A True Story of Life, the Universe, and Everything
I recently rewatched Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the TV mini-series created by Carl Sagan, which was originally broadcast on PBS in 1980. I did this partly as research for the novel I’m currently writing, but also because I love this series. It remains my favorite science documentary. When I first saw it over three decades ago, it changed my perception of life, the universe, and everything. That’s a significant accomplishment for a TV show. If you have not seen it, or if you have seen it and wish to watch it again, I urge you to do so. The entire series is on YouTube and (with commercials) on Hulu.
With equal parts of skepticism and wonder, Cosmos presented not only some of the discoveries of science, but also an explanation of what science is, how it works, and how it is different from other methods people have used to try to understand the universe. If I could recommend only one video series for all people to see, it would be this one. It has been sixteen years since Carl Sagan’s death and twice that since Cosmos first aired, but he still speaks to us, or at least to me.
The universe began about fifteen billion years ago. It is difficult, if not impossible, for any person to grasp such a vast period, so Cosmos includes a translation of this into a length of time we can intuitively understand. Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar portrays the entire span of the known cosmos as a single year, with the Big Bang in the first second of January. On this scale, each second represents five hundred years, and all of recorded human history occurs in only the last few seconds of the last minute of December thirty-first.
This is an enlightening and humbling perspective. From a cosmic point of view, we have not been around long, and most of what we have achieved, most of our understanding about our place in the universe, has occurred only in what amounts to a few heartbeats at this scale. To me, this emphasizes not only how brief our existence has been but also how fortunate we are to exist at all. It also implies a certain responsibility to survive and to continue learning. As Carl Sagan once said, we are a way for the cosmos to know itself. It would be a shame for us to waste the opportunity.
The following video is an excellent remix of the Cosmic Calendar. It is based primarily on the first episode of Cosmos, although it replaces some of the original art with computer animation. It comes from the Carl Sagan Tribute Series on YouTube. I invite you to watch it.