Cosmos and Context

In his 1986 song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” Paul Simon sang that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” I am amending this Simonism slightly for this blog post to read “every generation throws a science popularizer into the big time.”

Last week’s premiere of the re-boot of the classic television series Cosmos – hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson – sparked this observation.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, staring down the Big Bang, in the first episode of Cosmos 2.0

A huge amount of media buzz surrounds the remake – co-produced by Seth McFarlane – of the classic series that PBS first aired in 1980. Originally hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan with the full title of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the series became – until dethroned by Ken Burns’ 1990 epic The Civil War – the most widely watched series in the history of American TV.1

That’s a tough act for anyone to follow. Tyson’s version, which aired on several Fox-affiliated channels, did so-so in the ratings, drawing in about 5.8 million viewers. Even with this relatively weak initial showing – and I hope the numbers do pick up – a whole new generation of viewers are able to learn about the universe and science via Tyson’s Cosmos. That alone makes it important.

But a true comparison of the two versions of Cosmos involves more than just viewership numbers and market share. Understanding this difference demands a closer inspection of the context and circumstances in which the Sagan and Tyson versions appeared.

Historian and author Audra Wolfe recently tackled this question in a fine essay that appeared on-line a few days ago. Wolfe made the important point that understanding the first Cosmos series requires that we recognize the Cold War context in which it was broadcast. She writes that PBS broadcast Cosmos at “a moment when Cold War tensions were heating back up.”

This context is critical. Uncle Sam supported science for many reasons, not least the fact that American national security was predicated on technologies developed by a robust cadre of scientists and engineers. Carl Sagan, unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, was an outspoken critic of scientific research that was too closely tied to defense needs. Still, there’s no denying the fact that the space probe missions, telescope technologies, and so forth that made his (and so many other scientists’) research possible was derived from “high-tech weaponry built on cutting-edge science.”2

Knowing the context of Cosmos, c. 1980 help us understand even better both the original show as well as the 21st century, post-9/11 post-academic science version. The timing is critical; production for Cosmos started in 1978, squarely within the context of the Carter administration. It appeared at the end of a period in U.S. history when public support for science and technology had reached a low point.

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Protesters decrying the arrival of the Concorde 2 at LAX, October 1974…one sign of the discontent about science and technology, c. 1970

Fears of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war coupled with anxieties about resource depletion and overpopulation had strained earlier optimism to the breaking point. Sagan wrote Cosmos in the context of, if not in direct response to, this anti-science & technology zeitgeist.3

We can see this in the clear and powerful way that Sagan frames and situates Cosmos in classical humanistic framework. He deliberately shows that science is allied to the humanities – references to history, languages, philosophy, and classics abound. I can still recall my sense of profound disappointment when I watched the first episode of Cosmos – I was just 13 at the time – in which Sagan walks through a recreation of the great Library of Alexandria and mourns its tragic loss to fire.

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Sagan strolling through a CGI-created version of Library of Alexandria

Sagan framed science as an intellectual adventure, the means to which humans better understand not just their Universe but themselves. It’s impossible not to see this as a clever move on the part of Sagan and his co-writers in response to the anti-science vibe of the early 1970s. Sagan’s science and technology was not that of the mega-machine, the mad inventor, or the technocrat. It resonated with the humanities. Like its subtitle said, it was a “personal journey.”

At the same time, Sagan also gently chided those in the audience who were prone to conceive of science in too broad of terms. The 1970s certainly saw their share of groovy “pseudoscience.” Popular interest in UFOs, Bigfoot, ESP, astrology, and all other shade of the paranormal abounded. A few episodes into the Cosmos series, Sagan outlines how astrology may once have had elements of science – its emphasis on measurement, observation, and mathematics – but it had long since yielded to astronomy and astrophysics.

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Scene from the original Cosmos in which Sagan gently de-bunks astrology.

The astrology of the 1970s that so many American turned to for horoscopes and predictions was, Sagan explained, unscientific bunk. It was his response to the tides of anti-rationality and anti-science that had flooded American bookstores, New Age gatherings, and popular media.

