When it comes to presenting space exploration and science to the general public, there is one program that continues to stand out, setting the standard for how it should be done: Cosmos, hosted by the late Carl Sagan, in 1980 (who passed away in 1996). Both visually captivating and filled with scientific facts, the 13-part series took viewers on a journey through the universe, while explaining our place in it in a way that was easy to understand by non-scientists. Now, in 2014, the landmark series has been reborn for a new generation.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, aired its first episode on Sunday, March 9. While the original Cosmos was a PBS production, the new version is airing on 10 channels, including FOX and National Geographic Channel. While questioned by some, this is a reflection of the differences in our contemporary, highly-connected and internet-savvy media world as compared to back in the 1980s. Yes, there is even a Cosmos app available for both iOS and Android devices. Hosted by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the rebooted version of Cosmos brings viewers up to date on the latest discoveries in space exploration since the original series, while also keeping favourite elements of the original, such as the “spaceship of the imagination” and the “cosmic calendar.”
So how did the first episode fare? In a word, brilliant. The visual graphics, updated for our time, were stunning, as expected. It really makes one wish that the “spaceship of the imagination” was real; to be able to actually visit such distant places so quickly would be exhilarating. One surprise perhaps was the use of animations for character portrayal, such as 16th century monk Giordano Bruno, instead of actors as in the original series, but it worked. Bruno’s visions of an unending universe filled with countless worlds helped set the stage for later actual discoveries, and also illustrated how such views were mocked and even hated by the religious dogma of the time. This also applies to our time, with a continuing divide between scientific observation and religious faith.
Even in just this first episode, a lot of science was touched on, even if briefly due to time constraints. The “cosmic calendar” beautifully displays the history of the universe as we know it so far, condensed into the space of one calendar year. The fact that everything we have ever done and learned as a species can be allocated the last few minutes and seconds of that calendar is mind-bending. The universe itself is so much older than us that it is almost beyond comprehension. We are indeed a tiny speck, both physically and in time, yet a wondrous product of nature as well. Insignificant yet beautiful at the same time. And then there’s the possibility of an infinite number of universes…
The new information we now have about “rogue planets,” those without any host star, was a nice addition also. The idea of untold numbers of planets just floating freely throughout the universe is a novel and fascinating one. Could any of them be habitable? Plus of course, there are the thousands of exoplanets we now know of so far that do orbit other stars, presenting a humbling new perspective on our very existence.
As a thoughtful tribute, the episode opened and closed with the spoken words of Carl Sagan himself. There could not be a more fitting way to premiere the new Cosmos, by paying homage to the first Cosmos. As Tyson noted, it was a way of “passing the torch.”
Tyson also mentioned how “we are ALL descended from astronomers.” Our ancestors used astronomy, as they knew it, for their everyday lives, including chronicling the change of seasons every year. This was a nice tie-in to that other famous quote from Sagan, that “we are made of star stuff.” Indeed, our very origins can be traced back to the cosmos itself.
The new Cosmos continues on the path of the old one, to share scientific knowledge with the general public in a way that is entertaining and informative, something that is much needed in our often pop-culture oriented society. The next twelve episodes promise to continue to do just that, and just as well as the first one. It is also a much-needed breath of fresh air in a media world where pseudoscience seems to dominate all too often.
The original Cosmos is a masterpiece that can never be truly duplicated, but the new Cosmos is very much a wonderful testament to it and designed specifically for contemporary audiences. Highly recommended for both knowledgeable space fans and those new to astronomy or space science alike.
More information about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is available on the official website.
This article was first published on SpaceFlight Insider.