October 14, 2011

English Essay 2 - Cosmos

I wrote this for my English class, just turned it in today. Which means that I can now post it!

                Cosmos has been one of the most enduring and popular series on television. Premiering in 1980, the 13 episode series was hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan, who also wrote the series along with his wife Anne Druyan and their partner Steven Soter. In a break from previous science television shows, Cosmos did not limit itself to just one area of study. The breadth of the show goes from the tiniest particles then known to the largest scale structures of the universe. But at no point does the series lose its sense of humanity, and that is I think what has made the series consistently relevant. We are shown the wonders of the universe, and rather than being alien and remote these awe inspiring wonders are intricately linked to the deepest parts of ourselves.

                Cosmos spoke to your heart. Its opening image is of a vast star field with ethereal music drifting out of your speakers. The series begins with a man and his imaginings as he ponders science, humanity, and the universe. This show was Carl Sagan's vision. He showed us all how he saw the world. He took such a joy in existence, and was so good at explaining it, that you couldn't help but feel as he did about this universe we inhabit.

                Carl Sagan was the perfect host for this show. He was calm, intelligent, and personable. He saw beauty in everything, and he could communicate that beauty to you with ease. Though most famous for this show, and quite accomplished in astronomy, he was most prolific as a writer.  I for one don't mind that at all. He wrote beautifully, eloquently; powerfully. He wrote with a clarity that could leave you breathless. He explained scientific principles with such passion that you were automatically enthralled. His compassion for individual people could be heartbreaking. Richard Dawkins has said that science is the poetry of reality. If that's true, then Sagan was its poet laureate.

                But the show was about more than the simple eloquence of a man. It was about the wonder and beauty of the world, and our place within it. The first five minutes of the very first show exemplifies this. Standing on a cliff by the ocean, he tells us of the immensity of the cosmos. Interweaved within this he extols our accomplishments over the past few millennia, he expounds upon what humans have done. He shows us that the universe is vast, and that we are just a small part of it. He tells us of our potential and our danger. He puts us into the cosmos, connecting us, small as we are, to the largest concepts possible. We are, as he was fond of saying, made of star stuff.

                Each episode takes the form of travelers' tales, short stories interwoven and interrelated. Each on its own insufficient to be compelling, but in combination they are complex and subtle and powerful. Each small bit complements all the rest. He begins on the shore of an ocean, comparing the vastness of the cosmos to the vastness of the sea. Like the sea, the stars are where we came from. The atoms and molecules that we are all made of were themselves made in the fiery heart of a dying star. There is a sense of returning home, both to the ocean and to space.  Through this episode he documents our curiosity, our drive to understand, and our courage. He forms a compelling argument that not only is exploration built into the very fabric of Humanity, but that we are capable of truly becoming an interstellar species.

                In the second and third episode he starts using the metaphor of music. He starts by applying it to biology, and the possibility of life on other worlds. He compares it to singing, that we are but one voice in a cosmic fugue. He continues with this metaphor when he investigates our obsession with finding the cycles and harmonies of nature. He walks the path from astrology and farming to keeping a calendar and the cycle of life and death. He shows how these ideas were applied to early astronomy. He discusses the 'harmony of the spheres' and how we gradually learned more about our solar system. This culminates in the story of Johannes Kepler.

                Kepler was an astronomer who for years struggled to find a way to understand the movement of the planets using platonic solids. The way he saw the world, the way he was taught to see the world, relied heavily on ancient Greek scholars. Like Pythagoras, Kepler assumed there were whole number harmonies throughout nature. He used the five Platonic solids as his basis for astronomical geometry, and applied Pythagorean ideas to their motion. We learn of his struggle with these ideas. We watch as he spends years doing calculation after calculation, none of which work. We also watch as he throws out all his preconceptions, and we learn about the insight that finally let him understand what was going on. His work laid the foundations of all modern astronomy, and this was only possible once he was willing to admit he was wrong.

                In Cosmos we are taken on journeys into the past. We learn of our history, and the history of science. Scientific ideas are not often created and proven in one generation. Democritus, we learn, was trying to prove that we are made of atoms over two thousand years ago. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that we saw mountains on the moon and the clouds of Jupiter. We have sought to understand gravity for millennia, electricity for centuries, genetics for generations, and ourselves for ever.  To tell these stories we must understand not just the facts, but the context. We have to know the people and the world they lived in. We have to follow the growth of an idea, sometimes for thousands of years. This is not an easy task, but Sagan was a master story teller.

                I have touched on just one story that Sagan tells us in this series. There are many more. In each one,Cosmos made use of some new technology: Computer graphics. Sagan does not use such technological wizardry gratuitously, but artfully. When he uses a model of the Library of Alexandria as a digital backdrop it feels entirely appropriate. Though the issues he is talking about at that point are quite diverse, they all have a connection with the Library. Looking at it now, it is obvious that Sagan was digitally dropped into a shot of a model. To be honest, the scene may have been more realistic if they had used a painted backdrop. But with a digital image you can pan and zoom, change angles and walk through doorways. You can't do that with canvas. It's these options that make the use of digital technology the right choice. Whether it's a scenic library background or the information of the mind portrayed as great shelves of books, the use of digital is not gratuitous. The visual metaphor perfectly complements the verbal.

                They are however, late seventies computer graphics. They aren't, given the standards of today, that good. But we can get a measure of how good they once were by examining the documentaries that have followed.   Earlier documentaries were bland. They were appropriate for school use, and given the alternative (black and white textbooks) were certainly appreciated. But they were not emotionally compelling. We learned about science sure, but we didn't learn anything about why scientists become scientists. Some, like Wild Kingdom, were excellent. Most, however, featured a middle aged balding man with a monotonous voice who was usually holding something sciency. But after Cosmos that changed. Graphics were used much more extensively. The hosts were expecting to have at least some personality. The BBC started producing a variety of series on science that incorporated ideas from Cosmos. This legacy continues today with such films as Wonders of the Solar System andThrough the wormhole with Morgan Freeman. Even we yanks have gotten into the act, courtesy of Discovery channel, History Channel, and Family Guy. Well, more the first two than the last. But Seth McFarlane is producing the next completely new series of Cosmos, premiering on Fox in 2013which is just plain old fashioned exciting. I wonder if Peter Griffin will be the host. I hope not, but still, that would be amusing.

                Cosmos has been translated into over forty languages, broadcast in sixty countries, has been re-mastered, re-edited, updated and re-updated at least a dozen times. It continues be cited as inspiration by some of our top scientists, as well as have consistently high ratings when re-broadcast. The show is so enduring because of its strength of vision. Sagan artfully balanced factual data and human spirit in his stories. He was awestruck by the cosmos and that there are such creatures as we to observe it. His demeanor, his speech, his thoughts and the images he brought forth all tie into each other, are connected to each other.  They weave together into an intricate tapestry, an epic tale greater than anything you can imagine.

My take on the subject is a little more nuanced than this, but still. I find this amusing.

"The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest 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 height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries."
-Carl Sagan