Production of Cosmos started just as a boom in scientific popularization was shaping up and Sagan rode that swell. Between 1978 and 1984, more than a four dozen new magazines, newspaper sections, and television shows devoted to “popular science” appeared.4 Cosmos appeared smack in the midst of the largest jump in science journalism since the opening years of the Space Race, just as public attitudes toward science and technology were swinging away from pessimism and skepticism.

It’s clear that Tyson is no Sagan. Instead of a science communicator, he is primarily a science salesman. And to do this effectively, Tyson must strip science of its political and social controversy, avoiding issues that Sagan was willing to tackle.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 1.33.14 PM

But why should Tyson try to be Sagan? The Groovy Seventies and the Cold War are over. Cosmos 2.0 is airing at a time when the forces of anti-science look very different than they did 35 years ago. Today, anti-science is not something that manifests from grassroots concerns but is instead manufactured by large donors and special interest groups. If Tyson refuses to critique the militarization of science – which is so patently obvious to scarecely even need mentioning – then I doubt he has the stomach to call out David H. Koch, a noted climate change skeptic, AND a major donor to the PBS science show NOVA.

When we watch Cosmos 2.0 today, it is at a time that is definitely not anti-technology. If anything, it’s the complete opposite. Commercialized scientific research is the path to more and newer (if not better) technology, or so we’re often told. Innovation, creative destruction, connectivity, and disruption are championed in a manner and degree that would have been seen as suspicious in the 1970s. Sagan’s science was a path to humanity’s greater understanding of itself. Cosmos 2.0 still maintains shades of this. But it is appearing on our televisions at a time when science is seen more as a vocation – more STEM jobs! – and a lever of commercial riches.

Every generation gets the science popularizer it deserves. Although I am glad that Tyson is out there promoting the beauty and utility of science for a new cohort of viewers, I remain happier that I got Carl Sagan.

  1. Over 500 million people worldwide are estimated to have seen Cosmos 1.0 []
  2. Other colleagues have done excellent jobs of pointing out the historical inaccuracies that mar Cosmos 2.0, such as Rebekah Higgitt and Meg Rosenburg []
  3. Sagan co-wrote the show with Ann Druyan and Steve Soter. []
  4. Bruce V. Lewenstein, “Was There Really a Popular Science ‘Boom’?,” Science, Technology, and Human Values, 1987, 12, 2: 29-41. []

An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson


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Neil knows science…but, does he know its history?

Dear Neil (if I may)-

When I was a kid, I had a coloring book with pictures of the possible jobs I could have when I grew up – fireman, cook, doctor and so forth. One page had a picture of scientist. I can still see it – classic and stereotypical image of a guy in a lab coat holding a beaker. Anyway – I liked that one picture so much, I refused to color on it. I was only about 8 but I already wanted to be a scientist.1

So, like you, I love science.

I grew up during the last decades of the Cold War. I still remember the fear and anxiety I felt when I watched The Day After in 1983. I also still remember the televised town hall meeting that ABC broadcast after the show ended. Among all the voices I heard that night, the one I trusted most was Carl Sagan.

As a teen, Carl Sagan was my hero. His was a voice of calm, reason, and compassion at a time when the adult world seemed out of control. I loved Cosmos.

This brings me to my disappointment with you – in a recent issue of the weekly newspaper supplement Parade, you made some remarks about scientists. To wit – you said, “You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists…” 

I don’t wish to pile on you here, but your statement is simply wrong. Consider just one university — Caltech. Its Physics Department was entirely militarized during World War Two and churned out over 1 million of bombardment rockets. Caltech’s Willy Fowler (Nobel Prize, 1983) did pioneering work on nuclear reactions in stars; he also led a secret 1951 study to promote the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack. Speaking of nuclear weapons – J. Robert Oppenheimer did astrophysics. So did Hans Bethe (Nobel Prize, 1967), Stirling Colgate, and scores of others who also helped design nuclear weapons. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was Yakov Zel’dovich (AAS Bruce Medalist) who made major contributions to astrophysics – and to designing weapons of mass destruction for a murderous totalitarian regime. Some might say this isn’t the same as scientists leading armies into battle. Well, chemist Fritz Haber took the lead in introducing poison gas at the front during World War One.2

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Fritz Haber, directing a chlorine gas attack at Ypres, 1915 (my thanks to Alex Wellerstein for sharing this image)

Now, perhaps, you were trying to make a larger point about the positive role that scientists play in contemporary society, a role that helps counterbalance the irrational forces of religious intolerance and superstition. I’m with you there. Like I said, like you, I love science.

