Dec 28 2012 11:00am

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: Episode 7, “The Backbone of Night”

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Episode 7, The Backbone of Night

The seventh episode of Cosmos, “The Backbone of Night,” is about scientific curiosity and the history of that curiosity—its evolution, and its suppression. The episode begins in Sagan’s present-day Brooklyn with him guest teaching in a classroom where he attended school as a child, then jumps back to ancient Greece. Finally, it trends forward to his contemporary setting again, with a few familiar stops on the way. As Sagan’s memorable introduction says, “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars. […] In our personal lives, also, we journey from ignorance to knowledge. Our individual growth reflects the advancement of the species.” This is an episode about those things: knowledge, advancement, individual growth, and the questions that drive them all.

Similar to the previous episode’s focus on exploration, this is a big-idea-narrative, too. It’s also connected to exploration, but is more about the force driving that push to the stars: passionate questioning. In terms of that questioning, the audience gets both a Western history of it—via the Greeks—and a Western history of suppression and mysticism, from Pythagoras through Christianity. It’s one of the sharper-edged episodes, at moments. However, it also functions as a sort of summation of the episodes that have come before it.

Every one of us begins life with an open mind, a driving curiosity, a sense of wonder.

This is an episode that I remember well from my youth, and it’s also the source of some of the more oft-quoted lines from Cosmos as a whole. That’s probably because the focus on curiosity and the questioning mind, from children to ancient Greek scientists, is at once personal and grandly universal. The dialogue it provokes is one of great change and great understanding, with sweeping invitations to thought, and through thought, the stars. As with the previous episode, here Sagan seems to be arguing for an essential part of human nature—whatever we may now make of any essentialist claims—and, in this case, it’s a driving curiosity, and that sense of wonder that science fiction fans are so familiar with. 

The balance between this dialogue of great openness and innovation and the episode’s co-narrative of the ways that mysticism—particularly religious mysticism—stifles openness is remarkably delicate. Too far to one side and it’s a utopian story about how awesome thinking is; too far to the other and it becomes too militantly atheist for a mainstream audience to remain engaged. Sagan’s genuine engagement and enthusiasm, as well as his poetic diction, are part of what keeps this sensitive balance functioning, and so is the episode’s general focus on children, a child’s mind, and the sense of wonder a child gains from asking questions and finding answers. The serious middle of the episode, where the criticism happens, is bracketed by classroom teaching scenes that are down-to-earth and touching. I don’t think that’s any accident, personally.

The opener really softens up the audience—Sagan’s childhood reminiscences of Brooklyn, as his adult self wanders the city, are delivered with a kind of intimate grace that invites the viewer at home into Sagan’s own heart and mind. The story about going to the library for a book on stars, and how his mind opened up upon reading about space, is a familiar one for many people, and an excellent place to start an episode about curiosity and the power of questioning. At some point, most of us have experienced the moment when “the universe had become much grander than I had ever guessed.” That we then move into a classroom of interested and active kids, learning about the cosmos from Sagan himself, continues the positive feelings evoked by the opener. I mean, who can resist hearing him say things like, “there’s a large potato orbiting the planet Mars?”

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Episode 7, The Backbone of Night

I still laugh at that line. It’s clever and cute, and just right for the small-person audience he’s got on the edge of their seats.

But, what is all this about questioning? The meat of the episode isn’t the cute parts at the beginning and end about kids and Sagan’s childhood. It’s about the first Greek scientists, who thought and questioned and explored—who were passionately curious. We’ve talked about them before; when I say this episode is a bit of a recap, that’s because in the trip through time we visit many of the places we’ve been before. Sagan touches on Aristarchus, Kepler and the Dutch again; the same footage from those respective episodes appears once more. However, this time, they’re being interpreted in a larger framework. He taught us about the facts first—and now he’s exploring what we can deduce from them. Scientific thinking in action.

He also returns to ideas about mysticism from the episode that skillfully takes down astrology—a thing most folks aren’t too defensive of—and stretches them to the next logical conclusion: the conflict between “cosmos and chaos,” “nature and the gods.” It’s about much more than just how silly astrology is this time. Rather, it’s about how dangerous mysticism has actively suppressed, stifled, and destroyed scientific interest and knowledge. This argument is framed subtly in terms of Christianity and contemporary religion, though Sagan takes plenty of hard shots at Pythagoras and Plato (who quite deserve it).

As for them, he lays out the Pythagorean hypocrisies and the Platonic ethical fractures in a short and powerful argument that I still find useful to this day. “Ordinary people were to be kept ignorant,” Sagan says of the Pythagoreans’ work. “Instead of wanting everyone to share and know of their discoveries, they suppressed the square root of two and the dodecahedron.” And Plato loved the elitism and secrecy, equally, as he argues. Plato was hostile to the real world, experiments, practicality, etc.; his followers eventually extinguished the light of science in Ionia. And it stayed that way until the Renaissance. That’s a sobering fact, and one that would make most audiences—now comfortable, after six episodes and the gentle opener to this one, with having their minds opened a bit—feel at least a touch of discomfort.

