Documentaries I Like: Cosmos
Update: Cosmos Available Online, Free
I'm reposting this article (originally from September 2007) because the entire Cosmos TV series is now streaming at Hulu for free. Enjoy! (Be sure to click the "Watch Hi-Res" button inside the player to get the best quality.)
This week's feature is the classic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan. This thirteen-part series was originally created for PBS in 1980, and is now available (with some updated graphics and sound) on DVD. The series covers a wide variety of topics related to science -- Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the history of astronomy, planetary evolution, SETI, the murder of Hypatia, you name it.
Sagan's series seeks to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer -- he's profoundly concerned with the function of life on Earth, the ability of creatures to think and communicate, and ultimately the vastness of the Cosmos and our place in it. Across thirteen episodes, Sagan takes us on a journey through genuinely fascinating territory -- and yeah, he says "billions" a lot too.
There's something wonderfully late-Seventies about Cosmos -- the Vangelis soundtrack and Sagan's shaggy hairdo place the series firmly in an era where personal computers were just becoming available, and the notion of a worldwide web seemed distant, but ultimately within reach. There's a sense of human progress in the series, as it places itself in the larger context of science history. There are many details that have changed (for example, our understanding of the human genome is more complete, and we have broadband) but that doesn't invalidate any of what Sagan says. Watching Cosmos now, nearly thirty years after it originally aired, you can see how Sagan was out to show us his own journey through science -- why it was important to him, and why we might value it as well. Cosmos stands the test of time.
My favorite episode is the eleventh, "The Persistence of Memory," which starts with a discussion of whales and their communicative abilities, then proceeds to explain "genes, brains, and books" as the key evolutionary steps for humankind. (Update: watch this episode on Hulu!) The discussion concludes with information on the Voyager record, recently covered on this very blog! Here's an extended clip from "The Persistence of Memory," discussing whales:
This series may take a while to wade through (it comes on seven DVDs), but it's worth it. I'd particularly recommend it for families, as this is the kind of material that can really inspire kids (okay, and adults too!). You can rent it from Netflix, rent it from Blockbuster, or if you have over $114.99 burning a hole in your pocket, buy it from Amazon. Thanks for reading, and please keep the suggestions coming — I've got a list of over 60 documentaries to watch based on your feedback!