But what really distresses me is that your statement is a total disservice to Carl Sagan’s career and beliefs. Sagan, perhaps more than other scientists of his generation, understood and witnessed how his fellow scientists – especially physicists – had contributed to the arms race. We see this in his warnings about nuclear winter and in his protests of the arms race. Sagan used Cosmos as a warning for how science – as wonderful as it can be – can also be an awful awesome tool when misused or applied without any sense of humanistic temper.

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Sagan, shown here in the early 1990s, speaking out about climate change and nuclear winter

So – as you assume Carl Sagan’s mantle with the re-launching of Cosmos, I’d like you to approach this with some humility or at least some historical awareness. The anti-science forces get their power through their manufacture of doubt, their denial and ignorance of the facts. Don’t be like them.  As Spider Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Cosmos and its promotion is going to give you a big bully pulpit. Use it wisely. Use it like Carl Sagan would have.


Patrick McCray

Note: Since this letter first appeared, John Horgan re-amplified the message in his own blog. The exchange that Horgan had with Tyson is here.



  1. Eventually, I did this [Ph.D., 1996, materials science and engineering]. But I also wanted to combine my fascination with science with my long-standing interest in the humanities. So, I became a historian of modern science and technology. I research and write mostly about physics and astronomy during the Cold War. Neil, you would like my book on amateur astronomers during the Cold War, given your own promotion of citizen science. []
  2. True, Haber was a chemist. OK. But there was also astrophysicist Karl Schwarzschild who served on the front lines, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Germany artillery corps. Should we talk about Herman Kahn (physicist and RAND strategic theorist? What about all the scientists who serve(d) on JASON…I know of at least one astrophysicist who is a current member. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – trained as a physicist – sent troops to Afghanistan. Three decades earlier, Margaret Thatcher (chemistry, Oxford) sent the British fleet to the Falklands. My thanks to Alex Wellerstein, Erik Conway, Charles Day, and other colleagues who provided me with a plethora of counter-examples. Responsibility for this post’s comment is entirely mine however. []

Timothy Leary SMI²LEs at Carl Sagan

People with expansive ideas for the technological future have to do considerable work to retain control and ownership of their ideas.This is an inevitable tension that arises for visioneers as one of their key activities is to promote their visions to the public and policy makers in the hopes of generating publicity, acceptance, and perhaps even realization.1

But what do you do when your ideas are co-opted by someone who’s more famous than you, perhaps even infamous? Once you have taken “it” to the people, you can’t always control how and what the “people” will do with it. A great example of this is found in the case of Timothy Leary. After his release from jail on drug charges in 1976, Leary began to advocate a new agenda which riffed on some of O’Neill’s work. Leary called his plans SMI²LE, an acronym for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension.” (This video gives an overview…of sorts.)2

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Leary presented his ideas for space migration, etc. in a number of forums, including this 1979 comic book.

I recently found some new documents that shed additional light on Leary’s evolving conceptualization of O’Neill’s ideas. What first caught my attention was some 1974 correspondence between Leary and Cornell’s most famous scientist, planetary astronomer Carl Sagan. In February-March of 1974, Leary and Sagan exchanged a series of letters, Sagan writing from his office in Ithaca and Leary from his cell in Vacaville, California. I was only able to locate one side of the correspondence – Sagan to Leary; presumably, once Sagan’s papers are available at the Library of Congress, the other side of the exchange might emerge. (One tasty tidbit – Leary called Sagan a “true profit” prompting the Cornell scientist to ask if that was a “conscious or accidental pun.” Sagan, of course, would garner considerable rewards once the TV series and book Cosmos came out in 1980.)

