In 1980, Carl Sagan opened his series Cosmos with these words, capturing both the immensity and intimacy of the universe. Now, thirty four years later, Neil DeGrasse Tyson stands on the same seaside promontory Sagan used to open his program to introduce Cosmos to a new generation.
The Ship of the Imagination
For his series, Sagan created the Ship of the Imagination, a dandelion seed-like snowflake of light and perception which could travel the cosmos unfettered by the limitations of space and time. Tyson's newly christened Ship of the Imagination is a slick, environment mapped craft reminiscent of Boba Fett's which travels not only through the billions of light years of our visible universe, but also across the decades of advancement in telescopy, filmmaking and visual effects. His Cosmos appears more polished, more richly detailed, but also more familiar to the generation raised on images from the Hubble.
And where Sagan began his voyage out in deep space and slowly made his way toward the inner solar system, Tyson begins his journey here, on Earth, and uses the Ship to establish our cosmic address: Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, The Universe.
Your God is Too Small
Sagan and Tyson both follow the Ship of the Imagination with stories of men who helped bring scientific thought to the world. These stories establish the importance of science to humanity and represent the greatest contrast between today's Cosmos and the Cosmos of yesteryear.
Sagan choose for his subject the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes, who correctly calculated the curvature of the Earth by comparing noonday shadow measurements taken at different latitudes and follows with a paen for the lost Library of Alexandria. Tyson's subject, told in animation, is the story of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth century monk who challenged church teaching on the centrality of the Earth and the infinite nature of the universe.
Sagan, worried about the nuclear arms race and the potential for humanity to destroy ourselves, warned us of the fragility of knowledge and what we can all lose if we're too careless with fire. Tyson, on the other hand, warns us of the danger of living in a world where questioning official stories becomes heresy, where curiosity becomes thought crime and where exploration of the universe becomes a trespass into the dominion of authority.
In Tyson's Cosmos, Bruno speaks to his fellow believers and tells them that if they cannot accept a universe where the stars are truly suns, where Earth is but one of many planets and where the scope of creation extends into infinity because these ideas violate their sense of God, then it is their sense of God that is too small.
But there is a danger is making a God that is too big as well. A theory of anything is a theory of nothing, and there is just as much harmful dogma in giving equal time to geocentrists and flat Earthers as there is in forbidding ideas that contradict a holy book. "We will speculate," said Sagan in his introduction, "but we will always remember that there is a difference between speculation and fact." At a time when our leaders openly characterize science as "just another worldview" and suggest that it's simply not fair that myths and hunches should not be given an equal place at the table as theories and data, this restatement of the purpose of science is more than a little bit welcome.
The Cosmic Calendar
The final element in both Sagan's and Tyson's first episode is the Cosmic Calendar, which presents the entire history of the cosmos compressed into a single year. Having placed our home world in its spatial context and our epoch in historical context, the Cosmic Calendar places our entire existence in its temporal context: if the universe was one year old, civilization would be less than ten seconds old. Everything we've ever heard of, every battle, every king, every empire, every invention, every tragedy and every triumph exists in those scant few final seconds of the Cosmic Year.
Sagan ends his premiere episode with a slightly metaphor-breaking question about how our civilization will face the first seconds of the next cosmic year and whether we will have the wisdom to avoid destroying ourselves and prove ourselves worthy inheritors of the vast cosmos we inhabit.
Tyson answers this question by bringing the story back to Carl Sagan himself, recalling the contributions he made not only to cosmology and planetary science, but also to Tyson's own life as well as our own. On a different, more humble calendar, Tyson shows us a meeting Carl Sagan had scheduled on December 20th 1975 with a 17 year old kid from the Bronx named...Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
In her introduction to the 2005 re-issue of the original series, Ann Druyan described Cosmos as "both a history of the scientific enterprise and an attempt to convey the soaring spiritual high of its central revelation: our oneness with the universe."
In tying Sagan's personal voyage back to his own, Tyson not only elevates Sagan to the pantheon of scientific visionaries like Bruno, Eratosthenes, Kepler, Galileo and the others who struggled to light a candle and banish the darkness of the demon haunted world, but he reminds us that the value of science must be told and retold to each subsequent generation.
Whether we're confronting the scientific "hostage situation" created by Cold War hegemony or filtering the deluge of dubious information that the current generation absorbs on a daily basis, science is the corrective lens that helps us see more clearly that our faults lie, as ever, not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Cosmos airs each Sunday night at 9:00 on Fox TV.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative developer who is made of star stuff.