40 Years Ago Today: Carl Sagan Takes Us to the Cosmos

40 years ago, PBS launched its wildly popular series Cosmos, brainchild of the much-missed Dr. Carl Sagan (1934-1996).

Sagan was an astrophysicist, among many other things, but as far as the wider public was concerned he filled another function that was just as valuable as whatever hard science he did — he had the knack for explaining it to US. Like Alexander von Humboldt, who said “it’s bad science if you can’t explain its core idea to a barmaid”, Sagan made it his mission to translate the wonders he knew about to the average person, and I believe he succeeded in his mission. Sagan wrote the 13-part show and was its presenter, and also wrote a popular companion book which our family owned (because I, at the age of about 14, bought it). And so, though I watched the series a couple of times, having pored through the book many more times, many of the book’s concepts stuck to my ribs.

In his weird way, Sagan was like a rock star, a nerd rock star, but during the ’70s long haired professors in turtlenecks were in. I imagine that during those years, nerdy and spacy as he was, got laid a lot. “We are all made of star stuff” he would intone — and I imagine 20 year old college girls screaming like they were at a Beatles concert in response. Sagan was a star. Johnny Carson had him on The Tonight Show more than two dozen times (and did an impression of him many more times than that: “Billions and billions and billions…”).

Sagan’s high visibility allowed him to become more engaged as a citizen, and he weighed in on major world issues like nuclear war, climate change, religion, and the search for extraterrestrial life. In downtown Ithaca, New York, where I have spent a good deal of time, one can find sculptural representations of the planets of our solar system laid out in their actual proportions, not the phony way we usually see in models, which put the planets too close together, but at the proper ratio of distance. Sagan was long affiliated with nearby Cornell, and it was his gift to the town. Sagan was only 62 when he passed away from complications related to cancer in 1996. I miss his comforting, reasoning presence in today’s chaotic cultural landscape.