‘Cosmos’ shines brightly — Grand Traverse Insider


By Pat Stinson

This story was originally published by the Grand Traverse Insider

This fall marks the 30th anniversary of what has been called “the most widely watched PBS series in the world.”

According to one of the show’s co-writers, almost a billion people worldwide have watched “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” and gained an understanding of humanity’s place in the universe, and the paths taken by early astronomers to achieve that knowledge.

For 26 of those years, Norm Wheeler has shown all 13 television episodes of “Cosmos” to his high school science students at The Leelanau School in Glen Arbor.

“It’s the cornerstone of this astronomy course,” says Wheeler, who also operates The Leelanau School’s Lanphier Observatory, overlooking the skies above Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay.

“It makes difficult ideas in astronomy accessible to high school kids who haven’t had calculus and higher math.”

First broadcast on public television in 1980, “Cosmos” won Emmy and Peabody awards for its educational content and entertaining presentation. But what engaged viewers of all ages was the straightforward way the show’s host, Dr. Carl Sagan — a charismatic Cornell University astronomy professor and planetary scientist — conveyed science concepts. Sagan used practical, real-world examples enhanced by the show’s graphics, special effects and music, with ethereal scores by composer Vangelis.

“I saw it when it first came out on PBS,” recalls Wheeler, a physics major who has “played with telescopes” since the early ’70s, including as former manager of the observatory at his alma mater, Olivet College. “I watched every episode.”

Into the classroom

Besides Wheeler’s favorite “Cosmos” episode, which recounts the history of early astronomy and its researchers, (Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton), the series also touches on biology and chemistry, in addition to astronomy. As Sagan notes, “Cosmos” is a Greek word that means, “order of the universe,” one he says “implies the deep interconnectedness of all things.”

“You get a great survey of natural and life sciences,” Wheelers explains. “It’s really a comprehensive science course all made verbal, not in the classical classroom way.”

That is part of the show’s appeal for Wheeler, who has created a multi-step approach to learning astronomy.

“It (‘Cosmos’) also works well because it helps me to teach note-taking,” he said, explaining that the school specializes in teaching those with learning differences.

Students are asked to read a chapter of the bestselling “Cosmos” book by Sagan, watch the corresponding video episode, take notes on the material and, finally, quiz one another.

“We go through the material three different times, in three different ways.”

On clear nights, the school’s beachfront observatory serves as the “lab” part of the course, and Wheeler said they look at planets, galaxies, star clusters and nebulae.

When asked if he uses Sagan’s analogy that there are more stars than grains of sand on the earth, he responds, “Yeah, we’re in a perfect spot for all of the ‘billions and billions.’ It’s ironic that Johnny Carson said that on his show (when Sagan was a guest). He (Sagan) does say ‘billions’ quite a bit.”

At Traverse City Central High School, physics’ teacher Keith Forton echoes Wheeler’s sentiment about “Cosmos” episode three, “The Harmony of Worlds,” which he shows students for its instructive segment about early astronomers, particularly Johannes Kepler.

The episode highlights the hardships astronomers faced as they made early attempts to prove their ideas about the universe to a skeptical public.

“For most of his life, Kepler chased after something that was wrong,” Forton said, explaining that the astronomer struggled to use shapes to try to explain distances between the known planets and the sun. Much later in his life, Kepler finally used observations and measurements to “embrace the model that was the ellipse.”

“‘Cosmos’ teaches us that it’s okay to dream, to take a chance and take on a challenge that has a high risk of failure,” Forton stated. “That series, itself, could have been a tremendous flop if it had been laden with numbers and scientific equations.

“Only one or two times did he (Sagan) interject mathematics. He was very personable and friendly and wasn’t trying to throw up a bunch of equations. He could have done that very easily, but didn’t.”

In the fall of 1980, Forton was a student teacher for astronomy classes at a high school with a planetarium. He remembers his teachers talking about the episodes after each one aired.

“I think it influenced a lot of people. It was one of the first attempts to make a documentary and bring it into the realm of the everyday … It brought the science of astronomy not only into the living room but into the kitchen, where people could talk of and dream of astronomy with their neighbors. It wasn’t just reserved for the science community.”

Creative inspiration

Bob Moler, host and creator of Interlochen Public Radio’s weekday stargazer program, “Ephemeris,” recalls watching the series for the first time.

“I remember well Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos,’ and we avidly tuned in to PBS to view it,” Moler, a member of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society, relates via e-mail. “Though most of the topics weren’t new to me, I thought the visualizations were quite spectacular … It seems that many current astronomers and scientists were inspired by Cosmos to enter their chosen fields.”

In 1980 Moler was teaching astronomy at Northwestern Michigan College, and said he used some “Cosmos” episodes in the classroom, “especially the one on Mars.”

Today, NMC’s astronomy professor is Jerry Dobek, a research astrophysicist whose most recent area of study involves re-mapping and measuring dark material, such as dust as gas, referred to as Dark Nebulae.

Dobek also teaches mathematics, curates Rogers Observatory, directs one of the country’s 13 Project Astro programs for K-12 students, and serves as a NASA Ambassador for the Year of the Solar System program. He was still in school, however, when “Cosmos” debuted.

“It’s amazing to realize that was 30 years ago,” Dobek said. “It was fun seeing how he (Sagan) continuously related facts on earth to the solar system, like using simple rock formations to explain cratering. I use Carl’s ‘more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth’ with my students and they suddenly realize, wow, infinite is incomprehensible.

“Some of the things he tried to bring home, using models and mathematics, I’m not sure there’s been anyone since Carl who’s done that.”

Keeping ‘Cosmos’ current

The 13 original episodes of “Cosmos” were remastered and updated in 2000 with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The DVDs include footage of Carl Sagan’s 1990 science updates.

Moler, of Interlochen, shares these latest observations from 2010.

“Things we’ve learned since ‘Cosmos,’ (things we’re pretty sure about):

• The age of the universe is 13.7 billion years.

• The universe is accelerating in its expansion. We thought it should be decelerating. An anti gravitational force called Dark Energy has been hypothesized. We have no idea what it is.

• The many landers and orbiters of Mars have changed our view of this world. I think there’s more water there than suspected in 1980.

• We’ve sent spacecraft past all the outer planets and have orbited Jupiter and Saturn, plus landed a probe on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

• We’ve had all the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray telescope and the Spitzer Infrared telescope.

• We have discovered over 400 planets orbiting around other stars. (One of them was recently discovered to have a ‘habitable zone.’)

• A new generation of huge, ground-based telescopes have been developed and deployed around the world. These have made more discoveries than I even know.”

This list is not exhaustive. For a weekday star almanac, visit www.ephemeris.bjmoler.org “Ephemeris” can be heard daily on 91.5 FM at 6:19 and 88.7 FM at 6:59.