Brian Cox talks about Carl Sagan

By Phil Plait | April 12, 2009 12:00 pm

Brian Cox is a Professor of physics at the University of Manchester, and a leading light in teaching the public about science*. The BBC 4 radio channel just aired a program with Brian talking about Carl Sagan, and it’s terrific. Beautifully done, with personal insights, quotations, and interviews with Sagan, it’s well worth an hour of your time. But hurry– it’s only available for a few days.

Carl Sagan means a lot to me; the path I walk today was first blazed by him. I wrote a brief post about this in 2006, and about his legacy I wrote this:

Sagan’s insight, his gift to us, is the knowledge that we all have the ability to examine the Universe with all the power of human curiosity, and we need not retreat from the answers we find.

That is still true today, and I think it always will be. There is a comfort in lies whispered to ease our immediate fears, but they are lies nonetheless. Reality is something to be embraced whole-heartedly, or more accurately whole-mindedly. We are just past the cusp in our evolution where we can start to truly appreciate the Universe for what it is, and leave behind the superstitions and comforting falsehoods of our species’ youth.

Sagan reminded us to look ahead, and to be joyful about what we will find.

* Brian will also be speaking at TAM London in October.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (55)

  1. I agree wholeheartedly Phil!

    The Sagan Continues!

  2. the path I walk today was first blazed by him.

    Sagan posed nude for a calendar? Awesome. ^_^


    One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. it is simply too painful to acknowledge — even to ourselves — that we’ve been so credulous. (So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new bamboozles rise.)

    — [Carl Sagan, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection]

  4. NewEnglandBob

    Sagan’s books and videos are still inspiring.

    A few months ago I reread “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” and “Demon Haunted world: Science as a Candle in the Dark“. They still read fresh.

    Thanks, Carl – billions and billions of thanks.

  5. Excellent find, I’m so excited I want to skip dinner and head right to the Carl video….

  6. Too bad you have to install Real Player to watch it. :( I may just watch Cosmos again instead.

  7. MJ

    Don’t they (BBC 4 Radio) have this in podcast? That would be perfect.

  8. Martin Moran

    Having never heard Carl Sagan’s voice before, I was amazed at how similar Hugo Weaving seemed to make Agent Smith sound like him in the Matrix movies.

    Also I would like to say that I loved the way he beautifully explained big ideas in simple terms and yet with rare sincerity.

  9. This is excellent!

    Everyone NOW watch this (Horizon – Can We Make a Star on Earth? Originally broadcasted on February 17, 2009.

    Also Dr. Phil, I am meeting you soon enough. I am absolutely on what I said few months ago (although incomplete), but the best part is what you think about it (I know “it” sounds ridiculous and outlandish…not my fault!). ūüėÄ

  10. Horizon – “Can We Make a Star on Earth?” by Professor Brian Cox.

  11. I remember being totally enraptured by his Cosmos series. I came very close to following the path of astrophysics instead of engineering. I could totally wall of text all his amazing quotes as well, but I’ll leave that for anothe blog instead of trying to make something out of Dr. Plait’s blog.

  12. @ZorkFox — Try “Real Alternative”

  13. Carl Sagan introduced me to skepticism and critical thinking and I am ever thankful for that. Cosmos continues to be one of my favorite tv programs. I think it’s time to watch it again. :-)

  14. Speakers >Brian Cox, was written by me. I am happy now! ūüėÄ

  15. A minor niggle: Cox refers to scenes in Cosmos featuring “a computer-generated Library of Alexandria.” Of course in the late 1970s when Cosmos was produced, the scenes were done using a combination of mattes and color separation overlay or chromakey. Computer generated scenes in films and on TV were some years off.

    Even the evolution segment, showing life morphing from a single cell right up to homo sapiens, was produced using hand animation.

    A 1986 version, known as “Cosmos: Special Edition”, featured science updates and some computer animations. It was much shorter than the original.

  16. Rebisaz

    Thank you for posting the link to the radio program. I just listened to it, what a nice way to spend Easter morning.

