From 'Cosmos' to 'Cosmos'

As a child of the 70s and a life-long science nerd, I’m old enough to remember watching Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” when it first aired in 1980. Released while the Cold War was still raging, Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” brought us a world of wonder and beauty beyond our own. Against the competing ideologies of Communism and capitalism, Carl Sagan stressed the fundamental unity of humanity and our place on a “pale blue dot” among the “billions and billions of stars” in the universe.

Now, Fox and National Geographic have collaborated to air an updated version of Carl Sagan’s original series starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, which they are calling Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Having just re-watched the first episode of Sagan’s original series and then the first episode of Tyson’s remake, though, I can’t help but come away feeling that we’ve lost something in the translation.


As a remake, much of the narration is derived from the original series. As a result, the difference between the two versions is best seen, not in what they say, but in how they say it and in the editorial decisions Tyson and his team have made. The most telling change, and the one that has received the most attention, concerns how each “Cosmos” treats the history of pre-modern astronomy.

Where Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” began with the ancient Greeks, whose wonder at the marvels of the heavens led them to ask questions about the world around them, Neil deGrasse Tyson begins his history with a long animated sequence on Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 AD. Many others have already pointed out the historical fallacies in Tyson’s portrayal of Bruno as a modern freethinker martyred by the oppressive forces of Christianity, and these misrepresentations are indeed significant. But I think this loses the forest for the trees.

To my mind, the real issue is that where Sagan wanted “Cosmos” to introduce everyone to our marvelous universe, Tyson’s remake is a triumphalist exaltation of the power of science, and this is the true poverty of the new “Cosmos.” In Tyson’s “Cosmos,” true discovery begins with the Renaissance and the last 400 years of history are seen through the lens of an immense struggle between progressive Science and the oppressive forces of Religion. In this “new-atheist” vision, we now know so much about our universe that we have no need for God and should instead allow Science to take its rightful place as the true path to knowledge and human security.

What we lose with Tyson’s vision, though, is the ability to appreciate the world around us simply because it is beautiful. When I talk about astronomy in public, people aren’t particularly interested in the details of stellar pulsations on the horizontal branch. What the public wants to see are the beautiful pictures, and this movement towards beauty is what the new “Cosmos” lacks. Theirs is a cold scientific world, where we can revel in our knowledge, but our hearts will no longer sing,

“The heavens are telling the glory of God
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world"
(Ps 19:1-4).

Brother Jonathan Stott, S.J., a former astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, is a professor of physics at Fairfield University.

