One of the biggest influences on my young scientific brain was the amazing thirteen part Cosmos series written by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan. It aired in 1980 when I was 13 years old and I still feel it’s impact and influence on my young mind. It was the most widely watched series in the history of public television and is still one of the most widely watched PBS series in the world. It’s been broadcast in more than 60 countries and watched by more than 500 million people. For it’s day, it was so well produced from the special effects to the soundtracks to the simple Storytelling. The series brilliant blending of science, history, poetry, music creates tremendous education for a young mind and at 13 I was a sponge.
In this series, the concepts include our universe, DNA, astronomy (Kepler, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe), an entire episode devoted to Mars, Space-Time and Einstein, Voyager’s Golden Record and our collective intelligence. It’s all here.
One particular episode stood out for me above all others. The concepts described in the Flatland episode intrigues me to this day. The possibilities of “what’s out there?” and how it might look make me full of wonder. I still love the part how the 3D cube casts a shadow on the 2D Flatland and further, how we can imagine the fourth dimension by creating a “shadow” in our 3D world…even though we can never physically see this 4th dimensional “shape”.
Today I think of this concept as “Perspective” and I regular use this Flatland analogy when I feel perspective is needed.
I love how Carl simply poses great questions and teaches without lecturing.
“Cosmology brings us face-to-face with the deepest mysteries of questions that were once treated only in religion and myth”
“Who know for certain? Who shall here declare it? Whence was it born?…….these words are 3500 years old. They are taken from the Rig Veda, a collection of early Sanskrit hymns. The most sophisticated ancient cosmological ideas came from Asia and particularly from India. Here, there’s a tradition of skeptical questioning and un-selfconscious humility before the great cosmic mysteries..”
I marvel at the consistent blend of poetry, science, history, and cultural concepts and begin to understand how these ideas were planted in my young mind as they were in many other young minds. Here he talks about Erathosthenes precisely figuring out the circumference of the earth with “sticks, eyes, feet, and brains” plus a “zest for experiment”
On Atoms and the Lives of Stars, Cutting an Apple Pie, Standing Between 2 Mirrors
The concept of “the infinity of small” and the “infinity of large” still intrigues me to this day. Then there’s the perspective there are whole worlds happening inside of 1 atom and the realization there were only 92 atoms identified back in the 80’s when this video was made (there are nearly 120 now). The neutron was not even discovered until 1932. These last 2 facts prove that we have barely scratched our understanding of the universe and the science we have yet to discover.
As for the Googol and Googolplex (Minute 7 in the video above) little did we know that 20 years later, these words would take on a whole new meaning.
I’ll end this mini-video series with one of Carl Sagan’s most persistent and timeless messages for humanity
“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them, there’s a succession of incidence, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet, at this moment, here we face a critical branch-point in the history. What we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilization, and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition, or greed, or stupidity, we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But, we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet. To enhance enormously our understanding of the Universe, and to carry us to the stars.”