Secrets of the Universe – Beyond Human Imagination
New version of classic television series rekindles interest in science and environment.
Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson
A new season of the famous ‘Cosmos’ television series conceived by pioneering science communicator Carl Sagan started broadcasting in India from March 2020 and finished in June 2020, giving rise to nostalgia among those who grew up admiring the show. Entitled, ‘Cosmos : Possible Worlds’, the series succeeded earlier seasons, ‘Cosmos : A Personal Voyage,’ aired in 1980 (in USA) and 1986 (in India); and ‘Cosmos : A Spacetime Odyssey’ broadcast in 2014 and was presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
As scientists across the world still struggle to find a cure or a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife and producer of all the Cosmos series broadcast from 1980 to 2020, says the series comes from a place of hope – not wishful thinking – “but optimism that science and technology will be used with wisdom and foresight”.
“I wanted to remind the world of the achievements made possible by the scientific method. When we turn away from science, we are turning away from reality,” states Ann Druyan. “I think ‘Cosmos: Possible Worlds’ is the season that was inspired by the greatest sense of urgency. It seemed to me that the only future we imagine in popular culture is the ruined nightmare world of dystopia. I wanted to create a dream of the future that was shaped by the wise and humane use of science and high technology. I imagined a civilization capable of taking what the scientists are telling us — both their dire warnings and their stunning revelations about the universe — to heart, so that they have operational consequences. So that we are changed by them. And so in this newest season of Cosmos we are taking a global audience into the future — the near future of the 2039 New York World’s Fair, but also the very distant future of that time when the fleeting grace of the habitable zone moves on from Earth and we have to chart a course for new worlds.”
For many who grew up with it, Cosmos is representative of vintage science popularization on television. “Carl Sagan was the first true superstar of science outreach and still remains at the top,” says Somak Raychaudhury, director of IUCAA (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics) in Pune. “I saw the show again and again on British TV, possessed VHS/DVDs of it and heard Sagan’s lectures live. I was one of those fans who followed him around like fans of rock stars.”
Cosmos Possible Worlds
Prasadranjan Ray, a former bureaucrat in the West Bengal state government who attended Carl Sagan’s lectures as a student in Cornell University in 1981, agrees. “I can only paraphrase Cornell University President Frank Rhodes, who told me that Sagan made no earthshaking discovery at Cornell, yet he will be remembered more than most of our Nobel Laureates (59 at the latest count) because he was an extraordinary science communicator.”
Ray recalls how he met Carl Sagan in 1981. “I ventured to his class on a Friday evening to find that Carl Sagan himself was delivering an impromptu talk to a group of about 40 students and a couple of outsiders. There was no problem in joining them and I found the talk was easy to follow. What really impressed me was his capability to communicate and his bubbling energy. He certainly looked much younger than his age and he was jumping about, bubbling with energy… Carl was then the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences, director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell and co-founder of the Planetary Society.”
Cosmos Possible Worlds
Sagan’s work has influenced the career choices of a lot of youngsters in the 1980s. “Whether he affected scientific thinking I cannot say, but he did bring a lot of the top scientists of my generation into science just by getting them interested,” Somak Raychaudhury says. “It helped that the parents of these youngsters also watched the series or read his books. This enabled us to take up scientific careers without actively defying our parents.”
While the broadcast time in India came in the way of optimum viewership this season (National Geographic, Tuesdays 7 am and Wednesdays 12 am during the first run), the series had a significant Indian element that Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wanted to capture ever since the first episodes were written four decades back.
“Carl and I wanted to tell the story of emperor Ashoka’s stunning transformation from a sadistic murderer to a shining light of humanism,” Ann Druyan says. Their son Sam Sagan suggested that the emperor’s saga be included in this new series to explain the morality behind his transition from ruthless killer to compassionate nurturer.
The 1980 Cosmos series also had a strong Indian element. “The Indian settings worked very well in the various episodes, and it was also a time when a lot of the world was getting interested in India,” Somak Raychaudhury recalls. The portrayal of the Tamil festival Pongal, the discussion on time in the Hindu religions and gorgeous shots of south Indian temples were part of the original Cosmos broadcast in 1980.
“The segment on Nataraja appealed to people who had read Fritjof Capra’s book, ‘The Tao Of Physics’ and must have contributed to India donating the Nataraja statue to CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) later,” Raychaudhury states. “Alluding to Hindu cosmology contextualised the discussion on the Big Bang, and may have stoked the interest of Indian astrophysicist and science populariser Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, who presented the India broadcast in 1986 and became a proponent of infinite-time cosmologies such as the steady state.”
‘Cosmos : A Personal Voyage’ in 1980 also discussed the science versus religion debate. “Much has changed in astronomy since Cosmos started. In 1980, the known age of the universe was between 8-16 billion years but now it is estimated to be 13.7 plus/minus 0.2 years old. Planets around other stars have been discovered. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is no longer the only way we hope to find extraterrestrial life. We now know dark matter makes up most of the matter and the universe is mostly made of dark energy, something that was discovered after Carl Sagan passed away.”
Astronomy is such a fast moving field that there are many stories to tell. Somak Raychaudhury expresses the hope that the new season of Cosmos in 2020 has been able to recreate Carl Sagan’s magic heady mix of history, fable, aesthetics and science.
‘Cosmos : Possible Worlds’ features a number of unsung heroes of science – including Nikolai Vavilov, a botanist who dared to stand up to the infamous Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and Karl Ritter von Frisch(Nobel Prize with Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen in Physiology and Medicine in 1973), a scientist who made first contact with bees that use symbolic language to communicate, like humans.
“We need Carl Sagans in India to excite young minds into living scientifically, ask questions and not just study science for the sake of obtaining jobs. Science is a way of life which is constantly evolving as we are constantly understanding mother nature better, “says Abhishek Dey, Professor, Chemical Science, Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata.
Apart from stressing the importance of science in our everyday lives, ‘Cosmos : Possible Worlds’ is also a very strong statement on the state of the world’s environment. The series repeatedly highlights the dangers of climate change and calls for responsible and compassionate treatment of all species, plant and animal. The most telling example is the usage of Carl Sagan’s quote on animals stated by Neil deGrasse Tyson : “Humans – who enslave, castrate, experiment on and fillet other animals – have had an understandable penchant for pretending other animals do not feel pain … it is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behaviour of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.”
Chimpanzee in Alipore Zoo, Kolkata. Carl Sagan called for compassionate treatment of great apes
Image credit: Shubhobroto Ghosh
All images (except chimpanzee) credit goes to National Geographic.