Cosmos: A Personal Journey

Carl Sagan (1934-96) was an engaging orator, educator, and populariser of science. The intro by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, a co-writer on this excellent US television documentary series, makes plain the great man’s unique appeal, noting how he was able to influence many lives.

Comprising 13 episodes on five discs, this DVD boxset presents journeys across the ‘cosmic ocean’ in a ‘spaceship of the imagination’, and it’s the satisfying combination of Sagan’s lectures, prosaic not jargonistic or riddled with buzzwords yet often poetic and lyrical, and engaging recreations of various historical epochs – during which many important discoveries were made – that ensures this landmark factual remains consistently entertaining and informative.

What’s particularly striking is the methodical, yet skilled, presentation of scientific concepts and details, making even densely compacted esoteric information of every instructive essay accessible to intelligent laypersons.

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Sagan was an extraordinarily gifted explainer of difficult ideas, accounting for a vast range of scientific lessons or general knowledge for broadcast TV, just as Isaac Asimov’s many non-fiction books did in the printed medium.

This strongly visual programme was made long before the advent of CGI, but there is much to admire here in the clever use of innovative video effects and imaginative lighting design. Sagan guides us through a virtual tour of the lost Alexandria library and laments the catastrophic folly that caused its appalling destruction.

One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue discusses evolution and natural section as fact, and considers the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. How this might now be received in the America of today (where serial killers get more respect than atheists) is perhaps one of the great, possibly imponderable, questions of our time.

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

The lively third episode centres on an insightful dramatised biopic of 15th century German theology student turned mathematician, Johannes Kepler, who formulated laws of planetary motion despite the era’s general but notable lack any distinctions between astronomy and astrology.

Episode four considers the hellish case of Venus, warns about the climate changes on Earth with global warming if pollution remains unchecked, and delivers yet another reiteration of the necessary open-mindedness of science while demanding evidence to support any farfetched theories.

Simplicity is often the key to revealing complexities. A line-animation compresses 40 billion years of evolution into a 40-second montage. The history of the universe is condensed in scale to a single year on the ‘cosmic calendar’, to demonstrate how short – in comparative duration – is the existence of multi-species life, particularly with reference to the last day, eleventh hour, appearance of humankind on Earth.

“Everything is not part of some greater plan,
nor is all necessarily under control”

Travellers’ Tales links the space probes and planetary landings of the Voyager and Viking missions with the 17th century’s Dutch enlightenment where distinguished polymath Christiaan Huygens first devised the basics of theoretical physics. While an edgily melancholic tone characterises a couple of later episodes, describing how Pythagoras and Plato both sought to derail experimental enquiry despite Sagan’s recognition of a stirring cosmopolitan society nurtured by the ancient Greeks.

The brilliantly subtle and hauntingly memorable score by Vangelis ably supports a variety of scenes portraying early pioneers of science, or sci-fi sequences aboard the Sagan starship, where space views are reflected in the presenter’s upturned face, so rapt in wonder, contemplating cloudy stellar vistas, the Jovian system of moons, or Saturn’s magnificent rings, as he embodies the purity and innocence of speculative ‘sensawunda’.

Effectively, a broad swipe at presenting a generous compact of the sum of all vital human knowledge this remains such an astonishing achievement because it’s hard to imagine anything like it being produced today. Indeed, here’s the big story of life, the universe, and everything, made with the accent firmly upon easy accessibility, but without any loss of depth.

Buoyed by Sagan’s profoundly moving enthusiasms for science and exquisite succinctness of expression, Cosmos is a hurtling express train-of-thought, one that daringly lumps together supreme thinkers Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein, as prominent figureheads of humanity’s “great soaring passionate intelligence.”

The DVD extras assemble tenth anniversary science updates, filmed by Sagan back in 1991, which fill in some gaps, while pointing out many advances in certain fields, especially astronomy.