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To See the Cosmos Anew

We all have heroes in our lives - parents, relatives, teachers.  These are the people who watch over our shoulders every day, giving us encouragement, gentle criticism, and watching to make sure that we get up and dust off our chaps each time we get thrown off the horse.

There is a not so obvious second group of heroes who define the tiny Walter Mitty living inside each of us - bigger than life heroes who represent the way we aspire to live our lives, full of adventure and imagination.  Those heroes are sometimes characters - Indiana Jones, Katniss Everdeen, or Kathryn Janeway.  Sometimes they are real people - Amelia Earhardt, Bill Bryson, or Marie Curie. But always, they are people who seed our imagination with ideas of all that we can be.

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I have many heroes who have influenced me in tremendous ways, and I wish I could buy them all a milkshake to say thank-you.  But in the second group, looming large even next to people like Han Solo and Captain Kirk, is Carl Sagan.

In September of 1980, three short weeks after I turned 11 years old, Cosmos premiered on television, and I set off on a journey that would define my future. Up to that point, I had watched a LOT of Star Trek - I knew about space, and I wanted to explore space, but it had always been with a mind toward strange new worlds with new lifeforms, and new civilizations.  Cosmos introduced me to a new way to explore the Universe, with science and the application of the human intellect.

For thirteen glorious weeks, I sailed the Cosmos with Sagan, enthralled by a story 14 billion years in the making. I made my mom buy me the book (a now tattered hardback, which I still have). Eventually it was rebroadcast, and I watched it again.  I absorbed Cosmos, and ultimately I became a scientist for reasons that are not easy to separate from Cosmos’ early influence on me.

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Eventually, Cosmos was issued on DVD (I have a copy!) and on digital media (I carry Cosmos in my pocket, on my phone, iPod, and iPad!).  I return to it time and time again, when I need to be reminded why I study science and astronomy.  Today, when I read astronomy books, I hear Carl’s voice; when I hear the beginning strains of Vangelis’ Heaven and Hell, or the opening of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I find myself once again transported to the stars on a Ship of the Imagination, with Carl Sagan as my guide.

At a time when I was very impressionable, Cosmos delivered to me a great many thoughts that I now take to be grand truths: that our existence is brief, fragile, remarkable, and possibly unique; that we hold the fate of our future and the Earth’s future in our hands; and that we are one with the Cosmos.

In just over a month, we will once again join together on an epic journey to discover the Cosmos.  On March 9, Fox and the National Geographic Channel will launch “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a sequel to Carl Sagan’s original epic series. Our guide on this new voyage of discovery will be well known science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson.  If you aren’t already waiting for the event, I hope you take the time to watch, and enjoy the opportunity to once again reflect on your own deep connections to the Cosmos.

In anticipation of the new series, I have been rewatching the original Cosmos and blogging each week about the old episodes. See the first post of the series here.

Written by Shane Larson, astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. Questions for Shane? Tweet them to @sciencejedi.

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