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March 1974 letter from Sagan to Leary

But even from Sagan’s letters, it’s possible to get a sense of what the two were discussing. Sagan had seen a copy of Leary’s 1973 book Terra II: The Starseed Transmission. The book was inspired by the 1973 arrival of comet Kohoutek, which some hippie cultists saw as a harbinger of doom, inspired Leary to write a short tract he “transmitted” from the “black hole” of Folsom Prison.3. This essay was reprinted in Leary’s 1977 book Neuropolitics.)) In Starseed, Leary claimed that he was preparing “a complete systematic philosophy: cosmology, politic, epistemology, ethic, aesthetic, ontology, and the most hopeful eschatology ever specified.”  Like astrologers of the Middle Ages, Leary claimed Kohoutek (the “starseed” in Leary’s title) meant a “higher Intelligence has already established itself on earth, writ its testament within our cells, decipherable by our nervous system. That it’s about time to mutate. Create and transmit the new philosophy…Starseed will turn-on the new network.”

A note on dates is in order here: Although Leary became a devotee and proselytizer of O’Neill’s space settlements, he harbored his own spacey ideas before O’Neill’s September 1974 Physics Today article brought him public attention.

What did Sagan think of Leary’s conjectures? In February 1974, he said “I have no problems on chance mutations and natural selection as the working material for the evolutionary process. In fact, wity what we now know about molecular biology, I see no way to avoid it.” Praising Leary’s idea for a “transgalactic gardening club” – a reference I believe to the idea that humans would consciously evolve themselves in the same way that plant breeders had changed and “improved” things like roses and corn – Sagan also said he didn’t think this option was something “we can count on yet.”

Leary must have also broached the topic of space migration because Sagan writes: “…maybe the reason we haven’t been visited [by extraterrestrials] is that interstellar spaceflight, while technically possible, would beggar any planet which attempted it.” Sagan concludes by trying to arrange a prison visit with Leary, possibly with Frank Drake (of Drake’s equation and SETI fame) and Harvard’s Norman Zinberg (who had studied drug addiction).

This was the point in the letters which blew my mind – Sagan sitting down in the visitation room of a California State Prison to chat with Leary about space migration and directed evolution? Even more remarkable was the fact that, just a few days after writing Leary, Sagan had a highly public showdown with cosmic catastrophist Immanuel Velikovsky. The two squared off at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to debate Velikovsky’s scientifically dubious idea that Venus was formed from a comet ejected from Jupiter just several thousand years ago.4

So – on one hand, we have Sagan doing a public smackdown of Velikovsky’s interpretation of planetary origins and human history. At the very same time, he was working to set up a meeting with Timothy Leary, one of the most notorious counterculture icons and promoter of his own set of scientifically questionable ideas.

How can we make sense of this seeming contradiction? Perhaps it just reflects the contingency and chaos of the time. Maybe. But, whereas Velikovsky’s ideas were a direct challenge to the science foundation underlying Sagan’s professional research, Leary’s musing about space migration and cosmic evolution posed no such threat.

The 1970s were a fertile meeting ground for all sorts of mainstream and alternative scientists and scientific ideas. Gerard O’Neill’s proposed ideas for space settlements, hippie physicists investigated the paranormal, and the counterculture’s embrace of catastrophist theories put forth by the decidedly ungroovy Immanuel Velikovsky all co-existed with “traditional” academic and corporate research.

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Poster advertising the 2011 Groovy Science workshop

In fact, the co-existence of these many shades and hues of science in the 1970s challenges our very ideas of what mainstream and fringe actually were.5 I think it’s best not to see them in such Manichean terms – real versus fringe – but to accept that, like the Copenhagen model of complementarity, they co-exist. This was not pseudoscience. Just a different kind of science that helped generate a new kind of scientific American.

  1. Gerard O’Neill even titled a chapter of The High Frontier (in keeping with the spirit of the time) “Taking It to the People.” []
  2. O’Neill was careful to distance himself from them. In practice, he largely ignored Leary, figuring the former LSD guru’s trippy reputation would speak for itself. []
  3. Dr. Timothy Leary, Starseed (San Francisco: Level Press, 1973 []
  4. Michael Gordin’s fantastic book The Pseduoscience Wars addresses this in wonderfully detail. []
  5. This point, in fact, was the basis for a great 2011 workshop at Princeton University called Groovy Science. Papers from this are being worked into an edited volume… []