Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reflections On Sagan's Cosmos

This Sunday, March 9, marks the debut of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, a modern day follow-up to the classic Carl Sagan mini-series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. This update, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and produced by Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow), appears promising. The principals involved are all people who are passionate about Sagan's legacy of bringing the wonder of scientific inquiry and discovery to the public eye. Neil deGrasse Tyson himself seems a worthy inheritor of Sagan's mantle of "science communicator," and I have high hopes for the new series. These hopes are not without some trepidation, however.

You see, Sagan's original Cosmos holds a special place in my heart and memories. When the series originally aired in 1980, I already had a keen interest in science, but Cosmos kindled something new. There I was, living out on a cotton farm on the South Plains of Texas, about 50 miles away from the low-power PBS station that was broadcasting the series, tweaking the tuner knob of our television to try to reduce the inevitable static.  I viewed the amazing visualizations the series is known for through a veil of broadcast snow, watching Sagan stride across the Cosmic Calendar, and I could imagine myself walking with him through a model of the Library of Alexandria in search of the lost writings of Aristarchus. And I journeyed with him through time and space aboard his metaphorical  "Spaceship of the Imagination."

But, more than all of that, more than the tidbits of information (much of which I was already aware of), more than the visuals (which, for 1980 public television, were pretty impressive), there was Carl Sagan's voice, coming in loud and clear despite the static-laden video signal. It was a calm, reassuring, and friendly voice. And it was a voice filled with wonder. Here was the voice of someone who had seen the kinds of things I wanted to see.  Here was the voice of someone who had done the kinds of things that I wanted to do. Here, coming into my home over a tenuous broadcast signal, was the voice of a kindred spirit. In the relative isolation in which I was growing up, that was astonishing. I was not alone. That realization impacted me in ways that I haven't the words to describe. Carl Sagan inspired me.

Sadly, Carl Sagan passed away in 1996.  I never had the chance to shake his hand, to look him in the eyes and thank him for what he had done for me and others like me.

You have big shoes to fill, Neil.  Wear them well.

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