Dec 21 2012 10:00am

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Episode 6, “Travellers’ Tales”

Exploring Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6, "Travellers' Tales"

The sixth episode of Cosmos, “Travellers’ Tales,” revolves around a juxtaposition of the Dutch explorer-merchants of the 17th century and the two Voyager craft that were sent into space during the late summer of 1977. As a whole, it is very much about “human voyages of exploration” on our planet and off of it: how those voyages have worked, what they have revealed to us, and what we still have left to explore in the vastness of the cosmos. It is a romantic episode that uplifts curiosity and the bravery required to voyage into unknown space—though, of course, there is an undercurrent of problematic implication to the delight in “exploration” when it’s read through the lens of those 17th century Dutchmen.

The past few episodes have focused on particular planets one at a time (Venus, then Mars), but this episode shifts the focus back to a wider-angle shot, so to speak, and considers the outer planets as a group in the context of the Voyager explorations. The shift in “Travellers’ Tales” is to the idea of exploration as a guiding force that makes the human species unique and binds us together—as exemplified by the Indonesian sailors who settled islands throughout the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, by the folks who circumnavigated the globe, those who sailed around the horn of Africa, etc. As Sagan says, “These voyagers, of many cultures, were the first planetary explorers. […] In our exploration of other worlds, we follow in their footsteps.”

(Note: the format of these posts is changing slightly—leaving off the majority of the summary, from here on out, for more discussion of the episodes.)

Exploring Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6, "Travellers' Tales"

“We have travelled this way before, and there is much to be learned by studying those great voyages of a few centuries ago.”—This is the guiding sentiment of “Travellers’ Tales.” It’s a literary sentiment, the idea that stories structure our world, and that stories are the commodity that we gain from exploration then bring back to trade amongst ourselves. The juxtaposition of stories—the 17th century Dutch scientific and exploratory culture with the late ‘70’s narratives of the Voyager spacecrafts—allows us, in a metonymic way, to understand a piece of human nature that Sagan seems to be arguing holds us together as a species.

The urge to explore and to learn is a sensible thing to discuss in Cosmos, especially considering the overall trajectory of the series: to popularize and explain the way of thinking that science represents. It’s not just about giving facts; it’s about giving a way of thinking, a way of understanding the world that we live in via curiosity, testing, and creativity. Illustrating this episode after episode from different angles is the gift that Cosmos ultimately gives its viewers—though each episode is itself a delight, the message of the whole is significant. It also shapes how Sagan frames his facts and figures.

Of course, when it comes to this episode, both of those parts are in evidence: the big idea and the data-level facts and explanations. The big idea is about exploration, and is pulled out through the juxtaposition of the two stories; the explanatory facts are about 17th century Holland, the Voyager crafts, and the outer planets of the solar system. It is in the second group that this episode seems most dated, and conversely the scientific activity becomes even more impressive. The mission control for the Voyager crafts is almost breath-takingly outdated, technologically. The computers are simplistic; the digital images produced by the Voyager crafts are often somewhat rudimentary; the magnetic memory discs are bigger than Frisbees; the printers are clunky and slow.

Exploring Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6, "Travellers' Tales"

And yet—with this technology, now somewhat archaic, we built the Voyager crafts, sent them into space, received their images, interpreted the information to make new stories, and, ultimately, sent the first space-faring crafts out of our solar system. In that context, the otherwise-quaint technology is rather stunning. (In the reverse, it’s a bit disappointing how little we’ve done with all of the technological developments we’ve made in the last thirty years.)

This, too, ties into the big idea juxtaposition: consider the technology we used to fling the Voyager crafts into space and to interpret their data, and then consider how much less the Dutch scientists and explorers had. And yet, once more, they invented both the telescope and the microscope in Holland; they traded ideas, objects, and various forms of capital around the world; they explored past boundaries otherwise uncrossed by Europeans. Sagan also makes a point, repeatedly, about how the Dutch’s success came from their intellectual curiosity and freedom, as opposed to the restrictions of the Church elsewhere in Europe during that time.

