Standing on a windy, rocky Northern California seashore in the late 1970s, with waves crashing in the background, beloved astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, in his mesmerizingly soothing voice, uttered some of the most beautiful lines ever written, and among the most poetic to ever originate from a man of science:
“The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. … I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos, in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
“The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite inter-relationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently we’ve waded a little way out … maybe ankle deep. Now the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
These lines became the opening to “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” the popular 12-episode documentary television series created by Sagan, his future wife Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Soter.
Sagan, a former NASA scientist who was disappointed at the lack of media attention given to his team’s progress in the robotic exploration of Mars, believed the public craved more knowledge about topics such as the origin of life, the Earth, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and humanity’s place in the universe. He felt the popular medium of television was the perfect way to generate widespread interest in science and the exploration of the universe.
I was a preschooler when the show first aired on PBS in 1980, but I can think of almost nothing — or no one — that has ever inspired me more than Sagan and his thoughtful words. I’ve learned something new each time I’ve re-watched “Cosmos” throughout the years. And even today, approaching 40 years since its creation, it still leaves me breathless and excited to learn more about the world around me and beyond. Sagan’s joy and awe at the wonders of the universe are infectious and nearly palpable, even decades later and long after his death.
Sagan’s work in “Cosmos” and elsewhere changed the lives of countless fans, inspiring them and leading them to a passion for science and discovery. One such fan was a young Neil Degrasse Tyson, now one of the most famous and well-loved scientists in the world, who credits Sagan with inspiring his love for knowledge.
I was thrilled to learn that Tyson was hosting a new 13-episode sequel to Sagan’s original series titled “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” The first episode, which premiered on Fox on Sunday, March 9, began with Tyson standing on the same shore where Sagan stood a generation before him.
Millions tuned in for the premiere, and in our own little corner of the cosmos, Tillman’s Corner to be exact, my family gathered around the TV for the big night. We all enjoyed it immensely, and were so pleased by the kids’ interest we told them they could stay up late on Sunday nights until the series ends.
For fans of the original series, it’s interesting to see where the new series will lead. While most of the information Sagan shared 34 years ago is still accurate, our knowledge of the universe has increased, quite literally, by light-years.
Just for example, we have now confirmed approximately1,800 exoplanets (planets outside our own solar system), with quite a few appearing very similar to our Earth, and scientists now suspect there could be as many as 40 billion planets similar to ours. (Did you hear that? That was the sound of countless Inquisition-era priests rolling in their graves!)
These recent discoveries not only obliterated the idea that planets were somewhat rare, but also strongly bolstered the belief of many cosmic scientists that the idea of intelligent life on other planets is not merely a fun science fiction fantasy, but rather a very strong probability. In fact, at this point it would actually be rather surprising to ultimately discover we are alone in the universe.
Additionally, based on observations related to quantum physics, Tyson and many of his colleagues strongly believe our universe is merely a small part of an unimaginably large multiverse, made up of countless other universes and spacetimes. If that doesn’t blow your mind, consider that there may also be other multiverses!
It’s amazing watching my kids grow up in a world where it’s now a known fact there are other earth-like planets outside our own solar system. I remember as a child building models of the nine planets of our own little solar system — back before Pluto had his membership revoked — and wondering what was out there in the darkness of beyond.
With every generation we get ever closer to answering that question, and I’m glad there are people like Sagan and Tyson to inspire new generations of bright and curious young minds, ready to lead the charge into the great unknown when it’s time to pass the torch.