Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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The series' name comes from the Greek word for the ordered universe, the antithesis of chaos. It is an apt choice. Cosmos is nothing less than Sagan's attempt to make sense out of what is for many people the hopelessly baffling world of 20th century science. To unfold his story he roves through two millennia of scientific progress, often shuttling back and forth over the centuries like some Wellsian time traveler. He travels the earth as well. One moment he is seated in a café on the Aegean island of Samos, home of Pythagoras and Aristarchus, explaining the first stirrings of Greek scientific prowess. At another moment, he is strolling through the venerable Cavendish Laboratories of England's Cambridge University, recounting the birth of modern atomic physics. At still another, he is standing in the bleak wastes of Death Valley, discussing the efforts of the Viking landers to find living things on Mars. Alas, concedes Sagan, they have found no sure trace of life—yet.

In the casualness of turtleneck jersey and chino pants, his butcher-boy haircut tousled by the wind, Sagan sends out an exuberant message: science is not only vital for humanity's future wellbeing, but it is rousing good fun as well. Even the most scientifically untutored person can—indeed, must—grasp its essentials. As Sagan insists, "There is nothing about science that cannot be explained to the layman."

Purists among his colleagues shudder at such popularization and simplification. After all, science has a long tradition, often violated to be sure, of modesty and understatement, even of calculated obfuscation, so that only an elite priesthood will be privy to its secrets. Other than the irrepressible Sagan, how many scientists would buzz a simulated Martian volcano, as he does in one Cosmos sequence; or rummage through a re-creation of the famed library of Alexandria, pretending to read long-lost papyrus scrolls; or attempt to explain the paradoxes of special relativity while bicycling through the hills of Tuscany, where the young Einstein once wandered? Sagan also issues some open challenges. To creationists, who argue for a biblical interpretation of life's beginnings, he states that evolution is not a theory, it is a fact. As for reports that creatures from other worlds have landed on earth, he dismisses them with a shrug. Astrology, Sagan insists, is a fraud.

There are more than a few milligrams of arrogance in all this. The camera lingers too often on the Sagan profile. His lyrical language sometimes lapses into flowery excess, and occasionally Cosmos' galloping pace straggles to a crawl. But without a doubt, Sagan makes science as palatable as the apple pie he lovingly cuts up in a Cambridge University dining room in order to make a point about matter. He is the quintessential schoolmaster; he makes such a classical experiment as Christiaan Huygens' determination of the distance of the stars with only a perforated brass disc seem as vivid today as when it was performed three centuries ago. In the words of one admiring reviewer, he is the prince of popularizers, the nation's scientific mentor to the masses.

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