    Jewel – “Carl Sagan introduced me to skepticism and critical thinking and I am ever thankful for that. Cosmos continues to be one of my favorite tv programs. I think it‚Äôs time to watch it again.” – this is exactly how I feel. Carl’s writings were so important to me as I learned to feel comfortable in my own lack of belief. And nothing has ever made me feel the hope that “Cosmos” made me feel.

  17. bigjohn756

    Oh, ratz, I thought it was going to be a video. All I got is a still picture and audio.

  18. bigjohn756

    But, then, I don’t always read too carefully…

  19. This was a very enjoyable listen – thanks Phil! I have fond memories of Cosmos too: I watched the original broadcast in my later school years, and was mesmerized by it…

    By the way, it’s “BBC Radio 4”, not “BBC 4 Radio”. You originally tweeted just “BBC4”, and the difference is vital to UK residents because there is a TV channel called “BBC 4”. Because of this, I thought it was on TV, and phoned my parents to tell them, but they could not find it in the listings at first. Have a care, or I shall begin referring to it as “The Home Service” ūüėÄ

  20. RussP

    I’ve just recently found that you can view the Carl Sagan presentation he did in 1977 at the Royal Institution as part of the Christmas Lectures they do every year.

    You need to go to the Royal Institute web site
    Create an account.
    Then select Webcasts from the bottom of the left hand menu.
    Then scoll through the pages until pages 29 and 30 and you should find the 5 presentations that Carl did.
    Click on each show and then click ‘Add to basket’ and then ‘Add to basket’ again. Don’t worry these are free.
    Once you have added all 5 click on ‘My RI’ at the top of the screen. You should then be able to view the 5 presentations he did.

    Happy viewing.

  21. I just fetched my DVD set of Cosmos and am now very much enjoying, once again, the first episode. :-)

  22. Arghh… RealPlayer. I don’t think RealPlayer is even *possible* on Ubuntu.

  23. MadScientist


    Yup; on one hand the BBC says it supports open source stuff blah blah blah, and on the other hand managers go for proprietary stuff. RealPlayer? Come on – it’s been dead for years!

    Having said all that, see if you can install ‘mplayer’; it claims to play RealPlayer files.

  24. Blu-Ray-Ven

    i frakin hate realplayer. installed it and i still cant play it. its the most worthless audio-visual player- rant over

    i love Carl Sagan, ive been to his home of Ithaca NY twice for the summer festivals they have, visited his grave each time, i own almost all his book, the cosmos series, even a T-shirt with him and the Cosmos galaxy in the background with the subtitle “legends never die”. though it is still so sad that he died so young. but his massive legacy lives on. he showed me the beauty of science and critical thinking

    thank you Carl,

  25. Manveet

    Is this available in any other format than Real Crappy Player?

  26. Mike

    Real Player? For real? Didn’t that die out like 8 years ago?

  27. Mike

    Thanks for the heads-up. Great listen. I will never pass up the opportunity to listen to Dr. Sagan and be reminded of who I am.

    I have to say that I think Cosmos is much bigger than just a well-done show about the universe, as it’s enduring popularity attests. I hate to use a religious metaphor but to me it is the humanists or rationalists equivalent of the Bible, the Koran, the Torah (except of course that it’s mostly true!).

    It is a monumentally humbling and enlightening work whose effect on my own perception of the world will endure throughout my lifetime, and will hopefully be passed on to my children, once they are old enough to watch it with me. I very much look forward to experiencing it with them and discussing the many wonderful and profound ideas contained therein. I am a scientist (developmental biology) so perhaps I was somewhat predisposed to the message of the show, but I can certainly believe that it has had a similar effect on other thinking people.

    I am hopeful that our era will be recognized in the future as the time when the human race finally began to recognize itself for what it actually is rather than what it imagined itself to be. We exist at a moment in history when many of life’s greatest secrets have begun to be revealed by modern science. “Cosmos” does a beautiful job of summarizing the relatively recent insights that astronomy and physics have provided. Similarly, the discovery of DNA and the recognition that all of life on Earth is fundamentally inter-related is on the same order, although I‚Äôm not aware of a ‚ÄúCosmos‚ÄĚ equivalent for the life sciences. It is a rare work to be sure.