Exploring Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Episode 7, The Backbone of Night

So, why the mystics over the scientists? I still think Sagan’s argument holds true today, when he says that “they provided, I believe, an intellectually respectable justification for a corrupt social order.” Issues of slavery had to be glossed over in this philosophy, for example; the physical world had to be divorced from thought. They alienated body from mind, thought from matter, and divorced earth from the heavens—divisions which were to dominate western thinking for more than twenty centuries. The Pythagoreans had won. Sagan says it much like that, and I can’t sum it up any better—the mystics had won; they supported elitism and limited power. Experimental science, on the other hand, asks us all to question, to be curious, to insist on finding answers.

People who insist on finding answers aren’t very good for a corrupt political and social order, or for mysticism.

The argument for science and curiosity over mysticism in this episode is the strongest yet, and it’s a theme that Sagan returns to over and over, ever closer and ever sharper, easing the audience into it. Then, having done the hard work, we return to the classroom and the sense of wonder for one of my favorite Sagan monologues ever:

As long as there have been humans, we have searched for our place in the cosmos […] we find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.

Yeah. That sounds just about right to me. We are cosmically insignificant, and yet ultimately significant in a grander way because our participation in the knowing and understanding of things, our curiosity, our drive. Sagan’s pretty much the best we’ve had in the West at distilling scientific wisdom into poetic, lovely, important truths that we can use to better structure our understanding of our universe, and also our empathy.


Come back next week for episode 8, “Travels in Space and Time.”

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.

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
In a previous review, you mentioned the problem with focusing too much on the European, colonialist side of history and ignoring the other point of view. This episode falls prey to that too. The Western narrative is that the Greeks had advanced science and culture, it was "lost" in the Dark Ages, and it was only rediscovered in the Renaissance. But that's ethnocentric rubbish. Greek knowledge and culture spread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Mideast; the Islamic world was as much its inheritor as Europe was. And while Western Europe lost sight of that legacy and fell into feudal barbarism, the Islamic world kept it alive and advanced it with a lively spirit of scientific innovation, pioneering new developments in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, engineering, and the like. The West "rediscovered" the knowledge of the Greeks because of an eventual increase in trade and cultural exchange with the Islamic world, which had never forgotten it.

So Sagan's premise that the Ionians were on the verge of a modern scientific revolution and we could've gotten into space two millennia earlier if that knowledge and spirit of innovation hadn't been "lost" doesn't really hold up. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution were only possible because Europe was able to build on what the societies of Asia and North Africa had achieved over the preceding centuries.
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo

Very good point.

This pops up again in a later episode, too. Here, I feel like he's using this narrative because it allows him to do the stuff he wants to do with mysticism-versus-science, but it's certainly problematic.
Michael Burke
3. Ludon
As with the overall structure of this episode, the choice of setting for one segment could not have been an accident. While He was explaining the notion that the universe was knowable, that one could find order (cosmos) among the chaos, my eye was drawn to the chaotic rock formations in the background and I thought about geology which offered knowable reasons for such complex structures. All of these well thought out decisions by Sagan and his crew are part of what makes this series so special and so lasting in its impact on people.

This episode has another moment where his future became thought of as our history. In the segment at the end when he and selected students demonstrate two methods for looking for planets around distant stars then he says something like "Someday, when you're as old as I am, we will know about planets around other stars." The experiments seem to have worked and we believe we do know about planets around distant stars. However. That transition does not lessen his lesson but instead transforms it to a reminder of how we obtained this knowledge.
Eugene R.
4. Eugene R.
Scientists and their pesky questions: "What are stars?" When everybody already knows the answer: "They're lights in the sky, kid!"

ChristopherLBennett (@2): I think that Sagan is a bit more subtle here than simply repeating the idea that Greek science was "lost" to the northern barbarians. His thesis is that the disappearance of Science in the late Classical (Greco-Roman) world is more of a suicide than a murder mystery, with the Greeks and Romans themselves doing the dirty deed of extinguishing curiosity because it unsettled the social order and its theological/ideological rationalizations.
Christopher Bennett
5. ChristopherLBennett
@4: The point is not about the mechanism by which that society turned its back on progress. The point is the mistaken belief that the knowledge was lost at all. It wasn't, because the Islamic world kept it alive and advanced it. A lot of Westerners operate under the false perception that the "Dark Ages" were a global phenomenon, because for so long Western schools taught history from a strictly, profoundly Eurocentric perspective. In fact, they were strictly a Western European phenomenon, and indeed many other cultures around the world were going through periods of prosperity and growth during that same era -- mainly the flourishing of Islamic civilization, but also Shankara's reinvigoration of Hinduism, the growth of trade networks among the horse nomads of Central Asia (the Silk Road) and the agrarian communities of North America, the flourishing of Inca civilization in South America, the Bantu migrations spreading agriculture and iron-smelting through sub-Saharan Africa, and the reunification of China under the Tang and Song Dynasties. Hardly a dark age where most of the planet was concerned.
Eugene R.
6. Eugene R.
ChristopherLBennett (@5): Not to get too far ahead of the game, but as Sagan points out in the final episode, when discussing the Library of Alexandria, we know of titles to 123 plays by Sophocles, yet only 7 texts survive relatively intact. So, some set of knowledge has been lost from Hellenic times to now, and a significant portion of that loss was deliberate and by commission rather than accidental and by omission.

