Here’s some vintage video of a conversation moderated by the late Magnus Manugsson, between Arthur C Clarke, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, discussing life, god, science, the universe and everything… Let me just say that again: ARTHUR C CLARKE!! CARL SAGAN!!! STEPHEN HAWKING!!! Three of my heroes of science… Has sudden geekswoon… This was recorded in 1988 – strange to think of the four here (including the distinguished Magnus, who used come into my old bookstore from time to time and was always charming when he did), only Professor Hawking is still with us, a man who was told his illness would claim him when he was still just a young man. (link via BoingBoing)
Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.
I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…
The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…
Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.
And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.
And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming. And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.
You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.
An infinitesimal dot in a vast space, containing, as the great Carl Sagan once said of another famous image from our exploration of space, the Pale Blue Dot image, every single person you ever knew, your mother, father, brother, your grandfather, his father back to the earliest proto human, every cat, dog, fish, bird, every beggar and king, every famous musician, every humble artisan, all lived on that dot. That’s home. Now Cassini sends us this spectacular image from Saturn, the crown jewel of the solar system, the Earth, a bright, blue dot (arrowed in the pic) glowing in the vast distance, millions of miles away while the magnificent rings of Saturn wheel above.
Every person, everything we’ve ever done is on that dot, from the first single celled creatures through the great dinosaurs to us, all contained inside that glowing dot. And yet look at this picture, look at how far we can reach, further than anyone in thousands of years of human history – look at how far we can reach when we put out efforts and those big brains evolution gave us to some wonderful effort instead of squabbling and fighting among ourselves on that same small dot. When we’re not doing that, this is the kind of thing we can accomplish, and it is magnificent. A little reminder as we see endless bad news of wars, disasters, economic ruin and more every night on the news that actually we are remarkable, our species built this clever probe, worked out a complex flight path around celestial bodies at huge speed, swinging around gravity wells and did so with such precision it can send us back images of our own world as seen from the rings of Saturn and we can share it at almost the speed of light through fiber optic networks of computers across that little globe, instantly.
“The Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we’ve waded a little way out, and the water seems inviting...” Carl Sagan.
During the epic Voyager missions, after one of those innovative little mechanical explorers had finished with its primary mission to give us our most astonishing close up encounters with the most distant worlds in our solar system in a detail that Galileo and Copernicus could never have dreamed possible, it was re-tasked and reprogrammed to turn around to look back into our solar system from the cold, dark edge of our own little stellar neighbourhood. The late, great Carl Sagan was one of those who campaigned for this to happen – no small feat given the codes to reprogramme the distant probe would take hours to reach it even travelling at the light speed of radio waves, so far was it from home now, and there was no true scientific knowledge to be gained from this move.
Sagan, however, always understood that science has to appeal to both the heart as well as the head, emotion and intellect, and be able to make everyone grasp why it was important to us. The spacecraft was turned and took what is now known as the family portrait, a view of most of the planets in our solar system, a perspective no-one in the entire history of humanity had ever beheld before, a real “going where no-one had gone before” moment. In that family portrait is a pale, blue dot, not even an entire pixel in size – our world, the Earth. As Sagan put it, everything any of us has ever known, every person we have read of, every person who built a monument we’ve gazed at, everyone we have ever loved and all those who came before them, right back to the emergence of our ancestors out of ancient Africa’s cradle to start out human journey, every one of them, peasant and king alike, lived on that tiny dot. Joel Somerfield’s animation is very short but celebrates that moment, using the words of Sagan, a moment when emotion and science, heart and intellect, gave our species a new perspective on the majesty of creation and our own place in it, just a tiny mote floating in the glow of the sun, miniscule in astronomical terms, fragile, but never, ever unimportant, but a wonder in a sea of wonders, a haven of spectacularly diverse life. Our home.
I see that this fab remix of the late and much missed Carl Sagan’s word from Cosmos that has proved popular on YouTube is getting a release as a traditional 7 inch vinyl. Funnily enough a friend sent me some music tracks he came across recently, from Cosmos, which we both remembered watching; it was instant nostalgia for me. As a boy I adored the series; I was already fascinated by astronomy and the exploration of space and this fueled it, as well as introducing me for the first time to Sagan. Years later I’d admire him for speaking out for the importance of scientific research for the sake of research and not simply for commerce, for the value of knowledge over susperstition and the need to take care of our own remarkable world, so different from the other planets we were exploring – he even publicly berated Margaret Thatcher once when she was Prime Minister, scolding her for her lack of support for pure research and environmental awareness, telling her it was shocking that someone who actually had proper scientific training could be so foolish.
Apparently the B side of the single looks like the cover of the famous gold record disc which was placed in the Voyager spacecraft, so that long after they had completed their mission of exploration (which they did so magnificently) and headed out of our solar system and into the deep, cold depths of interstellar space, should they by some remote chance be found by another civilisation they could play them and hear sounds from Planet Earth – greetings in many languages, poetry and snatches of music, which Sagan helped oversee. Carl’s been gone a while now, sadly, but that gold disc is now travelling still, further than any man made object in the entire history of the world has ever travelled, waiting for the day when someone – something,perhaps – finds it and plays it. (via Third Man Records)
And while we’re at it, here’s a short video, the Pale Blue Dot, by Carl. As the aging Voyager reached towards the edge of our solar system he argued for NASA to turn it to face back towards us – no easy task when the vast distance meant even radio signal commands travelling at the speed of light would take some time to reach the craft, then longer for returns, assuming it even worked. But he argued and they did it and the result was ‘the family portrait’, a view of the worlds of our solar system as no-one else in the history of our species had ever seen it, a shot taken from the edge of what we know from a little machine about to cross that boundary, a parting gift from one of the great missions of exploration. And in that picture a tiny dot, a blue dot taking up even less than one pixel. That dot being the Earth. Everything we’ve ever known, every person who has ever loved and lived, every cat, every dog, every Triceratops, every dolphin, every fern, every bush, every fish, every work of art, all contained inside that tiny, tiny dot… Sagan had that wonderful gift of enthusiasm and the ability to communicate the sense of wonder to all, a great spokesman for science.