  28. Beelzebud

    Carl Sagan inspired me as a child, with the Cosmos series. That show filled me with wonder when I looked up at the night sky. He shaped the way I view the universe.

    Years later Mr Sagan would have a profound effect on me upon reading Demon Haunted World. The year I read that book was the year I quit buying into pseudo-scientific BS and conspiracy theories. I started reading that book, believing many hair brained ideas concerning UFO’s, Area 51, and other paranormal subjects, and by the time I had finished reading it I was a reborn skeptic.

    Carl Sagan had a way with words, and he made me realize how many frankly stupid ideas I held, but he did it gently, and without making me feel like an idiot. For that he’ll always be a personal hero of mine. When I go back to school (not if), it will be in large part to Carl Sagan.

  29. Just the other day I was telling a friend that Phil Plait and Neil deGrasse Tyson are the modern equivalents of Carl Sagan. It is reassuring to know that there are people out there who continue to carry the torch into the new generation and in the new media, from the Daily Show to Twitter.

  30. Linux users can play the programme using mplayer, which seems generally competent at handling RealMedia files these days. (It’s worked “out of the box” on my new Ubuntu installation.)

    1. Open the “page source” in your web browser and find the URL of the programme itself, which is buried inside a JavaScript block. Look for something like “RadioBridge_intl_1900_bbc_radio_fourfm.ram”.

    2. Hop over to a command prompt and run mplayer with the -playlist option: mplayer -playlist http://[longish URL here].ram

    3. Don’t let anyone know I told you.

  31. ¬ęb√łnez_brigade¬Ľ

    Ugh, “Real” “Player” — the original bloated crappiness.
    There’s a remedy for “Real Audio”, and it’s called “mp3”:

  32. Mena

    If anyone wants to see Dr. Cox on tv live, he’s on The Science Channel right now (9PM central US), and they repeat the show at 12AM CDT and on Tuesday at 4AM CDT. No offense to anyone, I’m going with my own time zone. It’s called “What Time is It?”, and is about the concept of time.

  33. TaoMacGuy

    Aaaaargh! Real Player!?!?

    Real Player == Pure Evil

    I love Sagan, have read all of his books. I love Professor Cox, catch him when I can, but until the BBC decides to jettison their Real Player Required‚ĄĘ format, I’ll have to wait to hear this (I’m sure most excellent) radio show.


  34. To the ones who can’t listen to it, open this stream on Media Player Classic or VLC.

  35. John Phillips, FCD

    Thanks Phil for somehow I had missed this broadcast so your heads up is appreciated. Might be just about time for one of my regular revisits to Cosmos as well, something I never tire of.

  36. RealPlayer died about a year after Carl Sagan, if I recall. Why not have it on Victrola cylinder?

  37. ¬ęb√łnez_brigade¬Ľ

    @ TaoMacGuy, et al,
    There’s an mp3 of the interview at the link I posted above. [it’s ~52MB]

  38. madge

    @Phil, Thank you for the heads up. An hour well spent in the company of Brian (swoon)Cox AND Carl. Brilliant! :)
    @ RussP, Thank you for pointing me to the Ri website and these webcasts :)

  39. IVAN3MAN

    Man, why do some people like to make a “Yah boo sucks” sport out of knocking RealPlayer, QuickTime, WindowsMedia, PCs, Mac machines, you-name-it-someone-hates-it?

  40. ¬ęb√łnez_brigade¬Ľ

    B/C some of those things just plain suck when compared to their competitors. RealPlayer has been a slow, annoying, bloated mess since it came out, never really making much more progress with each release than to be even more bloated & annoying than the previous release. As an alternative for audio, the mp3 format is relatively lightweight (as is its most popular player, Winamp), and it has become quite universal.