Exploring Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6, "Travellers' Tales"

However, one thing that isn’t really addressed to my satisfaction is an acknowledgement of the second side of the “exploration” coin when we’re talking about the surface of the earth: colonialism. The mention of the colonizing of Australia is positive and doesn’t examine for even a moment the Eurocentric problem of arguing that a place has been explored only after a white European finds it and moves in. That needs some unpacking, particularly through the contemporary lens of post-colonial theory.

Also, there’s one moment in which the episode is gesturing toward a progressive viewpoint while also revealing much of the situational culture of the late ‘70s: the mission control scene when Sagan’s voice-over notes that “men and women” are the new explorers. But, we only see one woman in the entire room for that scene, which is otherwise full of men. The episode also chooses to interview another woman scientist over a man, and while I certainly appreciate the effort of Cosmos to include women in its purview, it also doesn’t hide the reality of the situation for women scientists at that time. (A situation that hasn’t changed too terribly much in the intervening decades, though it has evolved some.)

But, back to the episode: that big idea about exploration comes through even more clearly in the last twenty minutes. As Sagan says, “The more you learn about other worlds, the better we know our own.” By exploring, we both learn and create new stories, and those stories structure our lives. By exploring, “Slowly, we begin to understand.” The use of the familiar soaring song from the Cosmos score, alongside music that sounds classical in nature, rounds out the episode as Sagan explores once more the connections between space-faring crafts and sea-faring crafts across time. One of the more moving scenes in the episode, in fact, is the last moment in which the illustrated Voyager craft mutates into an illustration of a Dutch “flying ship”—each made by humans then sent out to explore. And, by exploring, they bring us back stories that we can use to explain ourselves to ourselves and the cosmos as well. The personification of the Voyager crafts, pretending that they’ve written captain’s logs saying things like “If the backup transmitter fails, no one on earth will ever hear from us again,” is an emotional closing strategy for this narrative episode, too; it makes us consider the crafts as if they are manned like the Dutch’s boats, but the craft itself is the one doing the thinking. It’s clever, and a little unscientific, but quite literary—much like the episode’s general function.

Exploring Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Episode 6, "Travellers' Tales"

The curiosity that drives science is the curiosity that drives exploration, and exploration allows us to discover new, radical truths about things like the planet Jupiter, which could have been another sun if it had been larger, or the moon Io, with its volcanoes (discovered by a woman!). Science is driven, in a real way, by exploration—and that’s what this episode seems to be trying to illustrate.


Come back next week for episode 7, “The Backbone of Night.”

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 or her website.

Michael Burke
1. Ludon
I'll comment again after rewatching the episode but I wanted to respond to your comment

"(In the reverse, it’s a bit disappointing how little we’ve done with all of the technological developments we’ve made in the last thirty years.)"

I think we've done a lot - given the political and social climate. There are two reasons that it seems like we've not done much. First is the general public's attitude 'I've seen that (pictures from another planet/moon/asteroid or deep space telescope shot) before. Show me something that isn't so last century.' And, second, is that most of what has been being done has been baby-steps in many different directions each building upon what has been done before. For instance, I heard a piece the other day about the accurate density/gravity map we now have of the Moon. That's not going to make front page news but it is an important step in planing for returning to the Moon with goals greater than just planting the flag and picking up a few rocks.

In my opinion, political needs drove the race to the Moon and that wasn't a good thing for the space programs - ours and the Soviet Union's program. Before the Kennedy Administration started thinking about the Moon race, the books and articles on space travel and space exploration presented small step or building block approaches to getting us truly into a space age.
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo

"I think we've done a lot - given the political and social climate."

I'd agree that, given our situation, we've done some nice things--and I also don't think that the space race was necessarily the best way to get things accomplished.

