Cosmos 2014: An Impersonal Verbiage

The last couple of months have seen a pretty epochal event in popular science – the broadcast of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, an update of the 1980 blockbuster series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  It is epochal partly for various statistical reasons of being the most-watched science programme ever (both original and remake).1 But also because the original Cosmos, combining the lyrical and eminently quotable narration of Carl Sagan with extraordinarily hallucinogenic graphics, is sacred ground for science enthusiasts and stoners alike.  Fortunately those encroaching on said ground are a council with the appropriate vested authority: Neil deGrasse Tyson, super-fan and longtime heir apparent of Sagan; Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and frequent co-writer; Steven Soter, a collaborator in astrophysical research and on the original Cosmos; and Seth Macfarlane, who wrote Ted.  I’ve been finding it generally easy and fairly enjoyable watching, if a bit light on information, really quite heavy on melodrama, and completely devoid of subtlety – criticisms which I address in a somewhat over-emphatic way below.  But as an ex-undergraduate of natural sciences I’m probably slightly too familiar with, and (sadly) less than 100% enthusiastic about, the material on show.  I also spent 18 months doing historical research on Carl Sagan as part of my ongoing work on the role of personality in science communication.  So I’m not really their target audience.  I’m not watching to be awed by hyper-colourful Science, or because I had an evening and a bag of marijuana to spare.  My interest is in what happens when you take the physical presence – though not the ever-present Ghost of Cosmos Past – of Carl Sagan out of Cosmos, leaving the writing to the surviving two-thirds of the original team (Druyan and Soter) and the presenting to a man (Tyson) who learned professional charisma from the original.

[As a disclaimer, I should point out I’ve only seen the first few and last few episodes of the new series.  So treat this post as a series of hypotheses to be corroborated or disconfirmed by my future watching.  It’s an approach I think Sagan would have approved of].

As is traditional for academics talking about their pet subjects, I have to start by saying my feelings towards Sagan and the original Cosmos are somewhat complicated.  I really like much of Sagan’s writing, of which Cosmos is a typical example.  I like the unabashed emotion in Sagan’s writing, and his way of deftly inserting intellectual flights of fancy amidst factual detail – his aphorism “the cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star-stuff” is quoted regularly, but the follow-up “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself” is a masterclass of sideways thinking about science.  There’s a distinctly personal quality to Sagan’s writing; you can really see him playing with the text, trying to insert his own imagination, finding ways not just to make the ideas accessible but also evocative.  His politics were fairly funky too.  But the personal element has a flipside.  I’m not alone in blanching slightly at the arrogance of Sagan’s popular work.  When he popularised work outside his professional boundaries, his own views always took precedence over the voices of actual specialists (and his writing style made it hard to know which was which).  He also dismissed any philosophical or sociological views of science which didn’t align with his own, which made his self-anointing as public spokesman for the scientific community unpopular in many quarters.  As one reviewer put it – “Cosmos could be subtitled ‘the selling of Carl Sagan’”.

So, onto the current series.  I have issues with it.  There’s bizarre structural choices to some episodes.  Questions are raised which have already been kind-of-answered previously, but are then addressed a second time in a de-clarifying fashion.  Huge visual sequences are set up, only to fizzle out abruptly.  A distractingly unexpected three-minute clip of Istanbul appears ten minutes before Istanbul becomes relevant.  Perhaps more worryingly, some scientific ideas are introduced incredibly slowly while others are dropped in without definition, seemingly irrespective of their relative complexity.2  There’s also glaring examples of pseudo- (or just plain wrong) history.3  These, I feel, are objectively problematic elements in a science programme (though I’ll admit I am perhaps over-analytical about these things – and by contrast I found almost entirely praise on that most reliable of research sources, the #cosmos thread on Twitter).  Perhaps more subjectively, I felt that a lot of the bad elements of the original were retained – its one-sided scientism, its dismissal rather than dialogue in matters of disagreement, its continual message that science is The Best Way Of Thinking About Everything and that Good Scientists are also Good People.

