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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
were they?

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.

--- Tom



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Bravo!

Good stuff, Tom. Thanks for sharing! I guarantee I would have been less into video games and more into stargazing if I'd have caught this show, back in its prime. I read the paperback version of Cosmos a few years ago, all for a mere $0.25 at a book sale. (Best. Book. Purchase. Ever.) That spurred me on to watch the TV shows. Low and behold, upon moving into my new apartment and getting Tivo, I noticed one of the Science channels had been airing them. Now I've recorded them to VHS, but if I ever lost them would drop the money for the DVD collection in a heartbeat.

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.
This is true, but we both know thirty years on a cosmic scale is but a fleeting moment.

Again, great post! I hope more people read this.

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Cosmos changed my life, no doubt about that. My favorite episode is the 13th, followed by the 1st, and the rest is just hard to order. What's interesting about 13 is that he talks about not just the science, but the right application. If there is one episode that everyone should watch, it's the last one. As he said , 'we are one planet'. I loved the segment of him showing the beginning of the universe till now, he ended with 'we have walked far'. I was amazed.

Now, about your comments, I'm not really sure about 'The Backbone of the Night' as well as the historical inaccuracies. If you look at the back of the book 'Cosmos' based on the book, he listed a plethora of bibliography. I'm sure Carl Sagan read some accounts, and put the one that sounded most realistic. 'Also, the library fell because the ethical questions of the day were never debated?' They were debated, by not throughly in my opinion, although I respect you opinion. 'Those voices', I presume, are voices of the 'good/bad angel' we all have when we think to ourselves.

Dr. Sagan did not just bring science in Cosmos, he brought morality and the process of science. That is what makes him so amazing.

watch this:this should have been including in cosmos, one of Sagan's best work:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M

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Amazon.com lists the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle in paperback form selling for $8.21 and consisting of 360 pages. And this was only one of the treatises concerning ethics which we know Aristotle wrote. He also wrote the Eudemian Ethics which is 224 pages on amazon.com. It is estimated that approximately 20 percent of Aristotle's works have come down to us intact. Assuming that figure then it is quite likely that Aristotle wrote 2,920 pages on the subject of ethics alone (584 of these pages we have). And that's just one classical author. (These page counts are for the translations into English)

Each of the major schools of Greek philosophy (Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, etc., etc.) had their own views concerning ethics. In all likelihood they wrote their own treatises on the subject. It's a pity that only a small percentage of these works have survived to our own time. So I believe that Dr. Sagan was dead wrong when he said that the ethical questions of the day were not debated. They were both in verbal form and written form.

Now, I will grant a certain amount of "don't bite the hand that feeds you" type of mentality probably existed. It is quite doubtful that the scholars of the Library of Alexandria would have scrutinized the politics, ethics, and morality of the ruling Ptolemies. Such activity could get you booted out of your job or even executed. But I think that applies to our own times as well. I don't recall Dr. Sagan investigating the morality of the administration of Cornell University in regards to its receiving lucrative research contracts relating to the nuclear arms race of the 1980's. Again, such behvavior would have landed him in hot water and possibly even gotten him fired.

I do give him credit for protesting in person at the Nevada Test Site, but this was far safer than actually "biting the hand that feeds you". In short, the scientific establishment of the 1970's, 1980's, etc. (Sagan included) have all of the flaws which Cosmos attributes to the scientists of the Library of Alexandria. Sagan, more than most of them, tried to get "outside the box" and apply some type of moral principles to science. Perhaps he was sensing the similarities between ancient science and modern science and he wanted to do something to correct it. If so, that task remains pretty much undone today. No champion of morality in science has stepped forward to fill Dr. Sagan's shoes.

Just my two cents,
Tom

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Good comment. Gives a good view to the series from another perspective.

For me Cosmos arrived way too early. I was just 6 at the time it was aired in Spain (where I live), and sadly, it has rarely been re-aired since then.

Still I've been able to see some episodes as time went by, and not that long ago I watched the full series. Some of the inconsistences you mentioned I noticed, others went unchecked, but as a whole, it's a piece of educational and scientific art.

I think many of the faults you find in the series are product of simplification. Even for a 13-hour long documentary is hard to squeeze all the details needed to give an accurate historic perspective on the facts that happened centuries or thousands of years ago. For instance, the greek phillosophy division into Ionian/Plato tendences and the oversimplification of their attitudes is to be somehow expected. To give an accurate view on greek philosophy you would've needed a 13- run series on its own. And that of course wasn't possible.

