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Sagan knew how to present science in a non-threatening way

Write to the Point


I’ve been enjoying the new version of the popular 1980s series “Cosmos.” It’s wonderful to watch a science show that presents discovery and provides historical context at the same time, keeping things in perspective.

Science’s advances and discoveries impact us each day, each hour and each second of our lives. They cannot be ignored.

It’s also nice to watch a science show that actually attempts to explain science. Not what science has revealed, but the process it went through to reveal it.

That was one of the things I appreciated about astronomer Carl Sagan’s original 13-episode series back in fall 1980. I watched every episode from a motel room in Quincy, Wash. where I was working the fall carrot harvest. Not a fun job, but cold, wet and dirty.

I have always been interested in astronomy, but Sagan brought more to the discussion than just a recitation about the planets and stars. Sagan’s universe was all encompassing, from a galactic to a microscopic scale.

Sagan asked questions about our future, brought in his own learned observations and wasn’t afraid to advance a bit of personal philosophy. He did it in a manner in line with theologian Thomas Aquinas’s advice on how to change a person’s mind — go over and stand next to them and take their hand, instead of yelling at them from across the room.

The new edition of “Cosmos,” hosted by astronomer Neil deGrasse-Tyson, is different from Sagan’s.

One of those differences is the obvious — science has made new revelations since 1980. New discoveries, new theories and more information on existing ones that either reinforces or changes them.

But there are also differences in presentation. Sagan’s felt more like a chat sitting next to a fire, whereas deGrasse-Tyson comes across as a lecture, albeit a well-informed, thoughtful and detailed lecture.

The original “Cosmos “also had an elegance about it, almost poetic. The current version is much more visually stunning with its special effects, as it should be given the technology available, but it doesn’t have that elegance that gently provokes us to contemplate our universe at a deeper level.

DeGrasse-Tyson is much more straightforward in his feelings about how science and its chief antagonist, religion, mix — they don’t. It wasn’t that Sagan didn’t agree with him; he just presented the confrontation between the two differently.

Perhaps that’s why there is somewhat of an uproar around the new show, mainly by proponents of creation science. Creationists have complained deGrasse-Tyson isn’t presenting their side of how the universe came into existence and how it works, thus creating (no pun intended) a one-sided argument.

deGrasse-Tyson has responded to the critique in somewhat less than diplomatic, tactful fashion, in one instance referring to creationists as “flat-earthers.”

But he has a point. Science and religion do not operate the same way, and therefore shouldn’t be expected to achieve the same results.

As deGrasse-Tyson put it in episode three this week, religion answers a question then shuts the door. Science answers a question that leads to the opening of more doors.

I have no problem with what science tells us about the universe. To me, it makes creation that much more special, my image of God that much more incredible and complex. It could do the same for the more religious if they would stop and think about it for a moment.

I also have no problem with religion. It’s not here to explain the operation of the physical world. It’s here to deal with things that are deeper, more relational.

Science seeks to explain the unknown and uncertain. Religion helps us to not fear it.

But most of us fear the unknown in some way. Perhaps that’s what made Sagan’s “Cosmos” so special.

We felt as if he was holding our hand as we journeyed forward in the “Ship of the Imagination.”

John McCallum can be reached at


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