Sensor Scan: Cosmos

There are, in the history of television, extremely few moments like this one, where the heart and soul of an entire generation is swept up in the rapture of a shared experience that becomes the defining memory of an era.

Cosmos, which opens declaring itself to be standing “On The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”, is on its own a watershed. This is the series that not only made PBS, but codified the documentary as at least I remember it and changed the face of not only the popularization of science, but of science itself. It really is astonishing to look back and see how so much of the discourse we now associate with science can be linked directly to Carl Sagan’s ethos and positionality. Because this is what makes Cosmos so special and why it remains relevant and valid over thirty years later when the world it came into and spoke to now belongs to some long-distant and half-forgotten mnemolic time-spacescape: And even though his perspective has been frequently misunderstood and his name invoked in vain by the many, many people to come in his wake, the fundamental and provocative radicalism of his voice still resonates, and is what allows Cosmos to remain so powerful.

Carl Sagan is a fascinatingly marginal figure, and in retrospect it’s sort of odd that he was the one to break out in the way he did. Famously too speculative, imaginative and spiritual for the scientific establishment, yet too grounded in hard science for UFOlogists and true believers, Sagan occupies a curious, and unenviable, no-man’s land in scientific discourse. But yet in many ways it’s this nomadic isolationism that helped him reach such a staggeringly huge audience: Sagan wrote and spoke with the voice of a poet and a mystic, yet fiercely committed to the scientific method, he was in many ways the only personality positioned to take science education in this direction. He’s of course far from the first to fuse science and mysticism: John Muir did it, and J. Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallée and Steven Spielberg accomplished it masterfully quite recently with things like Passport to Magonia and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Going all the way back, what were the ancient navigators if not science mystics?

But Carl Sagan was the first to take this approach and apply it to science education, at least on such a grand scale. Carl Sagan wasn’t just a science popularizer or even the greatest science popularizer-He was the science popularizer, all stop. Nobody who has tried to follow in his footsteps has come remotely close to emulating what Carl Sagan did. In some ways Robert Burnham, Jr. is Sagan’s anticipation in this regard, but, let’s face it, try as he might (and he did, mightily) Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was never going to be embraced outside of an extremely small subset of amateur astronomers. No, what Sagan understood was the power of television as not just a forum for teaching and learning, but as a medium where communal images could be experienced together.…

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