Other inconsistences are based on something Sagan said in his first chapter of Cosmos: "this proves being very intelligent doesn't mean you can be wrong". Sagan had many beliefs and theories, and of course in his series he aired his theories...some of them may be wrong, some true...
Still, they never were mentioned as facts, though, which points out at his sincerity and desire to keep things clear. For me that's enough.

You mention the "the backbone of the night" chapter, and that you don't like the Brooklyn parts where Sagan went to his elementary school. I simply loved it. Why?. Possibly because had he, of someone of his quality and educational capability, visited MY school to give us a little lesson about the Universe, as he did with those kids, my interest on physics and astrophysics would've been sparked much much earlier on my life than when it actually happened (too late to guide my career through that path). As it was I had terrible teachers who were boring and made phisics seem like a terrific ,impossible to understand (much less to love) thing. Years later I got to learn things on my own that sparked my interests...but now is too late for me to try to do a living of phisics.

AS a whole I think Cosmos was created as an educational tool. Maybe it was not as accurate as it should/Could have been, but it successfully brought a great bit of phisic, astrophysic, and even historic, to an understandable level and then it delivered them to the masses...who understood it for the major part.Then it happened one of two things:

1-who saw it, even liking the series, didn't get a special interest in what the series displayed. So when they came to and end, that was it...still they learned A LOT just by watching.

2-many people got interested in the matters portrayed in the series, and started to read and keep on learning on their own (my case is this one). With more reading comes more understanding and then many of the "mistakes" of Cosmos rectify themselves because what was wrong in the series (and it wasn't too much anyway) you get it right by your own...and you learn much more than what you did before you saw the series.


I think Cosmos is SO brilliant as an educational and scientific teaching tool, this series should be a must for EVERY school which really cares about their students to actually LEARN. And boy you can learn from Cosmos: Phisics, astrophisics, history, a bit of philosophy, a lot of understanding of the nature and why the world is as it is...

and a great load of ethics. Each time I saw a chapter, by the time it had finished I was left with the feeling we're so much wasting our times with senseless (seen from a cosmic point of view) issues and debates: national boundaries, politic or economic interests, nationalism, fanaticism...all lose weight when you think in our place in Earth, Solar system, milky way and universe. And in 15.000.000.000 years of geological and biological evolution.

Kids 11-to-15 years old should -ALL- see this series. I know for sure that when my own sons reach that age, they will see it. And any mistakes it has...who cares, I can explain those to them. I just think watching and learning from Cosmos makes you a better being just by winning perspective on why are like we are and how we reached to be like we are. And that's something the whole humanity should learn for once and all.

Carl Sagan is for me one of the most brilliant beings in recent times. I just hope his hopes of the humanity to get over nationalist and economic interests to become a true identity don't get shattered. We aren't in the right way right now, that's for sure.

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I think there might be another explanation for some of the errors and inconsistencies found in the Cosmos series besides simplification. And that is that when Dr. Sagan was outside of his field of expertise (i.e., planetary astronomy) he was more prone to make mistakes. I can't think of a single factual error I can fault him for in the Cosmos series in the area of astronomy. The only errors in facts in this area would be caused by changes in knowledge since the series aired (e.g., dark energy, etc.). If you can find such an error in astronomy which you think is Dr. Sagan's fault please bring it to my attention. I can't remember any.

I actually enjoyed the part of the episode "Backbone of Night" where he went back to his old neighborhood and his old grade school. I thought it showed that he hadn't forgotten where he had come from. It was the rest of the episode and his interpretations concerning Greek philosophy that I disagreed with.

It is important to remember that for people of my generation (born in the 1950's and 1960's) Carl Sagan was THE scientist in the same way that Albert Einstein was THE scientist for people of my parents' generation. For many of my generation he was the ONLY scientist they could name. No doubt this was in part due to his numerous appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But after Cosmos aired he really became a household name. Consequently, we all looked up to him and put him up on a pedestal. The fact that he might actually make mistakes from time to time would have been unthinkable to us at the time. It is only in retrospect that I can look back and see that Carl Sagan was a human being with all of the frailties of humanity. Like I said before, if Carl isn't right now touring black holes, neutron stars, etc., etc. in his "spaceship of the imagination" then this universe sucks! I hope he's out there somewhere cruising the galaxies in spirit form and I hope that I can someday join him.

Carl's legacy will live on for another generation or so. I think historians will look kindly on his life and his contribution to mankind.

