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Billions & Billions: Carl Sagan's Cosmos

By Patrick Mondout

Although interest in astronomy had waned from its peak - which is generally considered to be the Apollo years of 1968-1972 - the public sense of wonder and awe in the images coming back from distant worlds via such spacecraft as Voyager and Venera and the knowledge dissected from mountains of data received from these craft begged for an interpreter to make sense of it all; to give perspective to a world changed forever by findings of science. Enter scientist, professor, author, and yes, celebrity, Carl Sagan.

Planning for the thirteen-part landmark PBS series began in mid-1978 with shooting beginning in early '79. An early working title for the series was Man in the Cosmos. As William Poundstone writes in his excellent book, Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, "[Ann] Druyan suggested the show's title was sexist. Why not just call it Cosmos?" Druyan, who became Dr. Sagan's lifelong companion and collaborator around this time could always be counted on to point out a weakness in an argument or to contribute in a creative way. Druyan co-wrote both Comet and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with Sagan.

Shooting and Production

Adrian Malone, a veteran of several BBC productions was also the producer of Cosmos. Although he and Sagan did not get along with one another, there is no question that his considerable documentary talents were essential to the success of Cosmos.

An early concern of Malone's were the visuals for the series. The incredible success of Star Wars had forever raised the bars on what would look acceptable to viewers on a program which largely involved interstellar space. Certainly the tried and still used method of zooming in on stills of a some distant galaxy while someone voiced-over a lecture about cosmology would have put most Americans to sleep! Malone and Sagan had the good fortune of producing Cosmos in Los Angeles, where they were able to hire some of the same special effects artists that had worked with George Lucas on Star Wars. The result was a series that, although somewhat dated (if only by the underlying notions of impending doom of a nuclear holocaust which seemed so close in 1980), is quite beautiful and entertaining today. That said, it is hard to imagine how wonderful a series could be produced today - especially if you have seen the opening sequence of the Jodie Foster's Contact (based on the novel by Sagan).

Ironically it was ARCO, a petroleum company, that sponsored the television series and approved additional funding as it went over-budget even as Sagan devoted precious screen time to the damning commercial exploitation of resources at the expense of the environment.

Although Sagan had appeared on television many times, he was not excited about shooting take after take and the long days of shooting had to take their toll on a man with as many interests as he. But as a professor and lecturer he was able to do many shots in a single take. Some of these takes are remarkable given the intellectual content he was delivering.

A "Spaceship of the Imagination" was used to make otherwise impossible visits to the stars. This spaceship was a source of controversy for some. Some thought that both the ship and Sagan's mystical method of guiding the ship by gliding his hands over - but never touching - the mysteriously illuminated controls was unscientific. Others thought the inside of the ship resembled a cathedral too much! Of course, there are those who would criticize DaVinci for "forgetting" to paint the eyebrows on the Mono Lisa too.

Galactic, Universal, even Global!

Cosmos, the Spaceship of the Imagination aside, was truly a global effort. Locations included the Netherlands, India, Japan, Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy. Ironically, given our inability to detect life there with our spacecraft, Death Valley in California substituted for Mars. The Voyager spacecraft journeyed past Jupiter and its moons during the early months of shooting sending fantastic images of the largest of the Solar System's planets.

As with every project I have ever worked on (including this web site), Cosmos ran over schedule and over budget ($8.2M was the final tally). The over-budget part owes its existence in large measure to the not inconsiderable efforts of the PBS affiliate KCET in Los Angeles. Their studios and production facilities were used extensively and they were able to milk this cash-cow for what were astronomical amounts by PBS standards. But after over two years of work, Cosmos was finally ready for a U.S. release. But was the U.S. ready for 13 hours of Carl Sagan?

Cosmos is Launched

When the series debuted on September 28, 1980, Sagan had the one thing any PBS-based, would-be TV star needs: Luck. (A concept he would no doubt have claimed there is no proof for the existence of.) An actor's strike in 1980 kept the networks in reruns well into the fall. PBS was winning accolades and new viewers at just the time Cosmos debuted. The series met with a warm critical reception and excellent ratings. It also won at both the Emmys and Peabodys. Even the well-selected music from the series resulted in a successful soundtrack which featured Vangelis (who would soon become more famous for his Academy Award-winning soundtrack to Chariots of Fire).

