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 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
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
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
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
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
"A spirited defense of science" - LA
A stirring defense of informed rationality. . .
Rich in surprising information and beautiful writing." -
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
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
"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.