Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Episode 1, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”

The first episode of Cosmos, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” is an introduction to the project of the series as a whole as well as to the scale and scope of the materials under discussion: no less than the vastness of the cosmos and the full sum of time as we know it, all the way through human history and our attempts to understand the universe in which we live. The secondary and more implicit message of Cosmos—immortalized further in songs like “We Are All Connected” and “A Glorious Dawn”—is contained in the poetic and stunning speech with which Carl Sagan opens his project of exploration, summed up in one potent line: “I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float, like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

A prefatory note—the format for this rewatch is simple. I’ll summarize the episode in some detail, and as I go, analyze and discuss the bits that I found most provocative or revealing. At the end, I’ll give a few closing thoughts. Then, you-the-reader can chime in as you like with your stand-out moments and considerations in the comments. Most important of all, I want us to have fun here.

This episode (as streamed on Netflix) is prefaced by Ann Druyan from a point, as she says, more than twenty years past when the series was originally scripted and filmed. She notes that the world is a different world, that things have changed; she reminds audiences of the nature of the political world in the late ’70s, with the Cold War lumbering on and nuclear arms production at its height. She also notes that the series is still viable, saying: “What a tribute to Carl Sagan, a scientist who took many a punch for daring to speculate, that even after twenty of the most eventful years in the history of science, Cosmos requires few revisions and indeed is rich in prophecy.”

However, what really stands out to me from this preface is one of her closing lines, which seems to encompass the mission of the series as well as what has made it so moving for so many viewers: “Cosmos is 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.” That stunner of a speech with which Sagan opens the original episode footage continues a more explicit examination of the nature of this scientific project:

“We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads, but to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both—we will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths of exquisite inter-relationships of the awesome machinery of nature.”

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is therefore an intimately science-fiction, speculative series, which perhaps explains some of its initial impact and continued appeal. Sagan’s willingness to postulate, to speculate, and to imagine limns his scientific explanations with poetry and wonder. This visible delight and curiosity is infectious, and I found myself getting a bit misty-eyed at the opening speech when I watched the episode. No matter how many times I’ve heard it—in the show, as music, et cetera—there is still a deep resonance to Sagan’s call for humanity to be curious, to learn, to try to know things about ourselves and the cosmos in which we live.

The positivism of this message can’t be understated, either. Sagan’s narration, paired with the sweeping musical score of the series, points us firmly toward a future that will be better because we have learned from our mistakes. However, this is balanced by an awareness of our current, problematic status with relation to one another and our planet. The constant references to our potential failure as a species are further illuminated by the context Druyan gives us: this is the time of the Cold War, of nuclear threat. This balance of hope and disappointment is a heady mix, imbued as it is in the distinct lyricism of Sagan’s speeches and riffs on his passions. It’s hard not to be a little swept away—and that goes for the whole series, really.

As for “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” in particular, it is predominantly focused on scale and context: how small we are, how young, compared to how vast the rest of it all is, and how long yet short our attempt to understand the cosmos has been. The structure of the episode, after that introduction (which gives us the famous or infamous “ship of the imagination”), follows a journey from the outer edges of the universe in to our earth; from there, we plunge into another journey, this one from past to present in human history. Finally, Sagan places that human history in the context of the age of the cosmos using the metaphor of a year’s calendar—in which humanity takes up only the last handful of proverbial seconds on December 31st.

The use of poetics and music turn what could at time be a reading of a glossary—we get definitions of astronomical terms, after all, for the major part of the first half of the episode—into an engaging, inspirational vista of learning. The Cosmos model seems particular apt for interesting the lay audience in science: Sagan makes it beautiful and simple, applying the sort of panache for metaphor one would expect to find in a literary novel to his explanations of things as variable as pulsars and nebulae. Little anecdotal-sounding facts also make the information memorable, such as the fact that initial observers of pulsars thought them to be extra-terrestrial beacons because of their measured, paced blinking.

And as we go on this definitional, spatial adventure of the cosmos, learning the scale of things, we hit the first speculative moment—a planet inhabited and sculpted by life other than human. When Sagan postulates the alien planet on our journey across the vastness of space, he asks a few questions about their potential culture, but these questions are topped off with a real kicker of a line: “Are they also a danger to themselves?”