  41. Thanks for the heads up on this!

    I recently finished “Billions and Billions”, reading the last chapter (which Carl wrote on his deathbed over a period of many months) in a local coffee bar. One of the staff (who was in some of my courses with me a few years ago) came over to see if I was okay….apparently, and without realizing it, my eyes were welling up with tears.

    I tend to get really emotional whenever I read, listen to, or watch Carl in action….to call him a science popularizer is doing him a grave injustice….He was able to not just teach and popularize science, but truly inspire not just science and curiosity, but life itself.

    Dammit…I’m getting emotional again! It’s so weird that I can’t turn this off when Sagan is the point of discussion!

  42. Umair Rahat

    @Some Canadian Skeptic:
    Same here, I am very sad I never met Carl Sagan.

  43. patrick

    Best of all, Sagan was proof that cannabis doesn’t turn everybody into a drooling hippie. Well, maybe not “best of all”, but it makes me proud.

    Anyone who wants a realistic look at our world should read “A Demon Haunted World”. He explains the roots of our superstitions and how they are all basically the same old fears with imaginative new twists.

    I can only imagine where we’d be if Carl Sagan was still around and Stephen Hawking was fully able.

    But, at least we have guys like Phil Plait who appreciate his work and continue in his footsteps.


  44. Skeptikor

    I have his quote from Pale Blue Dot on my office wall, along with that famous picture of the earth as a tiny pixel taken from the edge of the solar system. Carl had the ability to draw us back from a too-narrow vision and show us how to see ourselves and our world from a distance. If we are going to endure, we must change and the change we need begins with the altered perspective on reality this gentle man so brilliantly articulated.

    Getting all misty…must go download Hubble photos. Sniff.

  45. Mena

    IVAN3MAN, I was wondering something similar during that “how to draw a circle” post. What is it about the human brain that makes some people so emotionally invested in such trivial details about other people, most of whom they don’t even know, do? A lot of the time it’s religion or what gender the partners of other people are, which is dumb but still kind of a cultural thing, but who really cares what operating system other people use, which software, etc., other than the people who make actual money from selling the stuff. The posts about Mac/Linux/MS or GIMP/Photoshop were kind of snooty, they reminded me of when you see two geezers trying to one up each other about which obscure musician they saw live. Kind of funny, but kind of sad too. Brains sure are weird, aren’t they?

  46. Skeptikor: “I have his quote from Pale Blue Dot on my office wall, along with that famous picture of the earth as a tiny pixel taken from the edge of the solar system.”

    So do I. When I’m having a rough day, I look at that picture and read that quote and it kind of puts things in perspective. And when I’m not having a rough day, I look at that picture and I read that quote and smile. It’s a favorite :-)

  47. Great post and great comments. I just finished watching episode III of Cosmos with my kids.

  48. fred edison

    The great Carl Sagan was both a scientist and a teacher of the wonders and mysteries of our world and universe. He helped spark the interests of untold numbers of young people into careers in science. He made science fascinating to the public. He made science easy to appreciate and find value in. That’s the real uniqueness of someone like Sagan. His passion for science and what it has done to improve our lives and increase our knowledge about our world and universe, lives on today in all of those young people who have grown older and are now sharing their own passion and knowledge. They are offering their deep appreciation for science to others as a reasoned, guiding light in the dark room of ignorance and fear, just as Carl did. He dedicated his novel ‘Contact’ to his daughter in 1985. The dedication read, “For Alexandra, who comes of age with the Millennium. May we leave your generation a world better than the one we were given.” We are better for having had him with us in the too short time he was here. Carl, I miss your insight and wisdom.

  49. Michael

    What I don’t understand here is the culture of skepticism as a movement. Clear, objective thinking does not obligate one to being skeptical, any more than it obligates one to ascribe to dogmas.

    Skepticism is not a value, clear thinking is. Conclusions should flow from logical deduction, based on sound premises.

    It is also important to have the humility to understand what one doesn’t know, and to understand that even scientists can have their dogmas.

  50. Tom

    David, Thank you for uploading this!! I was so hoping someone would make it available!


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