Amidst a pandemic, vintage tele-series rekindles interest in science

The popular 80s science show ‘Cosmos’ is back on air in India in the thick of the COVID-19 crisis. Shubhobroto Ghosh* says the lockdown may be a good time to indulge people in science communication nostalgia.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.82 Published online 7 May 2020

© Cosmos: Possible Worlds/National Geographic

A new season of the famous ‘Cosmos’ television series conceived by pioneering science communicator Carl Sagan started broadcast in India this March, triggering nostalgia among those who grew up with the show. 

Called ‘Possible Worlds’, the series succeeds earlier Cosmos seasons ‘A Personal Voyage,’ aired in 1980 (in USA) and 1986 (in India); and ‘A Spacetime Odyssey’ broadcast in 2014.

As scientists across the world race to find a cure or a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife and producer of Cosmos, says the series comes from a place of hope – not wishful thinking – “but optimism that science and technology will be used with wisdom and foresight”.

“When we turn away from science, we are turning away from reality,” Druyan told Nature India in an e-mail interview about the new series.

Civilisations should pay heed to scientists’ dire warnings and their stunning revelations about the universe, so that science becomes the preferred tool for finding solutions to mankind’s problems, she hopes.

For many who grew up with it, Cosmos is vintage science popularisation. “Sagan was the first true superstar of science outreach and still remains at the top,” says Somak Raychaudhury, director of IUCAA (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics) in Pune. “I saw the show again and again on British TV, possessed VHS/DVDs of it and heard Sagan's lectures live. I was one of those fans who followed him around like fans of rock stars.”

Prasadranjan Ray, a former bureaucrat in the West Bengal state government who attended Sagan’s lectures as a student in Cornell University in 1981, agrees. “I can only paraphrase Cornell University President Frank Rhodes who told me that Sagan made no earthshaking discovery at Cornell, yet he will be remembered more than most of our Nobel Laureates (59 at the latest count) because he was an extraordinary science communicator."

Ray recalls how he met Sagan, a man with bubbling energy and an impressive capability to communicate. "While discussing inter-planetary travel, he got quite carried away when he learnt that I had not only read Jules Verne and H G Wells, but also Edgar Rice Burroughs (Mars and Venus series), Patrick Moore, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Fred Hoyle and Robert Heinlein.” In 1973, Cornell University hosted a session on 'Science and Science Fiction' featuring Asimov, Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Sagan. “I have no doubt who would have been the star of that session,” he says.

Sagan’s work also influenced the career choices of a lot of youngsters in the 1980s. “Whether he affected scientific thinking I cannot say, but he did bring a lot of the top scientists of my generation into science just by getting them interested,” Raychaudhury says. It helped that the parents of these youngsters also watched the series or read his books. “This enabled us to take up scientific careers without actively defying our parents.”

India in the Cosmos series

While the broadcast time in India may come in the way of optimum viewership this season (National Geographic, Tuesdays 7 am and Wednesdays 12 am), the series has a strong India element that Sagan and Druyan wanted to capture ever since the first episodes were penned four decades back.

“Carl and I wanted to tell the story of emperor Ashoka’s stunning transformation from a sadistic murderer to a shining light of humanism,” Druyan says.  Their son Sam suggested that the emperor’s saga be included in this new series to explain the morality behind his transition from killer to nurturer.

The celebrated 1980 tele-series also had a strong Indian element. “The Indian settings worked very well in the various episodes. It was also a time when the world was getting interested in India,” Raychaudhury remembers. The portrayal of the Tamil festival Pongal, the discussion on time in the Hindu religions and gorgeous shots of south Indian temples were part of that series.

“The segment on Nataraja appealed to people who had read Fritjof Capra's book, ‘The Tao of Physics’ and must have contributed to India donating the Nataraja statue to CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) later,” he says.

Alluding to Hindu cosmology contextualised the discussion on the Big Bang, and may have stoked the interest of Indian astrophysicist and science populariser Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, who presented the India broadcast earlier and became a proponent of infinite-time cosmologies such as the steady state, Raychaudhury says.

Importantly, Cosmos also discussed the science versus religion debate in a succinct manner. “Science cannot provide answers to a lot of questions to do with perception and consciousness, and of the purpose of the Universe. It is also true that religion does not and cannot answer the how and what of things, which is the domain of science,” Raychaudhury notes.

However, much has changed in astronomy since Cosmos started, he says. In 1980, the known age of the Universe was between 8-16 billion years but now it is estimated to be 13.7 plus/minus 0.2 years old. “Planets around other stars have been discovered. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is no longer the only way we hope to find extraterrestrial life. We now know dark matter makes up most of the matter and the Universe is mostly made of dark energy, something that was discovered after Sagan passed away.”

The new Cosmos features a number of unsung heroes of science – a botanist who dared to stand up to the infamous Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, a forgotten genius who discovered ‘gravity assist’ as a means for spacecraft to swing by from one cosmic body to another, a 19th century scientist who devised an ingenious way to record the dream of an abandoned child, a scientist who made first contact with a species that uses symbolic language to communicate, and a man who stumbled upon a hole in the curtain of classical physics to discover a Universe where its laws do not apply.

Raychaudhury hopes the new season presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson ably recreates Sagan's heady mix of history, fable, aesthetics and science.

[*Shubhobroto Ghosh is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and works in an international animal protection NGO.]