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I tend to think that Mr. Sagan would've made use of historians and phillosophers (spelling? :)) to assist him in the writting of Cosmos. So I'm not really sure the mistakes within the series are because Sagan's lack of expertise in other fields other than astronomy. I still tend to think that some mistakes are product of time limits.

Others are not ,of course, and those could very well be because Sagan's own subjectivity when treating certain matters, as he always had an opinion about all the things he treated in Cosmos. Some stories might be told from a slightly twisted point of view according to Sagan's own views. As you very well say, he was as human as any of us, a brilliant human, but human nonetheless, and as such he could be wrong and even subjective in some matters.

Still, all his work is told with decency and trying to hold an objective point of view. Over any other consideration, and after reading/seeing most of his work (still have to buy some of his books, few of his works were translated in spanish and as such I have to purchase them from internet), I firmly believe that what Mr. Sagan wanted was to known the truth, to then tell the rest of us about it as objectively as he could.

Avobe all, Carl Sagan was sincere. And that is all I want from someone who's teaching me about anything.


"" if Carl isn't right now touring black holes, neutron stars, etc., etc. in his "spaceship of the imagination" then this universe sucks!""


One of the things watching the full series did on me is to better appreciate the worth of life and the importance of what we are. And to enjoy the chance we as humans have to both enjoy and try to understand the universe we come from, and are part of. I got to fully understand what Self-conscience means watching reading his work.

To come to be a self-conscient being during some 70 years within an universe 15 billion year old, to then lose it all and go to a big void seems a joke. A tasteless joke. Kind of when you give a wonderfuy toy to a child to then take it back from him just three seconds later, just when he starts to fully understand the joy of owning it. It's even cruel.

I really hope he, as you say, now is somehow touring the Cosmos and getting to know it as he would've always wanted. If he's not, then yes...the universe sucks. Bigtime...


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Also,

Concerning other science series I think there are some excellent video series that may not rival Cosmos in quality but are very good nonetheless. Some of these I have not seen since the original and they are difficult to find.

The Day the Universe Changed - James Burke
This first aired in the 1980's and I think it is the best work covering the history of technology that's ever been done

Connections 1, Connections 2, Connections 3 - James Burke
I've only seen the first of these so I can't comment on number 2 and 3. It covers a similar subject to "The Day the Universe Changed" although not as good.

The Ring of Truth - Philip Morrison
Morrison was another Cornell scientist and this is a very good series particularly for understanding physics. I have looked to buy a copy of the DVD but I can't find it. I believe this series was done in the late 1980's. Dr. Morrison has since passed away.

The Ascent of Man - Jacob Bronowski
This is a classic work on the rise of human intelligence done in the 1970's. I have not seen it for decades although it's available on amazon.com

The NOVA series on PBS has many excellent episodes which are available in DVD.
Most of these are one or two video sets. I'm not aware of any multi-part series that rival the previous mentioned sets.

British historian Michael Wood has several excellent video series:
In the Footsteps of Alexander - 1998
In Search of the Trojan War - 1980's


I would recommend all of these if you are interested in expanding your knowledge.

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I have probably viewed Sagan and Cosmos critically from the beginning. Lately, just looking for something from the library [free] to watch in my leisure hours, I have been checking out Cosmos, and there are a few comments I would add here.

Ironies... Sagan goes to the brink (if not in fact) of contradicting himself in a few ways, especially in the extraterrestrical intelligent life question. He goes so far in advancing the idea of trusting the evidence, no matter how much it may lead one away from what one wants to believe, and the counter of not believing what there is no evidence for. But on the extraterrestrial intelligence matter, he says, "how likely it is that the universe is beeming over with intelligent civilizations." Yet he admits, in the discussion about UFO's that there is "no evidence" of any contact with such civilizations. How can he believe something of which there is a lack of evidence while condemning [or at least dissing] others who do the same thing under different topics?

Another irony would be in the final appended episode and his interview with Ted Turner. He brings up that the rich have a greater capacity to harm the world than the pooor, and that television produces a lifestyle of too much passivity (compared to study and work)-- 2 things of which Turner would obviously be one of his culprits. But that's as far as they take it. Turner says something like "I'm one of those" [the rich] and some similar flip-it-off remark is made about his part in television. If this had teeth in it, there would have been a debate; Turner would have tried to justify his wealth and his promotion of his huge 'passive' time occupier; and Sagan would have demonstrated Turner's wealth and his medium is no better than any other. But they're both left-wingers, I suppose, and that's the reason it didn't happen. But that does degrade any relevance that can be gleaned. Also, Sagan makes some comment about television graphics, that they are misused as one-sided representations what the producers wish to display with this added perceived credibility. Did he really think he didn't do that in Cosmos?... that silly "ship of the imagination," a planet reengineered by one of those extraterrestrial civilizations he thinks is there somewhere, despite the lack of evidence; and quasars, black holes and 'wormholes,'....