This first speculative moment, itself a bit of a shock—we’ve been sort of expecting to get to Earth, soon, in the cosmic tour—is couched in human terms, and terms of human failure to live up to our possible greatness as a species. Sagan’s belief in us is infectious in his smiling joy and his playful appreciation of our history and context, but so is the underlying skepticism, the fear that perhaps we will not be able to move past our destructive impulses. This reference to our self-destructive capabilities is a hard reminder in the midst of his poetical metaphors that all is not well, and that we need to pay attention to the cosmos for a reason.

There’s one more thing this speculative moment does, too: makes clear that Sagan thinks extra-terrestrial life possible and probable, in a scientific way. That becomes pretty damned obvious, and important, as the series goes on—and probably is one more reason that folks in the SF community, in particular, have had a long-term relationship with this program.

From a contemporary perspective, the sense of time-scale is greater in some cases—for example, when he observes that the rings around Uranus were discovered as recently to Cosmos as 1977, or that the Voyager spacecraft has recently been sent out, etc. To an audience over thirty years in the future, the way time has passed between these projects is yet more striking. Finally, after a brief visit to Mars (which shows Sagan’s rapturous face to intense, provocative music), we make it to Earth.

From there, we plunge into a fascinating discussion of the human race and ancient science. I was particularly struck by the overview of humanity the filming provides, because it is diverse in gender and race; so, too, does Sagan include intentional mentions of women scientists in his later exploration of the history of the library of Alexandria, itself located in north Africa. This attention to unity, and diversity within that unity, is a resonant touch, even today. We’ve hardly hit Sagan’s dreamed-of point of a united people, worldwide. I appreciated the intentional inclusivity a hell of a lot, on this rewatch—I’d managed to forget about it in the intervening years.

Sagan is also careful to put ancient history in conversation with modern history, by doing things like comparing the length of time it takes Voyager to get the Saturn to the time it took the first successful explorers to circumnavigate Africa: 3 years. This, too, is a poetic device—there are a lot of those floating around in Cosmos. (Maybe that’s why I’m so very moved by it?) The discussion of Eratosthenes, too, is enlightening. We don’t generally teach that someone discovered that the world was round and calculated its circumference more than 2200 years ago. We tend to skip ahead to the next person who discovered it, a long time later.

That this exploration of past science leads into an animated tour of the library of Alexandria is just as satisfying, though initially a bit baffling. I was momentarily thrown off by the switch in course, at least. But, as Sagan discusses the scope and significance of the library, the direction that this series will go in becomes even clearer. He says, “If I could travel back into time, this is the place I would visit […] here, in an important sense, began the intellectual adventure which has led us into space.”

The connection is there made: between humanity and the cosmos (which he defines as ordered, the Greek word implying the “deep interconnectedness of all things, the intricate and subtle way that the universe is put together”). He also notes the connection down human history between the lost knowledge of the library of Alexandria and the developments of the Renaissance, where folks had to figure it out all over again. To close, we then move to the first telescopes in the 1920s and where we’ve gone since then….

All of which are to be the continuing focus and motivation, in greater detail, of the Cosmos series.

Restated at the close of the episode is an idea that will resonate down the course of the series too, answering succinctly and evocatively the reason Sagan and the writers wanted to produce Cosmos in the first place, why it has a necessary space—what function, in short, it fulfills:

“We have a choice: we can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15-billion year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence and our knowledge of the cosmos.”


If I could remember my first reaction to the first episode—or even if this was the first episode I ever saw—I would share it. But, I don’t. My memory of Cosmos as a child is mostly patchy, suffused with wonder and glee but not particularly clear or understandable. Rewatching the series now, as an adult, I can appreciate the skill with which Sagan delivers his lines, those sweeping metaphors and useful connective phrases.

“The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean” is, in a real sense, just an introduction, though a fun one. Druyan and Sagan explain the project, set out the parameters for its focus in intricate and moving detail, and then set us up for why the project itself matters.

In a pretty hilarious way, it’s just like the abstract for a longer paper—but really, genuinely gorgeous. And it only gets better from here. (Plus, plenty weirder.)

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter and her website.


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