Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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Heeere's Carl, bringing you nothing less than the universe

Scene: A living room in Brooklyn, circa 1946

Grandfather: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Boy: An astronomer.

Grandfather: Yes, but how will you make a living?

Flashing through the heavens like an extraterrestrial Tinker Bell, the spacecraft looks like something by H.G. Wells out of Walt Disney. At the helm is none other than the boy from Brooklyn, now fully grown and, among several other things, a real astronomer. With a nonchalant gesture over his magical controls, he guides the ship on a voyage made possible only by the imagination, with the help of a Hollywood special-effects crew. Into the arms of giant galaxies he goes, through halos of stars, past a blinking pulsar, skirting the edge of a black hole, even reconnoitering a distant planet that seems to be inhabited.

It is an extraordinary journey, surmounting all barriers of space and time. The pilot-guide does not pause to question such miracles. Nor does he stint on bold speculation. Passing one planet, he muses, "Intelligent beings may have evolved and reworked this planetary surface in some massive engineering enterprise." Finally returning to the vicinity of home, he talks of "a single, ordinary, yellow dwarf star surrounded by a system of nine planets, dozens of moons, thousands of asteroids and billions of comets—the family of our sun." He fantasizes about large, tenuous life forms in the stormy atmosphere of Jupiter and about small, microbial ones in the reddish volcanic soil of Mars. To the space traveler, the earth is the shore of a cosmic ocean: "Recently, we have waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting."

So it goes when Carl Sagan, creator, chief writer and host-narrator of the new public television series Cosmos takes the controls of his fantasy spaceship. Sagan's grandfather can rest easy now. His grandson is not only making a living, thank you, he has also become a star—indeed, a supernova of sorts—in the scientific firmament. Sagan's books, ranging from speculations about life beyond the earth (The Cosmic Connection) to ruminations about the reptilian ancestry of the human brain (The Dragons of Eden) have sold millions of copies and have been translated into a dozen languages. His lectures, on campus as well as off, attract overflow crowds. He is at home on late-night TV bantering with Johnny Carson about heavenly bodies, both human and astronomical. He has also talked with Jimmy Carter about such esoteric matters as black holes and exobiology (the study of possible extraterrestrial life).

Now, at 45, the Cornell-based scientist is displaying his didactic gifts in his largest classroom yet. The first two of Cosmos' 13 weekly episodes may have attracted more viewers (perhaps as many as 10 million each) than any regular series in PBS history. With a budget of $8.5 million, Cosmos was three years in the making, involved a production staff of 150 people and was filmed at 40 locations in twelve countries. It features special effects rivaling those in Star Wars: computer animation, scale models and painted backdrops as dazzling as anything ever attempted on television.

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