But for me the most notable absentee is the personal element.  The new script is certainly aiming for the Sagan style, a style which requires writing “more poetically than scientifically” (another review, this time of his 1973 book The Cosmic Connection).  The new series is poetic in the sense of using grandiose expressions, extravagantly emotive language, and an overdose of metaphor.  It’s too close to a stereotype of a Sagan script, lacking the variation -while some of Sagan’s writing could certainly be accused of unnecessary flourishes, the new series does it constantly.  Many of the isolated phrases are very similar, but it’s the cumulative effect of the new series that’s the problem.  It comes out as verbose where Sagan is elegant and earnest where Sagan is witty – closer to the party stoner who tells everyone, at length, about how they are ultimately connected by truth and love man, rather than the one who just can’t get over how amazing pitta bread is.

By contrast, Sagan’s poeticism could be subtler, wittier,4 occasionally humble – as when he described humanity as ‘young’, and science ‘talking its first steps’.  It’s poetry in the sense of uniting cosmic matters with the intensely personal, and playing with language to serve that end rather than for the sake of verbosity.  Interesting comparison: as an unexpected, but rather useful, circumstance I was briefly involved in a project alongside my Sagan research which exposed me to a fair bit of more traditional poetry.  This included my now-favourite poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.  I’m possibly the only person to have read T.S. Eliot thinking ‘hmm this reminds me of Carl Sagan’, but that’s research for you.  Have a look at this this:

To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

Possibly over-the-top cosmic imagery? Check.  Slightly extravagant metaphors? Check. But then deftly bringing it back to a very familiar, personal image? Check.  This is what I feel Sagan’s writing does for science.   Take “we’re made starstuff”.  Sagan takes a pretty basic fact – that all things in the universe are made of the same elements, many of which are produced by stars – and by inventing a word turns this into a concise emotive message about how you, yes you, have a personal connection to those lovely lights in the sky.  And the word is ‘starstuff’.  Not ‘the essence of stellar lights’, or ‘the soul of cosmic fires’, or any other more ostensibly ‘poetic’ language.  ‘Stuff’ does the job, wittily and elegantly.

The new Cosmos stops short of Eliot’s last three lines.  It stops at ‘I shall tell you’ – telling us all how awesome Science is, at relentlessly extravagant length.  An interesting final point on this respect, which unites my two concerns – the ‘spaceship of the mind’, used in both series, has made an interesting change in that respect.  The original was a sparse design, centred around a single small control panel and a massive window.  Its job was to allow shots to simultaneously include the two main subjects of the show: the universe and Carl Sagan.5 Whereas the new spaceship comes loaded with numerous apps – holograms of scientists, time-travelling display screens, and so much graphing software.  It showcases SCIENCE, not Sagan.  It’s powered by SCIENCE, not psychedelics.  And there’s the rub.  While the original combined unsubtle portrayal with a subtler script, the new is a precise reverse.  And while the original made Sagan the unarguable-with voice, the new makes Science the unarguable-with voice.  It’s preaching to the converted, and goading the unconverted.  The original did that too, a bit.  So the new had a chance to move away and do something more interesting.  But to do so, they would have needed to try harder to exorcise the Ghost of Cosmos past.




1 = Sagan’s biographer Keay Davidson estimates that the original was seen by half a million people; the 2014 series was Fox’s largest ever rollout.

= Though these problems do afflict some episodes, particularly earlier episodes, much more than others.  And Cosmos is hardly alone in these sorts of problems.

3 = This was the subject of an intense Twitter debate from historians of science, with numerous posts that I subsequently can’t find – except this guest post from Tim O’Neill on Thony Christie’s blog.  My view, as I expressed at the time, is that Hollywoodising and cartoonising historical figures to serve a massively unsubtle pro-science rhetoric is dubious, I’d also suggest caution –

4 = Though I did like Tyson’s donning of sunglasses in the face of the Big Bang.

5 = For the record, Sagan said he hated those shots.  Some of his colleagues think they were an act of revenge by the director Adrian Malone (also of Jacob Bronowski’s Civilisation), a man whose force of ego was constantly equal and opposed to Sagan’s.

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