I didn’t grow up as one of those kids captivated by outer space, but probably only because I hadn’t yet seen Cosmos. Subtitled A Personal Voyage, the thirteen-part program, first broadcast on PBS in 1980 and still their most widely-watched series, introduced viewers of all ages to Carl Sagan, the astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist who came to define the modern “science communicator.” (One of Sagan’s successors in this role, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, now hosts the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.) Ask around, and you’ll find that many of the youngsters to whom he communicated with Cosmos‘ first few runs went on to become scientists themselves — and not just astronomers, astrophysicists, or cosmologists, either. You may remember Sagan’s elegant animated explanation of evolution we featured last week; that comes straight from Cosmos, which owes its popularity in large part to its concern with not just the worlds beyond ours but with biology, technology, history, philosophy, and every other subject that matters when we consider mankind’s place in the universe.
The most astute assessment I’ve read of Cosmos’ appeal comes from writer Adam Cadre, who grew up a fan of both the series and its (also extremely popular) companion book. He distills his own overarching lessons drawn from Sagan’s project, which include “All fields of inquiry are interconnected,” “It’s fun to be smart,” and “Truth is more wondrous than fiction.” It teaches not just particular facts about outer space, but the elements of an entire worldview, one that values knowledge, discovery, reality, and humanity. “Cosmos is a popularization,” Cadre writes. “It didn’t make me a scientist. But it did make me something Sagan might consider an even more desirable feather in his cap: a member of the general public on the side of science.” If you’d like to see what the series makes you, you can watch it in its entirety free on Youtube or purchase your own personal copies on DVD. And just above, we have Bill Nye, one of today’s best-known science communicators, speaking about the time he took astronomy under Sagan, how the lectures felt like a real-life Cosmos, and how he came to carry on Sagan’s legacy. For the youngest science-inclined kids in your life, see also Sagan’s six 1970s lectures on Earth, Mars, and our solar system.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.