And finally, there is a lot of 'code-speak' in this series; especially a lot in "The Backbone of Night." "What do you do about 2 different gods who claim the same territory?" he asks, and then goes to point out that the Babylonian Marduk and the Greek Zeus were both claimed to be 'king of the gods;' and if one had to be conjectured, why not both? Sure, that's valid. But is he really talking about the modern belief system about the god of the ancient Hebrews? and Marduk [near-east] v. Zeus [Europe; 'west'] is really Islam v. Christianity? I think so. [if not different gods, then certainly different perceptions thereof] And thus I think this is a roundabout way of saying to a huge portion of his audience "Scrap your religion and lust after science," without coming right out and saying "Whether you call him God, Yahweh, or Allah, he doesn't exist and he didn't create the world."

And in that same eipisode, he returns to Brooklyn, and mentions something about its reputation as an unsophisticated place to be tied in with. Then later he talks about Democritus, arguably the ancient world's most brilliant mind, being from Abdera, a town that was the butt of jokes. He from Brooklyn, and correspondingly, Democritus from Abdera. The parallel he is making is obvious, but again he doesn't come right out and say what he is driving at; or in this case he would say "I am the brilliant mind of this age, as Democratus was 2400 years ago."

I prefer a say-it-plainly-or-don't-say-it approach.

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Part of the problem was that Sagan combined both scientific fact and speculation as part of the series. I think he said something in the first episode about being careful to distinguish them, but I don't think he always did throughout the series. Concerning SETI versus UFO's, I don't think Sagan claimed that the ETI's definitely exist, just that it was likely. This was based primarily on the Drake Equation, most of whose parameters are still unknown to us today. So the likelihood was enough, in Sagan's judgment, to justify a SETI search, but this was based on filling in little more than guesses into the Drake Equation. So yes, you have a point there.

Concerning UFO's, Sagan's position is somewhat confusing to me. He certainly cannot claim that the UFO believers have no evidence whatsoever. There are photographs, witness statements, occasional footpad imprints, etc., etc. Sagan either rejects this evidence (as hoaxes, mistakes, etc.) or considers it insufficient to conclude that we are being visited by ETI's. This raises the interesting philosophical question of what constitutes good evidence in science, standards of proof, etc., etc. It's a pity that Sagan didn't include this topic in the series. So we know Sagan rejects the UFO evidence but we don't know what evidence he would accept as legitimate proof.

I don't consider the interview with Ted Turner as part of the Cosmos series although at some later point it was packaged as the "14th episode". I think it was filmed during the mid 1980's so Cosmos had already been released for at least five years. I never watched the interview until quite recently - I found it on google video. It's pretty much a love fest between the "Mouth from the South" and Sagan. I didn't get much out of it except the fact that Sagan was pretty left wing which I already knew.

I didn't like the "Backbone of Night" episode much either, but for different reasons from yours. I don't think you can read too much into his comments about Zeus and Marduk as being a veiled reference to modern religion. In Cosmos and in some of his other books (e.g., The Demon Haunted World) Sagan dances around his own atheism without coming out and saying it explicitly. What is more troubling to me is Sagan's use of the story of "Zeus and Marduk cannot both be true - therefore neither of them is true" without citing any historical reference whatsoever that any Greek philosopher ever said such a thing. As far as I can tell the reference is a complete conjecture on Sagan's part, and as such is about as credible as a Just So story (e.g., How the Tiger got its Stripes).

I didn't catch the connection between Democritus being from Abdera and Sagan being from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and I'm not sure there is one. BTW, I can find no historical reference whatsoever to Abdera being the laughingstock of the ancient Greek world, so this might be another one of Sagan's conjectures. So I really don't care for the historical research, or lack thereof, shown in the Cosmos series. I think that is probably its weakest point.

History is not science. There is no reproducible experiment that you can devise (short of a time machine) to prove which of two contradictory historical interpretations is the correct one. The historian must sift and weigh the relative merits of his historical sources while at the same time always keeping in mind that his sources are always biased in some regards. So you can never arrive at anything approaching a scientific level of truth in regards to history. Maybe that was Sagan's problem in the series.


