Mankind better responds to stories than facts. Facts by themselves are often boring, but put those facts into a good story and now you’ve got the attention of your audience. You want to be taken seriously? You first need to get attention.
Each academic discipline has its theoreticians and its communicators. Often the best communicators aren’t the best theoreticians. Communicating with the public is very different from communicating with colleagues in your field. Carl Sagan was one of the few who stood atop both worlds. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was watched by over 500 million people when it debuted, in 1980, a record at the time. It instantly made Carl Sagan a household name, and 20 years after his death at a relatively early age, he is still celebrated almost as a sage from what turned out to be a far more innocent, livelier time. Will Carl Sagan be remembered for eternity? It’s too soon to say, but he’s off to a good start.
But why? What made Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage so special? What separates it from the other programs in its field and Sagan from other scientists? Before and since, there have been countless other science programs intended for the general public, presented by communicator-scientists. Sure, Cosmos‘ special effects were groundbreaking for their time, this much is true, but if special effects alone determined quality in a production, Die Another Day would be better than From Russia With Love. Clearly, the special effects helped, but as accessories to other factors that were in play.
The Story of the Cosmos
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was named as such for a reason. Carl Sagan was taking you, the viewer on a journey that was as personal to you as it was to him. It enraptured you. You were often journeying in the first person, peering out the window of that famous “ship of the imagination,” as if you were the pilot. When you weren’t, Carl Sagan was there as your companion. In fact, the very first episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage had Carl Sagan taking you on a ride from halfway to the edge of the universe, through galaxy clusters, over Andromeda, into the Milky Way, on a visit to a strange new world with extraterrestrial intelligence, through the Orion nebula where new stars are forming, through the solar system, on a short detour to Mars, and then finally back home. “At the end of this personal voyage, we see the Earth anew, as if we arrived from somewhere else,” Carl Sagan says. It sure felt like it, especially since you were in the driver’s seat of the ship for much of the journey. When watching Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, particularly from the point of view of the “ship of the imagination,” it sometimes almost lends itself to the illusion that you are physically making your way through those endless clusters of stars.
But it’s not just to the depths of space that you take a personal voyage to in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. You journey into the microscopic world. You see the insides of your body’s cells. You see how DNA replicates and how blood clots form in wounds. You see white blood cells ravenously attacking invaders. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is a journey to Venus and Mars, and also one across the many lands of our own world. Carl Sagan goes from Japan, to India, to Egypt, to Greece, to the Netherlands, to England, to his home in New York City, to the deserts of the American southwest, to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to check on the Voyager probes, and onward. All the places and people you encounter on this voyage are a part of how we came to understand the universe, and their stories are told.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is also a journey in time. We experience the origins of our species from a primordial soup. We also see ourselves standing on a cosmic calendar that stretches from the Big Bang on January 1st to our own day, the last second of December 31st. We find that we emerged so recently that our recorded history lasts only a few seconds of the cosmic year.
From the cells in our bodies to the fate of the galaxies, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage takes us to them all, and they’re all wrapped together in a cohesive story. We are very much taken on a cosmic Odyssey, with our own ship for our own time, to witness our own dangers that make us feel alive. Each episode is its own story. In one we may learn how Champollion deciphered the ancient Egyptian language, only to then figure out how we might decipher and communicate with an extraterrestrial civilization, the next chapter of the same story. In another episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan guides us through the biological journey of life on Earth, leaving us with an epilogue of what life might be like on Jupiter or a planet like it, with vivid artwork.
Different as each episode may be – episode 2 about biological evolution, episode 9 about stellar evolution, episode 10 about cosmic evolution, and so on, each episode is like one whole book of an unfolding epic story, and they’re all stitched together to make a coherent whole. The beginning and the end of the epic are equally memorable. The first part of episode 1 shows us “on the shores of the cosmic ocean” and we make our journey across the universe. At the end of the last episode, after we’ve seen it all – big and small, Carl Sagan implores us to cherish ourselves and what the cosmos gave us, so that we may one day return to the awesome heavens from which we sprang.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is never told as a fact-based story. It’s rather an Odyssey based on facts. But an epic story is nothing without the storyteller, almost literally the bard in Cosmos‘ case. That brings us to the second reason why this show was so special.
The Skill of the Bard
A couple of years ago, I remember a friend saying that Carl Sagan was more like a storyteller than a scientist. He had more in common with Homer than he did with scientists working in a lab. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos wasn’t just a showcasing of his ability to simplify complex subjects with ordinary language, but to suck you into the story, to make it unfold at just the right pace. He paced you just right and then hit you with the big, awesome stuff.
Note the intermixing of facts with physical sensations and sensual cues, and the suggestions along with mysteries to contemplate, and then the call to action: “come with me.”
That’s a beginning like the Iliad or the Odyssey.
But more than these language patterns combined with the overall narrative technique that Cosmos: A Personal Voyage uses, was Carl Sagan’s personal qualities. Notably, his voice was perfect for the program. It was never monotonic, but never hit you in the face either. Instead he played various notes of a slow serenade, his voice full of wonder and fascination for the cosmos that he loved so much. Even though he was the one who was taking us on the voyage, the captain of the ship, the teacher of the secrets, he was still one of us. He was still in as much awe as we were by what he was showing us, and in a way, he was an equal, because there was so much more out there than either he or we knew.
And it was because Carl Sagan was fascinated so much for the cosmos that he spread those contagious emotions to us. He wanted to go deeper, and so did we. He set the tone throughout, and though that emotional atmosphere is often there in other programs of Cosmos’ genre, including its successor, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has it in more intensity, an intensity that is calm, but powerful, like the currents beneath an otherwise tranquil sea. While Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was a worthy successor, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is the program that changed its genre, with Carl Sagan as the change agent. All subsequent programs and science popularizers come in his wake.
By turning the complexity of the universe into an epic story and by telling it with the skill of a bard, Carl Sagan made the cosmos accessible. The voyage was as personal to him as to us. He made it that way. And when we look at the stars in the night sky (provided we can see them, that is), and wonder about those planets orbiting them and whether or not there’s little critters crawling around or maybe extraterrestrial trips patrolling the distances between those stars, we are in many ways channeling thoughts that came from him. And then we return to Earth, and remember what he told us: “we are star stuff contemplating the stars.”
What other scientist has had such influence on our thoughts as he did?
To learn how to transform your message into such a story of unforgettable power, read Stumped. In particular, its fourth chapter covers the use of voice technique much like Carl Sagan’s.