Your observation of broader historical circumstances helps nuance Sagan's generalization. But, for Sagan, the mechanism of loss is the point, and Sagan's point is not discounted even though some of the loss was offset by Islamic preservation and transmission of Greek learning.

Plus, Sagan's argument does remove a lot of the faux "victim" status that cloaks Greco-Roman history in a guazy veil of mistaken identity as some kind of lone outpost of human Civilization, tending forelornly the Light of Reason while all else is howling Wilderness. I think your points and his work well together.
Christopher Bennett
7. ChristopherLBennett
@6: But what I'm referring to specifically is the notion hinted at here (or maybe just in the book version) that if Ionian science hadn't fallen, we might've been to the stars over a millennium sooner. That implies that science and knowledge were lost globally for that span of time, and that's simply not true.
Eugene R.
8. Eugene R.
ChristopherLBennett (@7): Ah, thank you for the clarification. I begin to see the nature of your critique. I would agree with you that the lack of mention of other scientfic traditions could make Sagan's argument look like "Ionian science = Science" and so lead to the inference that squelching the Ionian inquiry would be a global setback. Good point.

In Sagan's defense, I would venture that adding in the other traditions (Chinese, Indian, Persian, et al.) would expand his story out of the bounds of his series framework. Plus, it would leave us wondering why all these traditions also "ran out of steam" (so to speak) before launching the Scientific Revolution (commonly held to have occurred during or as a result of the European Renaissance). Sagan's approach may be overly simplified, but I think it still bears some merit from his revision of the commonly held notion of "(Internal) Keepers of the flame versus (external) barbarians" that romanticizes European history.
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
@8: Nothing "ran out of steam." It's true, as Sagan spelled out, that some cultures' value systems and social structures are more conducive to progress and innovation than others. But the Scientific Revolution in Europe was partly an outgrowth of the centuries of scientific progress that preceded it in the Islamic world. The combination of the knowledge of the East with the mercantile, socially mobile culture of the West at that point in history created a synergy that wouldn't have existed without both elements. I don't think that would've conflicted with Sagan's point at all.
Eugene R.
10. SF
@8 Eugene R. and @9 ChristopherLBennett: Christopher, you make some good points (particularly when you say that nothing ran out of steam). However, I agree with what Eugene R. has said in his posts above in terms of what Sagan was trying to get at.

Sagan was more interested in the mechanism of the loss of knowledge, and the way in which that mechanism may still operate, or be poised to operate, in the modern world. Keep in mind the Cold War context in which the series originally aired, and which was very much a part of the series. Again and again, the series touches on the (then very real) idea of our contemporary civilization destroying itself via nuclear war (and to a lesser extent, by opposition to science), and occasionally looks backwards for historical analogues.

Also, and pardon because this isn't a very clear thought, just something that popped into my head just now, couldn't it be argued that, from the perspective of Western Europeans, knowledge was indeed lost for a while? From a global view, much knowledge was not lost (though some was, as Eugene points out with Sophocles plays). But for the portion of the planet's population in Western Europe, for those individuals, for the extent of their lives, for many lifetimes, something was indeed lost.

I guess I'm saying it doesn't have to be an either/or sort of thing. And that the narrative Sagan is laying out, Eurocentric though it may be, is still a useful narrative, insofar as it offers an analogy of a possible future for ourselves. A civilization can collapse in part due to internal rather than external pressures. He's suggesting that you take that more limited example, that applies to one region of the world, and consider whether it could occur to the entire world's connected civilization. He's using that historically specific process as a model to think about the then-current state and future of our own civilization, which is one of the primary focii of "Cosmos." Sagan wants us to think about the possibilities that were lost, and about the possibilities that could be lost.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@10: See post 7. I wasn't objecting to his general argument, but to one specific claim he made that doesn't hold up.
Eugene R.
12. Aggie
I grew up in Brooklyn and I have seen e few references and a video clip of Carl Sagan visiting his 6th grade class. I was just wondering if anyone could shed light on his early years and what elementary school he attended and revisited in that clip?

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