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One of the tricky things about science is that it’s always changing.
Especially when what you’re trying to do with the science is put it on TV. Programs only a couple years old can be rendered out of date and practically useless by new discoveries, and the former, inaccurate way of understanding becomes of interest only to cultural historians. When we talk about the Earth being flat today, it’s often as a metaphor for a closed-minded adherance to old ideas (see also: people who believe the earth is like 150 years old, or whatever the new Earth theory du jour might be).
The thirteen episodes of the original 1980 PBS series “Cosmos” is easily some of the best science television ever brought to the small screen, and not least because Carl Sagan was such a brilliant presenter, that magical and rare brand of teacher whose enthusiasm and wonder infects everyone he reaches. It was also a comprehensive and accessible approach to a field of science most people would never have bothered to try to understand, and as such it stands as a powerful turning point in popular culture.
Still, only six years later, enough of its material had changed to warrant a special edition employing not only new narration and information, but new computer animations.
Such is the ephemeral nature of science television. And not all of these changes are a result of massive cultural shifts, such as the change from the early belief that the Earth centered the universe to today’s far more complicated perspective.
Keep in mind that the very first Earth-like planet orbiting within a star’s habitable zone was only discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2011. While scientists like Sagan had certainly hypothesized the existence of other Earth-like planets somewhere out there -- after all, it seems unlikely that ours would be that much of a fluke -- we had no evidence that any existed until three years ago, which means all of the current material on life elsewhere in the universe written prior to that time would be missing a pretty remarkable piece of information. (As of today, the Kepler mission has detected 961 confirmed exoplanets since it began operations in 2009. 961!)
Still, Cosmos has held up in spite of being out of date, because of its thoughtful, congenial, and often philosophical approach to popular science education. It even got a boost in 2009 when music project Symphony of Science made an autotuned music video on YouTube called “A Glorious Dawn” featuring Cosmos clips, which introduced the series to a generation that might never have heard of it otherwise.
When the original Cosmos first appeared on Netflix, I was ecstatic to have a chance to revisit it, but as much as I loved doing so, I wished for a new, up-to-date version that included all the new cosmological science of the past thirty years, even if it had to do so without Sagan himself, who died in 1996.
And then, in 2011, I got my wish: it was announced that a Cosmos sequel WAS in the works, put together by original co-creators Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, the ultimate Cool Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and…. Seth McFarlane. Yeah. I’ll admit this last threw me, but apparently it’s largely due to McFarlane’s influence that this new series has happened at all, and even better, that it has happened on a major network -- Fox -- rather than being relegated to Discovery Science with the rest of the television brainy crap, way up in the dusty attic of the cable channel guide where only nerds like me will go to find it.
The new Cosmos is important for a few reasons -- it has the potential to revitalize a popular interest in science, as the original did, at a time when science funding is not particularly central on most people’s radar when it comes to stuff they give a crap about (not to mention a time in which science seems to be going backward in some quarters, owing to the influence of certain religious groups threatened by the idea of an observable universe that does not include a large man in the sky directing all things).
Also, it’s simply beautiful. both to look at, and to listen to. While Carl Sagan can never be replaced, Neil deGrasse Tyson is an equally gifted traveling companion on this imaginary trip through space and time, and is just as compelling and passionate about these subjects as Sagan was, but in his own way. (I won’t lie, when NGT told the story about meeting Sagan as a seventeen-year-old aspiring scientist, I WEPT A BIT. I actually cried a few times throughout, because I am emotional space weirdo.)
Expectations for this series were extraordinarily high, at least in the nerdy circles in which I tend to run, but to my surprise I felt like last night’s premiere actually did recapture the grandeur and wonder of the original, a feat I would have thought impossible. The use of animation for the historical segments was also a nice touch, and the dramatic approach made what could have been very dry historical information much more broadly appealing.
Like its predecessor, the new Cosmos will comprise a total of thirteen episodes, and I'm so psyched about it that I plan on watching shows week-to-week, rather than letting the series pile up on my DVR and wasting a weekend gorging on it, as is my wont. (In fact, I was trying to remember the last time I was this excited about a network TV show, and I'm pretty sure it was Muppets Tonight, in 1996. I hope Cosmos works out better.)
But what did you think? Was the new Cosmos everything you hoped? DID YOU CRY TOO? Let’s blow it up together in comments.
Cosmos airs at 9pm on Sundays on FOX, with encore showings Mondays at 10pm on the National Geographic Channel.