After a decade of pseudo-science - including a popular book called Chariots of the Gods, the phony magic of Uri Geller, and a television series called Project UFO (I must admit, I watched it) - Cosmos was a welcome voice of reason if not a candle in the dark.

Success and Backlash

Cosmos was an "astonishing" success. It was easily the most popular and widely-viewed series in PBS history and over 500 million people in over 60 countries have seen it. The companion book to the series was number 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for well over a year. To the extent that his various television appearances made him a public figure, Cosmos made him a star. But no good deed goes unpunished and Cosmos was immediately and relentlessly attacked by the usual suspects. Astrologers, pseudo-scientists, and particularly religious leaders attacked the show. That is not to suggest that all religious leaders attacked it. But there is always a vocal minority who will attack with vigor anyone who dares challenge their mystical world views with merely factual arguments and mountains of evidence.

Carl's considerable skills were not limited to astrophysics. As radioastronomer Frank Drake once said, "[Sagan] knew more about biology than any astronomer I'd ever met." Thus, he was equally adept at infuriating those who believe in a nuclear deterrent with his consistent theme of "If we don't destroy ourselves..." as he was at upsetting theist notions of creationism with factual statements like "Evolution is not a theory. It is a fact."

He soon appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the title "Showman of Science." In the accompanying Time article, Golden noted, "Most scientists, increasingly sensitive to the need for public support and understanding of research, appreciate what Sagan has become: America's most effective salesman of science."

That said, Sagan was subject to the kind of professional jealousy many scientists like to think they are above but are actually quite famous for. Of course it can be maddening to watch your colleague walk away from serious science to be on The Tonight Show while you spend years attempting to calculate the cosmic background radiation without the slightest interest from anyone but the three other people on earth who know what cosmic background radiation is. Some colleagues began referring to him (behind his back, of course) as the "Dr. Joyce Brothers of Astronomy" and expressed a belief that his scientific achievements did not measure up to his popularity. Even the National Science Foundation's highest honor was not bestowed upon him until after his death.

The Demon-Haunted World
Available in hardback, paperback, and audiobook from

"A spirited defense of science" - LA Times

A stirring defense of informed rationality. . . Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing." - Washington Post

But, as longtime friend a collaborator Gentry Lee says in Keay Davidson's Carl Sagan: A Life, "Carl probably touched more hearts and minds than any scientist in history. I would guess that more people decided to pursue scientific careers because of him than any person in history. For all these things the world should be eternally grateful."

It is unfortunate that television producers seem to have forgotten the real lesson of the success of Cosmos. For once someone did not underestimate the intelligence of the American TV viewer and instead produced a series that informed without talking down to the viewer and people actually watched it. Now, even PBS seems to more interested in finding the next purple dinosaur than actually teaching about paleontology.

"Billions and Billions"

If you watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson at all during the early Awesome80s, you had to have seen Johnny, who was both a Sagan fan and amateur-astronomer, doing his Sagan routines where he would say "billions and billions" - exaggerating the "b" each time and always drawing laughter (at least the audience presumably knew who Sagan was). This despite the fact that Sagan had never actually uttered those words in the series! Although the requests for him to say the phrase or for interviewers to ask about it annoyed him, he eventually came to terms with it and even used the words as the title of his last book. (In fact, he devoted the first three pages of the book to the whole Johnny Carson/billions story and the first picture in the book is of him as a Tonight Show guest.)


What I wouldn't give for another 13 episodes of Cosmos! Actually, Sagan was said to be in the initial stages of producing a series entitled Cosmos for Kids in 1996. Tragically, he was taken from us before he was able to produce such a series. Carl Sagan died of pneumonia after a two-year battle with bone marrow disease (due to myelodysplasia - a form of anemia also known as preleukemia syndrome) on December 20, 1996. He was only 62.


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Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.



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Courtesy of Ballantine

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