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David Pasinski
5 years 5 months ago
Sadly, I agree thus far. I was so excited to see if this series would elicit what Carl Sagan did and in that old book version of the series. So far, I have only had occasional moments and even my teenager is not captivated by the animated portions or last night's exaltation of Halley with so much drama about the humans rather than the "cosmos." And the section on Bruno! I'm no champion of the Inquisition, but it was ridiculous to spend that kind of time on him and so little on Copernicus and Galileo. I'm still anxious to see this, but I admit to snoozing some last night.
Egberto Bermudez
5 years 5 months ago
Comment Brother Jonathan, I agree with you in part: “We have lost something in the translation” from Cosmos to Cosmos. Carl Sagan was, perhaps, the greatest scientific communicator of the last century and he was a genius at conveying his passion for science as well as his sense of wonder at the beauty of our marvelous universe, and this was certainly his emphasis. As you know, the Greeks knew very well that both science [natural philosophy] and philosophy begin with wonder. Nevertheless, the seeds of that vision of history seen “through the lens of an immense struggle between progressive Science and the oppressive forces of Religion” were already there. I invite you to reread Chapter 7 of Cosmos, the book that accompanied Sagan’s original series and you will be able to observe Sagan’s philosophical positivism. In that Chapter, he explains the history of science as a struggle between science and religious prejudices. For him, the Greek materialists, Thales, Empedocles, Anaximander, and Democritus were the ones who made modern science possible, and Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and later, the Church, were the enemies. It is sad to see, every so often, how brilliant scientific minds, let alone cartoonists, have been unable to distinguish between science and scientism and have fallen into the trap of using their scientific knowledge as a weapon for the promotion of an ideological agenda masquerading as science. It is important to remember that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions, it only provides what physicist John Polkinghorne calls “boundary questions,” but these are philosophical in nature. Hence, I would like to share with you and your readers an excellent quote from Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas, that clearly explains the difference between science and scientism: “There is a world of difference between the ‘methodological naturalism’ used in the sciences (seeking natural explanations) and an ‘ontological naturalism’ that denies the reality of anything outside the reach of science. While methodological naturalism has no problems, except for creationists and the advocates of Intelligent Design, scientific naturalism is self-defeating. The claim that nothing exists aside from what can be studied by the scientific method is a philosophical position. If you want to determine what science is and how far its reach extends, you must place yourself outside science, taking a philosophical perspective. But if there is no territory outside science, how are we going to stand there?” p.234 This is how Dr. Francis Collins, who was Head of the Genome project explains scientism: “Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their own tools, as nicely represented in a parable told by the astronomer Arthur Eddington. He described a man who set about to study deep-see life using a net that had a mesh size of three inches. After catching many wild and wonderful creatures from the depths, the man concluded that there are no deep-see fish that are smaller than three inches in length! If we are using the scientific net to catch our particular version of truth, we should not be surprised that it does not catch the evidence of spirit.” (p.229) In conclusion, God, as theologians, philosophers, and people of faith understand Him, cannot be an object of scientific inquiry. The scientific method can neither exclude nor include God. If we want to make a judgment about the existence of God, we have to go beyond science [even if the data of science is our starting point] and become philosophers. I finish with another quote of Dr. Collins: “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced. God is most certainly not threatened by science; He made it all possible. So let us together seek to reclaim the solid ground of an intellectually and spiritually satisfying synthesis of all great truths. That ancient motherland of reason and worship was never in danger of crumbling. It never will be. It beckons all sincere seekers of truth to come and take up residence there.” (p.234)
Charles McNamee
5 years 5 months ago
Charles McNamee | 3/25/2014 - 5:53pm The greatest joy imaginable is to be aware of the deepest truths of current cosmological astrophysical discoveries in 2014 , AND yet, to also believe in the inconceivable presence of a Deity, God, Buddha, YHWH and/or Allah who created it all from no thing! Even astrophysicists are aware that both "dark matter" and "dark energy", compose at least 80% of reality within the cosmos, and together constitute the greatest mystery astronomy has ever confronted. Being themselves inconceivable, we then invent myths to explain them, such as “string theory”, “big bang”, etc… I wonder if Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Cosmos”) is humbled by that to the point that he might consider that "the more we know, the greater becomes the mystery of it all. On the contrary, it seems that he is implying that religious belief is a fool's pastime and the Church has nurtured that aberration throughout the centuries. If astrophysicists can maintain that from scientific data we may conclude that the entire cosmos originated when all energy and subsequent matter proceeded from "a point of no dimensions" 13.7 billion years ago, i.e., from no thing, then his problem is that he rejects any possibility of "spiritual" reality. The truth of reality is that human beings know reality only through the sensible order; thus mankind can never know God through a sensible experience unless perchance, or per Divine Will, that Divinity should choose to become a human being and become perceptible to us. Is this any more absurd that this entire cosmos should proceed out of "no thing"? In theist's belief, God is the Creator of the cosmos from "No Thing" ; and is and must therefore be "no thing". But man, being what he is, usually seeks to view this God and conceive of this God in order to believe in this God. This is what science tries also to do, along with doubting Thomas, in the Gospel of John(20:24-29). Since science cannot apprehend this God by means of it’s method, it instead considers this a proof of God’s non-existence. Despite the terrible errors and crimes some so called leaders of religion have made in the past, it has often been due to their not getting what the message of the man Jesus intended, the initial message of him has perhaps been overlooked or misinterpreted. The first and earliest written of Jesus’ spoken words are to be found in Mark (1:15-16) “Change the way you think about reality, the present moment is the right time; the Kingdom of God is within you; believe this good news”. If you restrict the search for God to within space and time, you will never find him. Science reaches to the oldest and newest, largest and smallest of realities, but omits searching within. It serves a purpose. But as Saint Augustine wrote: "Credo ut intelligam et intelligo ut credam" [I believe in order to understand and understand in order to believe"]. It is the "ying/yang" of life, the "both /and". It's a great diminishment to be half baked. Your name Charles McNamee (Account)


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