Reflections on Carl Sagan and the new Cosmos

Posted by David Eicher
on Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson navigates the Ship of the Imagination in the new Cosmos. // Richard Foreman Jr./FOX
I've watched the new incarnation of Cosmos with a sharp eye, for several reasons. When I was young, I was one of those who knew Carl Sagan, and I was materially influenced in my career path by him. Currently, I'm involved in a weekly series of Google Hangouts with Astronomy and Discover magazine editors critiquing and commenting on the episodes as they swing by.

But I have to say that for all of this, I am very impressed with the job that the new Cosmos team has done. Listening to some of the relatively small criticisms of the show, I've found myself somewhat amused. Some didn't like the treatment of Giordano Bruno, who was one of the first to imagine a limitless universe of stars, with the Sun as one of them. Some have reacted acerbically to the cartoon style used in telling some of the historical tales. Some have criticized details like the depiction of the Big Bang as an "explosion" of sorts, which it most certainly was not.

But amid this, I have to say that those are tiny issues, people. Within little more than 40 minutes per episode, the team produces a spectacular package that communicates the spirit of science, and of Carl Sagan, extremely well — and Neil deGrasse Tyson has done an outstanding job of telling the story. A couple of tiny quibbles are hardly the issue here; the meaning of science and the essence of Sagan's vision for it are, and they come screaming through loud and clear.

My first encounter with Carl Sagan came as a teenager, when I readied for a late night of observing with my telescope. I hovered over The Tonight Show before heading outside and sat, mesmerized, as this Cornell University professor made astronomy relevant, exciting, and meaningful to ordinary Americans. Sagan didn't utter "billions and billions" on that summer night; that phrase arrived later, from amateur astronomer Johnny Carson, gently lampooning his friend Sagan.

As I looked toward a career in astronomy and started publishing Deep Sky Monthly, I sent a latter to Sagan and included copies of my little publication on observing galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. It was mid-1977. I was 15, and he was 42. Busy as he was (though this was pre-Cosmos), Sagan wrote me a long letter that I received a week or two later. It absolutely made my year and inspired me to redouble my efforts in astronomy. Filled with career advice, the letter served as an inspiration for years to come.

Because more than half a billion people watched him narrate the original Cosmos, Carl Sagan became the most recognized astronomer of the 20th century. // Courtesy Ann Druyan
Through correspondence, I got to know Carl Sagan. What struck me most was how generous he was with his time and with his wisdom. He was truly a humanist who cared about people and was invested in helping them in any way that he could. When Cosmos ignited interest in astronomy through the airwaves of PBS, he sent me an inscribed copy of the accompanying Random House book, signed "For Dave Eicher / friend of the Cosmos." I was awestruck.

In those days, Carl Sagan took heavy criticism from conservative or even envious professional colleagues over his popularization of astronomy and science. To some, it was "selling out to the masses." In the world that now exists, where too few people value science and know about its details, how those elitists would sing a different tune! Sagan realized the value of the average Joe understanding and supporting science, and he did more than just about anyone else to deepen that connection between science and the public.

When I finally met Carl Sagan and spent time with him at meetings, now as an editor at Astronomy, I was even more impressed. I was struck by his height (he was 5'11", but for whatever reason he seemed taller than that in person, and shorter on TV); his soft-spoken, fatherly manner; his fine manner of dress; and his patient, caring gaze.

I recall how impressive it was to hear his views, in person, on a wider variety of subjects. This was no shallow TV presenter. At the "Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life" meeting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1991, I sat with him in the back of a meeting room. He rattled off numerous interesting questions following many of the lectures, as well-versed in a whole maze of specialized research as the speakers were.

Carl Sagan wrote for Astronomy magazine many times, from the earliest issues onward. He sent me his last contribution to the magazine in 1993, and it appeared in the 20th-anniversary issue of the magazine, in a story about what was coming in astronomy's future.

Three years later, we all learned that he was being treated for an illness, and I called him in late 1996, when he was in Seattle at the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He spoke, as always, with great caring in his voice. I asked him if he would be a member of the magazine's newly forming Editorial Advisory Board and talked about all the exciting things to come, unaware of the grave seriousness of his illness. In the most generous, compassionate way you could imagine, he simply said, "Dave, nothing would make me happier."

Two weeks later, he was gone, and we were all left stunned. Astronomy had lost its best friend and would never be quite the same again.

Enjoy Cosmos and the fact that so many stories of astronomy, cosmology, and planetary science that are now being told were not known when the original series aired. Enjoy the guidance of Tyson throughout the adventures of reality, which is far more compelling than the nonsense that most people watch on TV. Enjoy the beautiful scriptwriting, which would have made Carl proud.

In each of the few episodes we've seen thus far, there are moments when the writing, the graphics, and Tyson's confident and friendly words all come together to create a Carl Sagan moment. "That's exactly what Carl would have said, and how he would have said it," you think to yourself.

That is a powerful statement for a long-awaited show that ought to be required viewing for any thinking person on the planet.

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