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Cosmos

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First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 16
Credits
Written by Jill Arroway
Read by Kari Haley
Edited by Jill Arroway

In today's Broadwaves, I want to talk about the single most inpiring show I have ever been privileged to encounter. It is the greatest story ever told, boundless beyond measure, spanning the realm from the infinitesimal to the infinite. It is the very definition of the word "awesome". It is the true story of life, the universe, and everything. The show is Carl Sagan's monumental and breathtaking series, "Cosmos".

"Cosmos" - or to give it its full title, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage", was written by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, in the late 1970s, and hit the TV screens of the world in 1980. It was first broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service in America, and is to this day the most widely watched PBS series in the world. It has been broadcast in over 60 countries, and been seen by more than half a billion people. Though it was originally released in mono, the soundtrack has since been remastered in 5.1 surround sound, and the DVD boxed set is available around the world.

Since "Cosmos" was made, human-built spacecraft have travelled the length and breadth of the solar system, and we have begun to map both the vast expanse of the visible universe, and the human genome within us all. Yet even after thirty years of scientific discovery, "Cosmos" remains both accurate and prophetic. Series writer Ann Druyan describes "Cosmos" as both a history of the scientific enterprise, and an attempt to convey the soaring spiritual high of its central revelation: our oneness with the universe. It is a story that begins fourteen billion years ago.


"Cosmos" is a series with many different aspects. It is, in part, the story of the universe, but it is also the story of science itself. Over the course of this thirteen part series, we learn how it came to be that scientists of ages past were able to discover, using nothing more than a few sticks and shadows and the power of deductive reasoning, that the Earth was round, and circled around the sun. We learn how alchemy led to chemisty, and how philosophical debates about the very stuff of matter led to an understanding of atoms and molecules - the building blocks out of which nearly everything is made.


"Cosmos" is a series that everyone will enjoy, because it can be watched on many levels. If you want to understand how the universe works, then you can watch it for that, and you will come away with a good grounding in most aspects of today's science. If you want to learn the history of scientific endeavour, and learn the stories of Copernicus, Gallileo and others, then you can watch it for that too. Or, if you just want to sit back and watch some awesome visual spectacles and drown in uplifting and inspirational music, it's that as well. The central message of "Cosmos" is that the grandeur and spectacle of the universe is part of who we are: it's in our bones; it's in our very atoms. As Delenn in Babylon 5 was to observe, some fourteen years after "Cosmos", we are starstuff - we are the universe made manifest, trying to understand itself.


The music of "Cosmos" cannot go uncommented. Much of the music you'll hear in the show is the work of legendary composer Vangelis, perhaps better known as the creator of the musical scores from "Chariots of Fire" and "Blade Runner".

"Cosmos" does not avoid the trickier points of scientific understanding, and nor does it pussyfoot around with wishy washy platitutes like some of the documentaries of the modern day. "Cosmos" explains things. It doesn't just present you with a bunch of facts and expect you to take them for granted - it walks you through the reasoning process. "Cosmos" assumes you are smart. Nothing is beyond the compass of "Cosmos": from the inner workings of the atom to celestial mechanics of the galaxy and beyond. "Cosmos" transcends the limits of our everyday experience, and approaches the speed of light!


There have been other science documentaries, but none so compelling nor so complete. "Cosmos" asks deep questions: Why are we here? How did we come to be? What is our place in the universe? It tells of our quest to understand these questions, and the awesome power of science to answer them. We live on a single planet in an unremarkable corner of a spiral galaxy, in a universe of billions of other galaxies. There is a sense in which we are insignificant, but the take-home message of "Cosmos" is not that we are insignificant; it is that we are a part of something that is grander and more astonishing that anything we could have dreamed in our wildest imaginations. Our planet is warm and rich, and teeming with life. It is the only planet in the universe which we know with certainty developed such a rich tapestry. How did it come to be? And how can we even comprehend the vast stretches of time in which all this life came about? Carl Sagan tackles these questions with clarity and precision.


Carl Sagan is perhaps better known to today's audience as the writer of the movie, "Contact", in which Ellie Arroway - as portrayed by Jodie Foster - discovers a message sent from an alien civilisation, and eventually travels through a wormhole to encounter those civilisations. "Cosmos" presages that movie. "Cosmos" does not shy away from speculation and wonder. The question asked in "Contact" - Is there intelligent life beyond the Earth? - is asked first on "Cosmos", along with speculations on wormholes and time travel. The answers to these questions are not known, but "Cosmos" does a first class job of explaining the boundaries of our knowledge, of distinguishing between what might be possible, and what is almost certainly impossible. We will probably never cross the galaxy at warp factor ten, but perhaps one day we might still commune with alien beings, who will have arisen on their own worlds, through the same processes that led to our own existence on ours.


The DVD presentation of "Cosmos" comes complete with fresh scientific updates from Carl Sagan, made shortly before his death in 1996. Astonishingly, few such updates were needed, as the basics of the scientific story remain largely unchanged since it was made. It is the story of the universe, but perhaps more than that, it is the story of ourselves, of how we came to be, and our place in the universe.

This next, and final clip, is longer than usual, but I wanted to include it because it is quintessential "Cosmos". Carl Sagan says things far more eloquently than I ever could. And plus it's damn fine music besides. This is the story of life. It is the greatest show on Earth, and the only show in town. This is our place, in time and space.


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