Cosmos: From Grade School to Itunes

By Carl Zimmer | August 22, 2008 10:58 am

cosmos itunesI just found that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the 1980 TV series on life and the universe, is now on Itunes. You can get it here, at $1.99 an episode.

I’ve downloaded the first two episodes, which I don’t think I’ve seen since they first aired 28 years ago. I remember watching every episode intently as a 14-year old at the end of the Carter administration. The passage of time has revealed some hokiness around the edges.  The music, much of it by Vangelis, sometimes makes me think I’ve walked into a crystal shop. Sagan is fitted in corduroy blazers and what seems to be the precursor of the Members Only jacket. Some of the images still look good–like Sagan’s calendar of the cosmos–but there are also painfully long pans across a cardboard diorama of ancient amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. We are so spoiled today by Jurassic Park.

For some reason, what struck me as hokiest about Cosmos was the spaceship Sagan uses to coast around space to show off galaxies and pulsars. It is meant as a deeply profound experience–a voyage of the imagination across billions of light years (say it slowly, in proper Sagan style). But Sagan sits in a plastic bucket chair that survives today only in aging bus stations and flea markets.

The picture of science Sagan presents is also a bit too simple for my taste now (at least in the first two episodes I’ve watched again). He offers a black-and-white picture of science versus the forces of superstition, war, and other bad things. Greeks love knowledge, Dark Ages fall, Kepler rises! Only science will save us from the evils of nuclear war! Of course, Kepler’s discoveries were motivated by his mystical reading of the Bible. And, of course, science and war (hot or cold) have been intimately intertwined for the past century. The people who sacked the library of Alexandria did not build the atomic bomb. The generation of physicists who taught Sagan did.

But as I was tallying up the shortcomings of the show, something funny happened. My daughters, 7 and 4, are pretty well-trained now to stay out of the office. But as I was watching Cosmos on my computer, they snuck in and ended up sitting on my lap, captivated by the stately unwinding of DNA and the majestic trip through the cell. I could see they were starting to understand things that I’ve been trying to explain without much luck. In an age of hyper-fast editing cuts and soundtracks always turned to eleven, Cosmos can still mesmerize a child and give her an introduction to the natural world. Sagan’s accounts are sometimes a bit dated now, but nobody has done a better job of conveying a sense of the scale of nature, from that calendar to that bus-station spaceship to the dive into the cell–and it’s thanks largely to Sagan’s exceptional ability to talk about science in clear, even poetic terms. It is, I’m realizing, a show that shaped the way I look at the world, even now that I’m getting close to Sagan’s age when he filmed it. And for that, I can forgive any fashion faux pas.


Comments (12)

  1. I’m with you on the datedness of the fashion and the cardboard, unfeathered dinosaurs. The “spaceship of the imagination” is only truly effective in a few places, such as a dream sequence in a later episode which foreshadows the opening scene of Contact. The later episodes, too, develop more nuances on top of the ideas presented early on (which, I guess, only makes sense, as good nuances take time to develop). I had not actually seen the TV series of Cosmos until a couple years ago, although I’d read the book when I was much smaller, so what surprised me most was how much of the material was still valid and useful. “Headline science” can fade, can be reevaluated or driven into obsolescence by newer discoveries, but grand principles endure. Whatever the mass of the Higgs boson, we will still be kin to bacteria and made of starstuff.

  2. DrGaryG

    The first episode is still fascinating to me. I like to show it to my honors section of freshman psychology to give them a sense of the enormity of the universe and our place in it. It still causes my students to raise many interesting questions about just who we are.

  3. Jesse

    Saying that the scientists who built the atomic bomb are intertwined with war is a bit naive. Did the scientists make the decision to use it? Scientific research leads in many directions, whether its nuclear fission, computer technology, or something has harmless as a new species of trilobite. The destructive moral and political decisions are almost never made by scientists. In this situation I think Sagans viewpoints (even today) are right on the money.

  4. Jesse: With all due respect, who paid for that research, and why?

  5. Jesse

    Ok, I will concede that in the case of the Manhattan project the scientists are morally responsible. But think of all the research that had to go on prior to atomic weapons regarding quantum mechanics, that made the weapons possible. This research was not done with the intent of building atomic weapons. Atomic weapons were an implication that resulted from where scientific research led them. I think in general, you can’t hold scientists responsible for the implications of their research (unless they are clearly doing something morally wrong for money). I don’t think Sagan’s viewpoint is that out of date, obviously scientists today are under constant attack by the “forces of evil” regarding evolution, global warming etc.

  6. Nemo

    It shaped who I am, too.

    I just wanted to point out that, in addition to iTunes, it’s run on The Science Channel in the last year (several times, and they may run it again — they have a version with some updated graphics), and has been available on DVD for several years.

  7. JohnK

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll take a look.

    Last summer I spent some time looking at the old Bell Science TV series from the late 50s and early 60s. My memory of them was that they were very good, especially “hemo the magnificent”. These very-self-consciously merged hollywood style graphics and animations with science content.

    I found a few on utube. They were very good, especially the one on sensory systems. What is most interesting is the way animations are used then vs now. They used artists to create very cute cartoons. Currently, science is dominated by fancy computer graphics. I’m sure which I prefer. Also, the old shows taught a lot more science (bits/segment-between-commercials) than current science tv, but still were entertaining.

  8. Hi Carl,

    I just watched COSMOS for the first time a few years ago and I am 26. I live in Glasgow, Scotland so it may not have been shown here in the past but thanks to the internet I have seen it a couple of times over now. The special effects are dated and Sagan does portray an overly romantic view of science, perhaps the way we all wish it was. However this did not stop me enjoying every single episode of it and I actually like the COSMOS introduction music from vangelis.

    I would love an up to date version of it but still with Sagan’s narration. Perhaps if I get my flux capacitor working I will go back and get him 😀



  9. John

    Hi Carl,

    I also got completely caught up in the original TV series in the 80s and the Vangelis soundtrack is ideal for the subject matter.

    Although the special effects and props might have aged the science hasn’t and it’s remarkable how few major discoveries in cosmology there have been since Sagan’s time. Imagine a similar TV show done in 1970 – no quarks or gluons or superstrings, black hole singularities but no radiation.

    Cosmos is dated in style but not in content, something from my childhood that will actually impress my kids!



  10. There was an updated version of “Cosmos” released on DVD in 2000, which had “Updates” at the end of most of the episodes. I take it the updates aren’t on the iTunes versions?

  11. Karl Byrne

    HI Carl,

    I’m a huge fan of Carl Sagan and of Cosmos. I remember reading the Cosmos book (well, looking at the pictures) when I was 5 and it’s remained a firm favourite ever since. I only got the chance to see the TV series for the first time a few years ago. I agree with the comments that the visuals are dated, however I recorded the audio and now listen to the series literally every few months.

    I think Sagan achieved something remarkable with Cosmos- it instills a sense of wonder about the universe, asks some very big questions, deals with some pretty complicated scientific theories in an understandable but never patronising way, and makes you (well, me at least) be exceedingly grateful to exist in a place and time where science exists.

    Much of what is said and how Sagan says it still rings true after all this time. There are bits which are now out of date, but a lot of what is in the series is still relevant today. I work as a science communicator in Glasgow and have “borrowed” ideas from Cosmos and other Sagan works when communicating science. It’s come in especially handy when doing planetarium shows (although some of my co workers draw the line at me playing Vangelis while I’m talking!)


    Karl (talking to Carl about Carl. That doesn’t happen often!)


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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