However, I do think that the lack of funding, public interest, etc. over the past two decades in particular has been a major setback. In my fantasy world, the trillions we've spent in the US on war and the military-industrial complex could have been spent in the direction of further scientific advancement.
Eugene R.
3. Eugene R.
I remember being very excited in the early '70s by the idea of the Grand Tour of the Solar System that the Voyager craft were going to make, thanks to a convenient alignment of the outer planets (little Pluto excepted). Your review of this episode, Ms. Mandelo, seems to echo that feeling quite nicely.

And good catch on the bypassing of the darker side of the exploration/exploitation coin, colonialism, to which we sf types should be a bit more aware, given our knack for tracing our genre back to one of the biggest anti-colonialist novels of all time, The War of the Worlds.

Also, while I agree that we could have and should have done a lot more scientific exploration, I will speak up for the best anthropomorphized scientific instruments of the last decade, Spirit and Opportunity, them plucky little rovers who are on the 9th year of their 3-month mission to Mars, worthy successors to the Voyager craft. We have made a few great uses out of our newer tech.
Michael Burke
4. Ludon
On watching the episode this time I picked up on two things. First was that he made a few references to the low cost of these missions - something like a few pennies from each person on the Earth (at that time). However, I think these references were kept subtle in an effort to not let the debate over the cost of the space program spoil the theme of this episode. I think he didn't go into the excesses of exploitation - aside from the few subtle hints such as explaining the statue/relief of Justice in the City Hall, and the mention that the items brought back from the journeys were often sold in Europe for a profit. This may have been both a creative decision (not to detract from the wonder of the information) and a political/economic decision. Corporations and companies involved in the space program see the potential for reward/profit from space based resources and Sagan and his team relied on those corporations for support for this production and for the scientific ventures that were their regular jobs.

The other thing I picked up on was that some TV watchers today would have a problem with the slowness of this series. I'm of a generation that valued shows that gave me things to think about and that gave me time to appreciate what I was seeing/hearing and this series certainly does that. But, for children who grew up on Pokemon (with its short scenes and distracting transitions) this show could be boring. I thought of this while watching the images appear on the screens in the control room. You see, the first pass of an incoming image was not as fast as shown here. I think here we were seeing reprocessed images being represented. The later Voyager encounters were carried live on the news or science channels late night and the pictures grew line by line (of pixels) at a speed of a line of two every few seconds. That slowness and the fact that the TV view of Armstrong climbing down the LM ladder to take that first step on the Moon was upside down are examples of 'problems' that have been 'corrected' by history. I guess the new Cosmos will 'correct' the slowness of the original.
Brit Mandelo
5. BritMandelo
@Eugene R.

I do love the newer rovers; it's hard not to be enamored of the photos etc. coming back to us from Mars.


I'm not so sure about the slowness/quickness issue--namely because I am part of the generation that grew up in the 90's with Pokemon and all of that, and I also watched reruns of Cosmos and loved them (and still enjoy it now). I suspect that folks who enjoy deep exploration of ideas and spending time on thinking will still enjoy it, no matter their generation. Also, in his own speeches, Neil deGrasse Tyson has a similar style to Sagan: a bit of a raconteur. He tends to give story and narrative, not just rush into things.

On the other hand, I do expect that we'll have a lot more visual "oomph" in the new series to appeal to a contemporary audience--more effects, etc.
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
What's amazing is that the Voyager probes are still doing active science over three decades later. Voyager 1 is probably within months of becoming the first human construct to enter interstellar space (i.e. cross beyond the Sun's magnetic field, which it's currently right on the edge of), and it's still sending back data.

As for returning to space, my own history studies in college suggested that frontier exploration/development only really takes off when private industry gets involved with government backing. Once it becomes profitable, then it becomes self-sustaining. And we're on the verge of that right now, with SpaceX and other private firms developing spaceships and planning Moon and Mars missions.

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