01 03 2011

Carl Sagan. I watched him on BBC2 in the early 1980s but it wasn't until I watched the whole series again a couple of years back that I realised how much an effect it must have had on me. Here's the introduction from the first episode:

First off, I love the Vangelis music. Other people thought it was boring, but it's beautiful. I bought the album, Heaven and Hell, and most of the rest of it is...not as good. (In fact the first track is so silly I involuntarily created a dance move to accompany it).

Then there's Sagan himself. The slow, studied voice seems almost silly to English ears but it's because he's the archetype: he's what the impressionists used as their source material, so much that we've now forgotten the origin. But listen to what he's saying. He's talking about complex scientific ideas... in poetry. Now Sagan is no mere presenter, once again he's the real thing. He worked at NASA on the Apollo and Voyager missions. This man is genuinely one of the leading thinkers of the last century. And here he is speaking about humans being made of "star stuff". They should include it in poetry books and teach it in schools. If there were more like him with the luminosity which comes from the ability think *and* express so clearly and creatively, progress might have some meaning.

I'm pretty sure I didn't see all of the series in 1982. I certainly didn't understand everything I saw, at least I didn't understand the full implications. Being brought up in an Irish Catholic household, I knew there was a choice to be made at some point between a God-created universe or the scientific view. I didn't make the connection with evolution, sociology or any of the other things which shaped my thinking in the intervening years. But then I was only ten and there were other things going on.

Still, I became vaguely aware that the time spent thinking about the cosmos in the company of this wise and gentle Dr. Sagan was more somehow moving me more deeply than all this business with the tedious readings, the odd rituals, the funny clothes and the off-key singing on a Sunday morning.

Oddly enough, Sagan has the benevolent manner and genial tone of a clergyman but one of the key things is that the more frightening his message, the calmer he becomes. Towards the end of the series, in one of the moments which dates it far more than the early computer graphics and communication technology, he speaks of the fear and insanity of the nuclear arms race in the Cold War climate of the time (though he gives equal status to the issue of damage to the environment, considerably before it became such a well-known issue). What's fascinating is that as he delivers this speech, his tone remains calm but tinged with regret and almost paternal disappointment that humanity can be so wonderful and yet so stupid at the same time. This was a huge contrast with the various religious figures I was seeing whose geniality disappeared the moment they brought out the big guns of eternal fire, damnation, original sin, etc. At the same time as I was being taught to confess to even thinking about the wrong things (especially anything which might be considered pleasurable), Cosmos was encouraging me to think about the fundamental nature of reality...which was something the religious people seemed strangely unwilling to discuss.

I've oversimplified it. I don't mean to portray my ten year old self as some kind of prepubescent collossus astride the boundary between science and religion. A more apt description would be that I was a kid wandering around in no man's land, starting not to trust the things being told to me by people I knew and loved while gaining more respect for the views of people I only knew through the TV and the force of argument.  
Just watch Cosmos. It won't affect you the way it did me because it's unlikely you're 10 years old and living in the kind of circumstances I was at the time. But watch it all the same: it's an unashamedly personal essay by Sagan, so if nothing else there's pleasure to be had in spending time in the company of someone who knows what he's talking about and is able to do so with clarity, wit and ingenuity.

Lastly, I can't resist telling possibly my favourite story about Sagan. He was in charge of the committee which put together the time capsule golden discs placed aboard the Voyager I and II space probes in the late 1970s. Legend has it that having agreed on selections of Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky, someone proposed inclusion of Bach. Sagan replied "That would just be showing off."* 

* Apparently he also wanted to include Here Comes the Sun and while the Beatles themselves agreed, EMI refused to give permission. Clearly they think the copyright laws on Alpha Centauri are too lax. I wonder if they put an anti-piracy warning on the disc too?

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