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I was born back in good old 1981, and as a kid knew that Carl Sagan was somebody famous and did stuff having to do with space, but didn't have any more real information than that. As most self respecting sci-fi fans, I always had an interest in space, planets, and most other-worldly type stuff and watched any space documentary that happened to be on tv, but I wouldn't say that I was at all excited by them.

I just got to watch these for the first time the other day, and I was floored! Sure, we have more information about space and the solar system than we did 30 years ago, but this whole series is so straight forward and enjoyable to watch, that I think it teaches much more than most cosmic documentaries out today. And watching Carl Sagan talking about the cosmos and seeming just as excited as an 11-year old on his first planetarium visit, gives it such an interesting feel.

Every elementary school teacher should have a copy of these tapes. They're so much more enjoyable to watch than many of the unemotional "serious" space documentaries out there, that anybody looking for a way to get kids interested in science should be showing any kids they can get to stop running around for a few minutes this series.

And on a related note: Who was in charge of making sure Mars would be terraformed by the time I was grown up enough that I could hang out there? Somebody really dropped the ball on that one :P

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Thomas-Marking said:

" BTW, I can find no historical reference whatsoever to Abdera being the laughingstock of the ancient Greek world, so this might be another one of Sagan's conjectures."

I was reading about Prof. Mary Beard's research into ancient humour a while ago, and I came acorss a few ancient Roman jokes; She writes:

- Also raising quite a smile was one of the “Abderite” jokes (that’s, I’m afraid, the ancient equivalent of the Irishman or Belgian joke):

"Seeing a eunuch chatting with a woman, an Abderite asked him if it was his wife.
The eunuch replied that people like him could not have wives.
“Ah then she must be your daughter.”"

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I enjoyed your long review and summary of Sagan’s great scientific series.

''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.''

His book ''Cosmos'' is a work of popularized science, just like Hawking's A Brief History of Time, addressed to the average reader, so it is reasonable that it doesn't delve into many scientific details. Otherwise the book and the series would have been or seemed esoteric.

''The writing of a google-plex on a scroll of paper was hilarious.''

That was one of the most impressive and ingenious moments of the entire series. Forever unforgettable.

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You indicated in item 1 that:
---------SNIP------------------------
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.

---------------------SNIP------------
I believe you meant to say that he calculated the diameter of the earth *NOT* the earths surface. I believe that Carl said he came up with an answer of 35,000 KM for the diameter, which is correct.


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Very interesting review. I just disagree about your comments about part 7.
IMO you can quite easily separate the ones who think that you're only seeing shadows in a cave (or that your spirit, or soul, or whatever, is detached from the world you perceive) and so experiment is useless, and those who observe, try to model, experiment and finally can do a kind of prediction. They hardly live in harmony together.
As extensions of the principles developed by Plato, Aristotle,... the main religions in Occident are elitist and anthropocentric. Unfortunately their propagation implied the rebuttal of the scientific method and of the experimentation. Result: humanity knowledge hasn't grown (even lessen) for centuries.
How course this is oversimplified. Nobody is able to present all the ancient Greek philosophies (and their links to common religions) to a large public in one hour.
If you have argument(s) negating Sagan's point of view ('no fell for nuance' isn't one), they are very welcome; I'd be pleased to read them. But just shouting out that Sagan is a 'crappy historian' is a crappy move ;)

hoping to read you again.

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Well, I disagree with Sagan's interpretation of Greek philosophy as being divided into two camps - physical realists and spiritualists. IMHO the historical reality is much more complex. Take for example, the Pythagoreans. According to Sagan they are in the "spiritualist" camp and therefore their legacy is in religion and not science. And yet, it was the Pythagoreans who were the first (as far as we know) to believe that mathematics underpins the universe, a key tenet of modern science. Also, the Pythagorean knowledge concerning musical harmony was based on experimentation with stringed instruments. So the Pythagoreans were also experimentalists, another key part of modern science. So things are not so cut and dried as Sagan portrayed them in episode 7. As I recall Sagan portrayed the Pythagoreans as being anti-science. Without them we would probably not have the kind of science we have today.

In reality, there were not two camps of ancient Greek philosophy, a pro-science camp and an anti-science camp, but rather a vast spectrum of beliefs and philosophical teachings covering a huge territory from mysticism to practical experimentation. The pro-science camp didn't lose and the anti-science camp didn't win. Instead, the entire Greek culture was conquered by a more militarily capable culture - first the Macedonians, and then the Romans.

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Wow. Great analysis, Tom. I too was fascinated by the series, the best ever on TV.

Schrodinger's cat walks into a bar, and / or doesn't.

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