Science: The Cosmic Explainer

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Eventually, the awe of science overcame the indifference toward it. As Lewis Thomas explains, "The more that is learned about nature, particularly the puzzling aspects—the queernesses being uncovered by the physicists, for example—the more engrossing it becomes." Adds Asimov: "We feel that if we do not understand science and the changes science makes possible, we may find ourselves overwhelmed."

In a turnabout as sudden as some of the scene shifts in Cosmos, ennui has turned into enthusiasm. Public curiosity about science, if not financial support of it, seems to be rocketing upward. Some signs: the New York Times has created a special weekly section to report the news of science, and other newspapers have expanded their science staffs and coverage. Some half a dozen new mass-market science magazines have been launched within the past few years, the most recent being Time Inc.'s new monthly DISCOVER. There is a growing readership for books on scientific topics, as opposed to those on such pseudoscientific hokum as UFOs, astrology and parapsychology.

Television's interest grew too. In the early 1970s, PBS began importing BBC science specials, like Nigel Calder's programs on astronomy, physics, the new biology. In 1974, one of the PBS stations, WGBH in Boston, took the plunge with its own Nova series. Now, counting Nova, Sagan's Cosmos, and Miller's Body, PBS is running seven separate science series.

The commercial networks long gave science short shrift, except when it came to moon landings or Mr. Wizard-like kiddie shows. Now they too are moving into expanded coverage. ABC has a possible science series for next year, an offshoot of 20/20 tentatively titled Quest. At CBS, programmers are considering whether to give Walter Cronkite's Universe, an occasional half-hour science news show that has got a moderately good reception, a regular evening time slot. One factor that will surely affect the decision: the response of viewers to Sagan's Cosmos.

Playing the part of pacesetter is nothing new to Sagan. While growing up in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst section, the son of a U.S.-born mother and a Russian-immigrant father—a garment cutter who rose to factory manager—he was already thinking of the heavens while other children were preoccupied with stickball and marbles. He recalls: "I remember seeing the stars and asking my friends what they were. They told me that they were lights in the sky.' "

Unsatisfied, Sagan went off to the library and asked for a book on the stars. The librarian gave him one on the Hollywood variety: Jean Harlow and Clark Gable. When he finally got the right book, he learned that the stars were enormously distant suns. "This just blew my mind. Until then, my universe had been my neighborhood. Now I tried to imagine how far away I'd have to move the sun to make it as faint as a star. I got my first sense of the immensity of the universe. I was hooked."

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