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If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is an educational television series written and narrated by astronomer and writer Carl Sagan in 1980, and was also published in book form. It is best known for its presentation of a wide variety of scientific topics -- astronomy, physics, biology, evolution, environmentalism, nuclear power, and more -- in Layman's Terms, making both the wonder and the terminology accessible to the public. It also had cutting edge special effects for the time it was produced.
The series has been credited with inspiring an entire generation of scientists and formed a template for nearly every mainstream science program that followed. It was re-released as a DVD collection with commentary by Sagan, mainly to discuss where Science Marches On. Even today, it remains remarkably relevant; although some of the facts are dated, the majority of the principles and theories discussed by the show remain intact.
The full series is available on Hulu.
Currently, a remake/update is in the works with Neil Degrasse Tyson as host, Sagan's widow as a producer, and... Seth MacFarlane as executive producer.
This series contains examples of the following tropes:
- After the End: In his treatment of nuclear war.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: Sagan says "billions" with a strong "B" many times on this show, but he never utters the phrase "Billions and billions." That came from an affectionate parody of Sagan done by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Word of God has it that he found it annoying at first but got over it. And he whole reason he said billions with a strong B was to emphasize that it wasn't millions but three whole orders of magnitude greater. He reportedly did say the phrase years later, mostly just to be able to say he actually said it. Something like "Billions and Billions, there, I said it."
- Beyond the Impossible: Sagan was fond of pointing out just how majestic and grandiose the natural world is compared to the ability of our imaginations to understand it. In one part, he describes big numbers and then points out how far from infinity and eternity they are.
- Book Ends: Both the first and last episodes feature discussions on the Great Library of Alexandria and of its last librarian Hypatia. The mood of the latter's discussion of it, though, is far more somber.
- But What About the Astronauts?:
- In the "nuclear winter nightmare" segment, Sagan flies back to Earth after being away exploring space only to find radio silence because everyone is dead.
- Sagan comes to this conclusion when discussing relativistic travel.
Sagan: In fact, if we slowly increase our speed to the speed of light, we can tranverse our entire galaxy in 56 years. But we'd come back to find the earth burnt to a cinder and the sun long dead.
- Cool Starship: Sagan's "spaceship of the imagination", used as a Framing Device for his explorations.
- Constantly Curious: Possibly the reason this show became so popular was its ability to be understood by children.
- The Deadliest Mushroom: Discussed in the episode about nuclear war.
- Defictionalization: The Mars rovers which Sagan spoke of in Episode 5, "Blues for a Red Planet" were defictionalized 23 years later with the highly successful Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the soon-to-be-launched Curiosity rover. Also, the spacecraft Cassini did eventually reach Saturn and is exploring the system to this day, and its Huygens lander did successfully reach and photograph the surface of Titan, as Sagan had hoped.
- Fantastic Voyage Plot: Used as a Framing Device in the episode about biology to explore the cell in general and its nucleus in particular.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: The possibility of this is discussed during the episode about relativity. Sagan's Framing Device spaceship is described to be completely unrestricted by the laws of physics so he can fully explore the universe.
- Fling a Light Into the Future: Sagan discusses the possibility of Earth's radio broadcasts reaching other civilizations. (Also a case of Aliens Steal Cable.)
- Flower Motifs: Dandelion seeds.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: In an earlier version of the "Blues for a Red Planet" episode, there was an afterword exploring the possibility of the U. S. and the Soviet Union teaming up to explore and colonize Mars, it ended with a shot the U. S. and Soviet flags in front of a martian landscape.
- Ghost Planet: Sagan theorizes about Mars in this manner before settling into the reality.
- Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: The combined explosive yield of all bombs dropped during World War II was about 1 megaton of TNT. As one episode pointed out, this is the warhead yield of a single hydrogen bomb. If the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a full-scale nuclear exchange, it would be like "A World War II every second, for the length of a lazy afternoon."
- Holy Backlight: Applied to Sagan in the opening of the tenth episode, in a discussion of the concept of birth and its cultural implications.
- Hot Librarian and Hot Scientist: According to contemporary reports, Hypatia, the last librarian at Alexandria.
- Humans Through Alien Eyes: In "Who Speaks for Earth?" during the After the End scenario Sagan wonders what would the Encyclopedia Galactica would have to say about humans, and in the first episode he muses:
"For an extra-terrestrial observer, the differences between the human cultures would seem trivial."
- Insignificant Little Blue Planet: When discussing the final photo of the entire solar system by Voyager 1, Sagan shows us the Earth as a single pixel in a huge image. However, he goes out of his way to mention that Earth is special due to the presence of life.
