The World Needed the Return of 'Cosmos'

03/17/2014 12:19 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

This past week, the much lauded TV show Cosmos made its return to the small screen, more than three decades after Carl Sagan famously sought to teach people from all walks of life about the wonders of science. The world has changed since that first series, and the nature of public education with it. Yet the need for such a TV show committed to the celebration of knowledge and learning is perhaps greater than in Sagan's day.

Back in 1980, I was a 13-year-old immigrant kid, youngest in a busy, working class household of seven people, and attending a Toronto inner city middle school that was not exactly a model of academic excellence. While I was drawn to the study of science, I had no focus for my passions, no sense of where these interests could take me, or how they hung together into something resembling a life philosophy. I had no role models for such pursuits, no one to suggest an educational or career path, or -- more importantly -- how the study of science fit with other types of learning, in terms of both historical context and personal enlightenment. Despite their best efforts, most public school teachers were ill equipped for conveying such perspective and inspiration; and I'd come from a long line of farmers, factory workers and labourers, so knew of no one in my familial or friendly circles who had ever sought education beyond the equivalent of middle school.

Enter into that world Carl Sagan, a man who would quickly become my boyhood hero. He was a deep-thinking, scholarly astronomer who took the challenge of public education quite seriously. He suffered for his philosophy. He was denied tenure at Harvard, and unfair accusations of frivolity would follow him through most of his professional life, due entirely to his focus on making science accessible to non-scientists.

From its opening scene, in which Sagan invited us on his "ship of the imagination," accompanied by the otherworldly musical strains of Vangelis's "Heaven and Hell," it was clear that Cosmos was not going to be another dry space documentary. This was something different, something special, something profound.

To an inner city denizen with a thirst for knowledge, but whose surroundings were not capable of providing exactly the sort of mental stimulation he craved, Cosmos was a revelation. In it, Sagan brought context. What does history have to do with physics? What does biology have to do with philosophy? What does religion have to do with mathematics? Sagan wove these elements together effortlessly, presenting for my generation the voyage of the human spirit, its quest for actualization and for knowledge of its place in the universe. He did so through an accessible narrative that was neither haughty, paternalistic nor overly simplified.

The great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore was given the sobriquet, gurudev, which means "divine teacher." I always felt that Carl Sagan deserved a similar honourific. What he was able to do still amazes me: seamlessly bringing the relevance of science to the masses, not in a condescending preachy way, but in a way that celebrated the search for knowledge as a natural growth from other human quests for belonging and meaning.

In the pre-Internet era, during which the entire family still gathered nightly to watch the household's sole TV on a given evening, Sagan's Cosmos filled a yawning gap in public education, that of personalized context. He showed how science could be rich, intimate, and profound, yet relevant to all people, even those cursorily uninterested in the specifics of scientific discovery and study. Cosmos provided guidance and context to a generation of mostly young people whose traditional sources of education had failed to bring together the importance and beauty of disparate disciplines.

The new Cosmos has a different task, one perhaps with greater stakes. Sagan's widow and the show's writer, Ann Druyan, famously bemoaned the return of "magical thinking" to our supposedly secular lives, alluding to the new rise of superstition, religiosity, and so-called anti-science. She suggested that a concerted effort must be made to combat this trend of regressive reasoning.

At the dawn of the 21st century, one of the global trends that surprised many scholars was the re-assertion of religion -- often of a fundamentalist bent -- into public, personal, and political life. Fundamentalist Islam is one of the most featured characteristics of the world's current security concerns. Fundamentalist Christianity is the bugaboo that confounds progressive policy making in the USA, as does fundamentalist Hinduism in India. An acceptance of doctrinal thinking has erupted anew into classrooms and governments, having seeped from churches, temples and homes into the official institutions of our nominally secular society.

With the renewed explosion of this style of religiosity has come a weird celebration of anti-intellectualism, to the point where politicians must eschew their academic origins for fear of being perceived as elitist, while a culture of celebrity worship increasingly outshouts the valuation of factual knowledge and deep analysis.

It is not my intent to conflate spiritual belief, which can be deeply personally important, with the vacuousness of reality TV obsession. Rather, I merely point out that both open religiosity and the rise of anti-intellectualism are both trends that appear to be enjoying a current resurgence in parallel. Unlike many of my fellow scientists, I actually do believe that religion can have an important role to play in our everyday lives. But its increasing dominance in the public discourse hearkens to the dark days when religion was characterized by dogma, not exploration.

I am therefore certain that featuring The Inquisition in the new Cosmos's first episode was a well planned and unsubtle opening barrage against the creep of intellectual suppression being experienced in such places as public high schools, where evidence-based topics like Evolution are being limited by religious agendas. For scientists and educators, this is a battle we'd thought we'd won decades ago. To see it resurface is troubling indeed.

Historian Niall Ferguson has famously argued that the West is experiencing a decline of wealth and innovation, and that such priorities are now being adopted in the emerging economies of East Asia. Correlated with this shift has been the devaluation of science and mathematics education in our schools, and an accelerating move away from the enlightened age-old philosophy of learning for learning's sake.

As Ann Druyan wrote almost 10 years ago, "The engine of science continues to churn out discoveries at an astonishing rate, and yet our culture seems to have lost the ability to translate these insights into a grander perspective... An unctuous piety suffuses every public utterance."

Combining Druyan's and Ferguson's observations, we perceive that our inability or unwillingness to stifle the rise of anti-intellectualism will result in stagnation: cultural, spiritual, intellectual, and financial.

We need grand, showy ventures into public education. Since Sagan's original series, scores of science documentaries, and indeed entire networks dedicated to education, have come and gone.Cosmos is a different beast entirely. It is not the exposition of a specific idea or subject, relegated to a media niche already well tread by those who seek such things. Rather, it is an attempt to make the glories of learning relevant to all, to wash away the spoor of willful ignorance that has settled upon so much of the world.

We need another gurudev and many more like him.


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