Cosmos: The Joy of Knowing

The joy of knowing


"Book Censorship Wave Seen in Wake of Conservative Victories." So read the headline on a November interview with the director of the American Library Association's office of intellectual freedom. Judith King related recent efforts to have public schools ban Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (among others) and to mandate the teaching of "creationism." And Mary Poppins has been taken out of the San Francisco public library because of its alleged sexism and racism.

I thought of these developments as I was watching episode seven of Carl Sagan's Cosmos on PBS. In that segment of this brilliant 13-part series, Sagan visits the Greek Island of Samos. He tells of the brief period in its history—over 2,000 years ago—when science and free trade flowered and incredible knowledge of astronomy was developed. After a time, however, progress stopped; science had become a cult, its knowledge turned into dogma. Certain elements of that knowledge (for example, the existence of the dodecahedron) were even kept secret!

In another episode Sagan visits Holland, recalling the 1600s when the Netherlanders burst forth as the world's foremost explorers. Why this little country at that particular time, asks Sagan? Because Holland was an island of freedom, intellectual and commercial freedom, in a Europe still dominated by religious dogma. At the same time that Dutch scientists were developing telescopes, clocks, and navigational instruments for the thriving merchant-explorers, the Roman Catholic Church was threatening Galileo with death unless he recanted the heresy that the earth revolves around the sun.

It is in thus drawing the connection—the necessary connection—between freedom and progress that Cosmos is unique among science documentaries. Carl Sagan understands better than most others on the TV circuit that freedom is cut from whole cloth, that freedom to think and inquire goes hand in hand with freedom to act and acquire. And that periods characterized by such freedom have been tragically few and brief throughout human history. In one of the most poignant moments of the series, Sagan reflects on where mankind might be today—traveling among the stars—if the freedom of early Samos had become the rule rather than the exception over the subsequent two millennia. The price we have paid for dogma, intolerance, and superstition is truly incalculable.

There is much more to Cosmos than these sociopolitical insights, of course. Subtitled "A Personal Voyage," the series is, indeed, dominated by the persona of Carl Sagan. But even those who don't care for the man on talk shows—where he too often merely rationalizes government spending on space exploration—should give the program a chance. Where else can you find the drama of a man in love, passionately in love, with his work and using every device in the cinematographer's armamentarium to communicate that love? Sagan does this by showing us how the universe works, taking it apart and putting it back together again with $8 million worth of special effects.

On a deeper level Sagan gives the non-scientist many glimpses of how scientists know the things we all take for granted. In the very first episode he shows how an ancient Egyptian at Alexandria first figured out that the earth is round—and calculated its diameter to within a few percent of the actual figure. In its emphasis on the process of gaining knowledge (epistemology), Cosmos surpasses anything I've seen on television, PBS or otherwise.

There is still more in Cosmos to delight the thinker. Sagan politely but unequivocally puts in their places today's noisy advocates of pseudoscience, the cranks and bible-thumpers who consider evolution an "unproved theory," who revel in tales of "ancient astronauts," who wish fervently for deliverance by UFOs from the heavens. Sagan shows the flimsiness of their dogmas and reminds us again and again of the precariousness of freedom—and its absolute necessity for human progress. Yet he does not neglect to show appreciation for the insights of some ancient systems of belief regarding the cosmos, as in the concept of recurring "Brahma" in Hindu theology, which Sagan suggests could represent the pulsation of the universe from "big-bang" to the limits of expansion and back, over and over again in an eternal pattern.

Unfortunately, Cosmos will have just concluded by the time this issue of REASON appears. So if you've missed it, you're not likely to be able to see it soon. But it wouldn't hurt to let PBS know you'd like to see it shown again.

Robert Poole is the editor of REASON.