- Layman's Terms: Possibly the best example among educational programs, and certainly the inspiration for nearly all the shows that have come since.
- Library of Babel: The virtual reproduction of the library at Alexandria, whose loss Sagan mourns as "self-inflicted radical brain surgery" for civilization as a whole.
- Lies to Children: Carl resorts to analogies to explain extremely abstract concepts like gravity, infinity and extra dimensions. To his credit, he immediately explains why the analogies are imperfect.
- Measuring the Marigolds: Complete, total, masterful refutation.
- Orion Drive: Mentioned as the only presently possible way of achieving space travel at any noticeable fraction of the speed of light, and also the best use for nuclear weapons. The related Daedalus drive concept was also mentioned.
- Patrick Stewart Speech: Sagan is incredibly effective at delivering these in regards to Real Life, as is Ann Druyan in the intro to the updated version of Cosmos.
- Plant Aliens: The civilization who are self-described as "We Who Survived" in the Encyclopaedia Galactica are mobile autotrophs who implement Selenium, Bromine and Chlorine in their biology (along with the ubiquitous CHON elements of course), and engage in arithmetic poetry. Ironically, they ended up self-destructing. Just before we did.
- Ramscoop: Mentioned shortly after the Orion Drive, as a possible means of circumnavigating the universe within a (subjective) human lifetime. (The limitations of the Bussard drive, such as the drag problem, were not addressed.)
- Recursive Reality: Carl Sagan speculates that our universe could be the equivalent of a subatomic particle inside a "superuniverse".
- Science Hero: Sagan himself. As heroic as you can be in a documentary, anyway. Also some of the historical scientists portrayed in the series, like Huygens, Humison, Einstein, Leonardo, and Kepler.
- Science Is Bad, Science Is Wrong: Strongly and intentionally debunked.
- Science Marches On: Interestingly, although many of the details are no longer accurate, remarkably few of the theories and principles Sagan discusses have been completely supplanted by more current research. The DVD commentary discusses this.
- Starfish Aliens:
- One episode speculates on what life might be found within the atmosphere of Jupiter or a similar gas giant. It included microscopic "sinkers" that had to reproduce before sinking too far into Jupiter and being crushed or fried, mile-wide hydrogen-filled balloon "floaters" that filter-fed on the sinkers, and winged predators that hunted the floaters.
- The pages from the Encyclopedia Galactica (which are reprinted in the book adaptation) describes lifeforms with biologies that utilize cryogenic superconductors and "mobile autotrophs" (i.e., walking trees).
- Starfish Language: The whale's songs are described like this. Also, he speculates that science and the laws of nature are the universal language for communicating with an alien intelligence.
- Space Whale: Not exactly, but it mentions that golden record on the Voyager probe also has recordings of the songs of the whales on Earth.
- Speculative Documentary
- Tear Jerker: Sagan's heartfelt plea to prevent nuclear annihilation, and his heartwarming acknowledgement of its aversion in the later DVD commentary.
- Terraforming: At the end of "Blues for a Red Planet," Sagan popularized the idea of turning Mars into an Earth-like world by seeding it with (tough) plant life.
- Time Dilation: A thought experiment about special relativity involving an Italian teenager on a Vespa. (What if the speed of light were 40 km/hr instead of 1.08 billion?) And it's awesome.
- Time Travel: Discussed in the episode on relativity and used as a Framing Device for the episode with the calendar of the universe.
- Voice Clip Song: A Glorious Dawn, by Symphony of Science, which mixes and sets a tune to scenes from Cosmos, along with Stephen Hawking's Universe. Notably, entire phrases from the respective shows are used as lyrics. It's rather awesome. And thanks to Jack White's record label Third Man, it was actually given a limited release on vinyl, with a copy of the diagram from the Voyager Golden Record etched on the backside.
"The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day, venture, to the stars. A still more glorious dawn awaits - not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise. A morning filled with 400 billion suns - the rising of the Milky Way."
- What Do You Mean It's Not Awesome?: Books, as explained in Episode 11, "The Persistence of Memory," let us transcend time and death.
"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
"Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds there ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contributions to the collective knowledge of the human species."
- A bit earlier in the book, he quotes Charles Sherrington, who makes the act of waking up into something of cosmic importance.
The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the cortex becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.
- "The Lives of the Stars" begins by showing an apple pie being made- in a dramatic manner reminiscent of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
- What Might Have Been: Sagan briefly speculates on what might have happened if the spirit of scientific inquiry found in ancient Greece and Rome had persisted.
- At the time of his death, he and his wife, Ann, were planning a new miniseries, Cosmos For Kids.