Cosmos (TV series, 1980)

Growing up, I never saw Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (PBS, 1980).  So, I’ve just been watching it (and reading the book) and pondering its approach and contributions to the popularization of science.  I’m doing this partly to help myself think about the implications of “public science” for “public musicology.”  It doesn’t surprise me that in 1994 Sagan (1934-96) won the National Academy of Sciences’ Public Welfare Medal (its highest honour), while simultaneously being denied membership in the Academy.  Numerous scientists didn’t like his media activities, in the same way that many of my fellow musicologists aren’t going to like my ventures into books for non-academic presses, self-published e-books for the public, and a collaborative community website for music history & culture.

The parts of Cosmos I like the best are the historical ones about the ancient Greeks and Ionians (the size of the Earth, the library at Alexandria, the scientific method), Kepler (elliptical orbits), Champollion (the Rosetta Stone), and so on.  On the other hand, there is surprisingly little in the 13-part series about Copernicus, Newton, and even Einstein.  Sagan and the other creators of Cosmos probably concluded that certain figures had already been covered at least adequately in such other places as high school and college textbooks.  I also like the 1990-92 updates included in the 2000 DVD edition.  For example, through updates of red-shift research, physicists have (since 1980) been able to model that the galaxies emanate outwards in a sort of plume shape (and, yes, thus away from each other at varying speeds) from a single point.  On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the DVD edition having made obvious changes to the images of the 11th episode in order to add such things as 1990s’ computers, the World Wide Web, and so on.

Cosmos gets rather more into science-fiction towards the end, with the second-last (12th) episode a bit of a subtle plug for Sagan’s movie screenplay (1979) and eventual novel (1985) Contact, which was later revived as a major motion-picture (starring Jodie Foster) released in 1997.  Also, although it is not at all surprising for something from 1980, the last episode is quite pessimistically “cold war”-oriented.  For example, the last lines of a hypothetical, future Encyclopaedia Galactica entry about the Earth read:  “Communications Interrupted:  Neutron and Gamma Ray Doses approach lethality for dominant organisms.”  If the series had been done thirty years later, they probably would have spun those aspects to be more about such ecological and sociopolitical issues as global warming, natural disasters, the excess uses of energy, oil spills, controversies over acquiring and delivering energy, and rogue nuclear states.  However, the series (even the pessimism) holds up very well.  The last episode has the great line (still VERY applicable today):  “We accepted the products of science; we rejected its methods.”

I’m not a physicist, but it seems to me that everything we can model from the most distant galaxies happened billions of years ago.  So, what if everything that far away has already either turned into black holes (as happens with the largest stars) or (as might happen with neutron/pulsar systems and even white-dwarf systems, like ours will be) been sucked into their gravitational fields?  Maybe everything eventually disappears:  black holes into other black holes, probably, and perhaps even everything reaches a balance and the whole universe reverse big-bangs almost instantly!  Either way, the 4th-dimension (space-time, the best three-dimensional analogy for which has been that it’s “curved”) connects everything back to the singularity.  Done and done (closed universe).

Now, to music, since I am a musicologist!  It should be said that the credits of the series don’t list any of its specific items of music.  However, even on a cursory first pass, it is clear that Cosmos uses such accompanying music as recent electronic instrumental music, especially by Vangelis (such as from his 1975-76 albums, Heaven and Hell and Albedo 0.39), but also an electronic adaptation of Bach by Isao Tomita and several other pieces.  It also uses such classical works as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart, Bach, Pachelbel’s “Canon,” Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, and early music and world music (for far away times and places, but Earth-bound ones).

Some of the music comes back too often (especially Vangelis’s mellow “Alpha” and “Heaven and Hell” excerpts) and some choices are too obvious (e.g., the “Martian” Holst).  However, there is also a much bigger problem in the idea that European 18th, 19th, and early-20th century classical or “art” music and 1970s’ pseudo-classical instrumental music is the “big music” most suitable to accompany “big questions” about the universe.  It’s not surprising that the series was made and developed in the late-1970s, just after the era in which Leonard Bernstein’s public lectures about classical music (1973) became well-known on TV, video, and in book form.  I wonder what choices the creators of Cosmos would have made if the series had appeared in 2010, instead of 1980?

A re-boot of the series is underway for 2014, to be hosted by science populist Neil deGrasse Tyson and co-written with Sagan’s two co-writers.  So, it will be interesting to see how the new, internet-age series compares to the original one.


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