of his spheres within regular solids construct.
It's important to note that the reason he's frustrated is that his model
doesn't match the data of Copernicus and Tycho, not because he can't set it up
mechanically. I wish Sagan had shown us what kind of instruments Tycho was
using before the advent of the telescope. How did they work? How accurate
4.) Heaven and Hell
The Tunguska event is still controversial. The comet hypothesis is only one of many. I don't know why he brings up Velikovsky's "Worlds In Collision" since that was a book published in the 1950's. Sagan says scientists tried to suppress Velikovsky's work but he doesn't name any names. The sequence showing the surface of Venus with the Russian space probe sitting there is pretty cool (actually it's way hot - 900 deg F). And then there is the Al Goresque warning about global warming and the greenhouse effect turning the earth into another Venus. This skips a few facts - Venus is 38% close to the sun than earth is, Venus has an extremely slow rotation period (243 days, retrograde) which allows its surface to bake under the heat of the sun.
5.) Blues for a Red Planet
Sagan really slaps down ol' Percival Lowell. Makes him look like a complete idiot. Although I think Lowell got carried away I think there are a few things to be said in his defense. First, he was not the only atronomer to see canals on Mars. Giovanni Schiaparelli first saw them in 1877. Mars had undeniable changes in the location of the dark areas from season to season. Many astronomers interpreted this as the growth and decay of vegetation on Mars. Sagan had access to close-up photos of Mars from spacecraft thus improving the resolution by a factor of at least 1,000 over the data Lowell had to work with. The Viking lander scene was cool. I wonder if that was a real Viking lander, say a backup spacecraft, or a mockup.
6.) Traveler's Tales
The 17th century Dutch society is painted almost as a utopia. No mention is made of the Dutch participation in the African slave trade. I must admit that the scene of Sagan at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) pulling off a fresh color picture that had just come in from the Voyager spacecraft was way cool.
7.) The Backbone of Night
The story about Sagan growing up in Brooklyn is poignant. He even goes back to his old elementary school. I was too ignorant about it at the time I first watched this episode but I later found out that Sagan's interpretation of ancient Greek philosophy was way off. He lumps the Greek philosphers into two camps. The Ionians are rationalist and are the good guys (e.g., Thales, Democritus, Aristarchus). The others believe in mysticism and are the bad guys (e.g, Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle). If only the good guys would have won then history might have been different. Such a vast oversimplification of history is appalling and it really shows that Sagan is a crappy historian. He has no feel for nuance.
8.) Journeys in Space and Time
The constellations change with your perspective. They also change over long periods of time. I'm not sure what the relevance of Tuscany in Italy was in relationship to Einstein. I had always thought Einstein developed his theory of relativity while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland. I wasn't even aware of the Tuscany connection. The designs for interstellar spacecraft are very interesting. It's a shame they never used any of them for Star Trek or any of the other science fiction stories.
9.) The Lives of the Stars
"If you wish to make an apple pie then you must invent the universe". One of my favorite lines in the whole series. The writing of a google-plex on a scroll of paper was hilarious. We still don't know why pulsars pulsate like they do. There is a much better description of stellar evolution in Sagan's first book - Intelligent Life in the Universe.
10.) The Edge of Forever
The linkage of modern cosmology and Hindu religion was interesting. It's a pity there's no mention of Fred Hoyle and the Steady State model, or Einstein and the cosmological constant (it turns out Einstein may have been right with the recent discovery of dark energy!). This episode could have been better but at least it's better than that monstrosity known as "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
11.) The Persistence of Memory
It seems some of Sagan's information concerning cetaceans came from John Lilly who pioneered studies of dolphins during the 1960's. Unfortunately Mr. Lilly was also heavy into LSD and it ruined his career. There is no question that humpback whales produce prodigious quantities of sound. Some of the anecdotes about whales stopping on a single note and then continuing on it months later are apocryphal. Maybe Roger Payne believes this but I don't think it's been really proven. Sagan's implication is that the songs of the humpback whales constitute a communication system equivalent to human language. I'm extremely skeptical about that. For one thing, we would expect carnivores to be smarter than herbivores and the carnivorous killer whales don't make songs like the humpback whales. If anything, blurting out a song underwater for other predators to hear (thus giving away your location) for hundreds of miles may be a sign of stupidity, not intelligence. The thirty-foot high human brain was pretty hoky.
12.) Encyclopedia Galactica
My favorite episode. Sagan disposes of UFO nonsense and then takes us on a journey to Egypt where the French linguist Champollion is the first human in more than one thousand years to be able to read the hieroglyphs inscribed on the temples of Egypt. Sagan's demonstration of the decipherment using the Rosetta stone is quite good. Again, it's a pity that the actor playing Champollion has no speaking part. SETI, Drake Equation, Encyclopedia Galactica - it's all good stuff. I often wonder if Sagan might have been in contact with the ETI's and had access to the real Encyclopedia Galactica. He seemed to know that Earth is in region #806 of the Milky Way galaxy!
13.) Who Speaks for Earth
Encounters between different civilizations on earth - some turned out harmless (i.e., La Perouse expedition), some turned out harmful (i.e., Cortez and the Aztecs). Who is the voice speaking in Sagan's dream? Is it God? It's never made clear. From most of Sagan's other books I get the impression that Carl was an atheist so this voice is problematic. Library of Alexandria - perhaps Sagan's greatest gaffe in the entire series. According to Sagan a Christian mob burned it to the ground shortly after murdering its last scholar, Hypatia in the year 415 A.D. While it is indeed true that Hypatia was murdered by Christians in the year 415 A.D. it is equally true that by that time there was no library. The Roman Emperor Theodosius who was a Christian ordered the destruction of the Serapeum (and all other pagan temples throughout the empire) in the year 391 A.D. (24 years before the death of Hypatia). There is some historical evidence that the actual library was burnt to the ground centuries before in the year 47 B.C. by Julius Caesar, not a Christian mob. All of these facts should have been easily known to Sagan or at least his research staff. Did Carl have an axe to grind, maybe?
Also, the library fell because the ethical questions of the day were never debated? The justice of slavery was never argued. What? You gotta be kidding me. Aristotle wrote an entire treatise on ethics and came to the conclusion that slavery is justified. Other Greek philosophers also wrote concerning ethics. We may not like their conclusions but can we truthfully say that they never discussed these issues?
Sagan's concern about nuclear annihilation is understandable given the political situation during the Cold War. Thankfully, he lived to see the end of the Cold War although I doubt Dr. Sagan would be very happy with the current War on Terror.
Overall, the Cosmos series is probably one of the best television shows ever produced. I hope people don't take some of my comments as personal attacks on Dr. Sagan. I had and still have immense respect for him even though Cosmos did have some flaws. I doubt anyone else could have done a better job and no one has since. Here's hoping Carl is somewhere cruising around the universe in his spaceship of the imagination.