I should, almost surely, be doing something other than writing a blog post — specifically, at this very moment I should probably be plowing through the email inbox. But I can’t seem to summon the courage, and this blog post has been knocking around in my head for the last few days.
About 10 days ago, I encountered this crazy video on the internets. Essentially, the creator (John Boswell) distilled the primary message of Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s epic PBS television series, released in 1980, into a three and a half minute music video. Sagan is made to “sing” using Auto-Tune, over background music created by Boswell and background video from the Cosmos series itself. (Stephen Hawking makes an appearance in one verse, too.) It’s pretty amazing, if you ask me.
Part of the intrigue for me, though, may come from my past exposure to Cosmos. In eighth grade, I participated in a special science class known as Science Seminar. A key component of this class was the study of three books: Cosmos, The Ascent of Man, and Six Great Ideas. I think we watched some of the Cosmos television series, but we principally read the book. In retrospect, it is quite amazing that a public school science teacher in Tennessee (a member of a conservative evangelical church, no less) could get away with teaching Cosmos (which contains a hefty dose of atheism with some evolution thrown in for good measure) and The Ascent of Man (also heavy on evolution, though much of it cultural evolution). (Also, only just now did I remember that The Ascent of Man was also a 13-part television series, with some of the same creators as Cosmos. Apparently, my eighth grade science teacher had a thing for the book versions of 13-part television series about science.)
In any case, the video has inspired me to go back and watch the whole television series, which is now available on Hulu. I’ve been watching a few minutes every morning with my daughter, and we’re loving it. (Well, I’m loving it. And she at least tolerates it. With cheerios and milk.) The content is terrific — so much great stuff that I once knew but had mostly forgotten about biology and astronomy. Much of the imagery is terrific, although some of the sets (especially the spaceship) are laughably dated. (Although, it appears that the spaceship has a multitouch user interface. Hmm…) And Sagan’s 1980 hairdo is pretty funny, too.
I was particularly struck by the last twenty minutes of Episode 4: Heaven and Hell, which sounds a warning about the environment and global warming that almost sounds contemporary.
Also in Episode 4 (or possibly it was Episode 3), Sagan makes a brief comment, almost an aside, about the fact that in nearly all models of the solar system, the size of the planets is on a vastly different scale than the distances between them. The reason is simple: If you used the same scale, then the model would either be too big to fit into a reasonably sized room, or the planets would be too small to see. This reminded me of the terrific tribute to Carl Sagan in Ithaca, New York, where he was a professor at Cornell University for many years: The Sagan Planet Walk. It is a model of the solar system, with the planets and the distances between them to the same scale. The radius of the sun is 28 cm (11 in); the radius of the earth is 2.5 mm (1/10 in). The distance from the sun to the earth? 30 m (100 ft). The distance from the earth to Pluto? 1.2 km (3/4 mile). It was, to my mind, one of the cooler unique features of the town, and I would often tour the solar system when I went on a run through town. (It helped that we lived in a building right beside the sun. Our apartment was in the building seen behind the sun monument in the photo.)
Since we moved away, the Sciencenter in Ithaca (which maintains the Sagan Planet Walk) has created an audio tour of the walk narrated by Bill Nye, The Science Guy. At first, this audio tour was available by cell phone; now, you can download it as a podcast. The next time I make it to Ithaca, I’ll have to give it a whirl. (I have no plans to return any time soon, but I expect to pass through again sooner or later.)
And, furthermore, they are contemplating an addition to the Sagan Planet Walk. Namely, they are considering adding a station representing the star nearest our sun, Alpha Centauri. The location of this new station? Hawaii.