Sagan’s Cosmos Introduction

Sagan Cosmos

I was in the middle of drafting a reaction to the new Cosmos series when I read Emily Lackdawalla’s excellent review on the Planetary Society’s blog. She astutely avoids comparing the new series to the old, and instead urges us to judge it on its own merits. I think she is right. I’m going to hold my thoughts about the new Cosmos until next week’s episode has aired. It’s rare that science has a primetime platform to speak to the public as to the power of the method; I don’t want to judge the new Cosmos harshly or prematurely. Right now I will say that everyone should watch it, if for no other reason than to see some excellent special effects not simply used as a backdrop to blow crap up.

I was only 6 when the original Cosmos; a personal voyage aired on PBS. The only scene I remember, in fact, was the famous one with the Italian boy on a moped, illustrating time dilation. I remember it as a bicycle, but that’s memory for you. I re-watched the original series only recently, as an adult, having come full circle to my childhood obsession with astronomy. It was a profound and moving experience. Sure, the special effects sometimes looked hokey, and it doesn’t exactly do much to advocate for bowl haircuts and turtlenecks, but as a narrative arc about science, it’s masterful. It remains the meta-science-documentary.The introduction by Carl Sagan remains one of my favorite pieces of science writing.

I tried in vain to find that speech in its entirety and ended up reconstructing it from the subtitle file. I publish it here because it deserves to be read and remembered in its entirety:

The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir 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 great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth.

For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young and curious and brave. It shows much promise.

In the last few millennia, we’ve made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

We’re about to begin a journey through the cosmos. We’ll encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving and perishing. Worlds of ice and stars of diamond. Atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms.

But it’s also a story of our own planet and the plants and animals that share it with us. And it’s a story about us: How we achieved our present understanding of the cosmos, how the cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture, and what our fate may be. We wish to pursue the truth, no matter where it leads. But to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate. But we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.

The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships,of the awesome machinery of nature.The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

The journey for each of us begins here. We’re going to explore the cosmos in a ship of the imagination, unfettered by ordinary limits on speed and size, drawn by the music of cosmic harmonies, it can take us anywhere in space and time. Perfect as a snowflake, organic as a dandelion seed, it will carry us to worlds of dreams and worlds of facts. Come with me.

That’s a remarkable piece of writing. For many people, Sagan managed in that five minutes by the sea-shore to articulate something felt but often difficult to put into words. He managed to communicate the wonder and excitement of science, a feeling of awe that simultaneously elicits humility but also pride and appreciation for our ability to look out on the universe and bear witness to it. Like the best science writing, it makes the audience feel smart.


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