The YouTube video titled “A Glorious Dawn” starring Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking (their voices run through Auto-Tune), and snippets from Sagan’s epic Cosmos, has now racked up almost nine million views and twenty-seven thousand comments since it was first put up sometime back in 2009. (Mysteriously, in addition to its seventy-seven thousand ‘Likes’ it has also attracted over a thousand thumbs-downs. There’s no pleasing some people.)
To that count of nine million views I have made several dozen contributions. And cheesily enough, on each occasion, I have detected a swelling, a lump in my throat, and sometimes even, most embarrassingly, a slight moistening of the eyes. I am a grown man, supposedly well above such trite sentimentality. What gives?
Like many of those that write those glowing comments on YouTube, I too watched Cosmos as a youngster. I learned a great deal of astronomy and the history of science from it and watched each episode diligently, as it was shown, every Sunday, on the national television network. Cosmos wasn’t perfect and without fault; even as a teenager, I felt Sagan’s supposed docu-opus was flawed. Many of its segments felt tedious and heavy-handed and Sagan was not an ideal story-teller. (Many contemporary critiques of Cosmos made these points, often accusing Sagan of treating Cosmos as a vehicle of self-indulgence.) But I don’t think my current reactions to that clever YouTubed homage to Sagan and science are grounded in anything like a sophisticated cinematic assessment of Cosmos as a science documentary; their manifestations speak of something far more visceral underpinning them.
I react the way I do to “A Glorious Dawn” because when I watch it I am reminded of a kind of naiveté, one that infected a part of life with a very distinct sense of possibility; I am reminded indeed, of an older personality, an older way of looking at the world. You could call this simple nostalgia for childhood; I think you’d be partially right. This nostalgia has many components, of course. Then, science, its methods and its knowledge, seemed sacrosanct; its history the most glorious record of human achievement, rising above its sordid record in other domains. It seemed to document a long struggle against many forms of intellectual and political tyranny. Because I was a student of science then–if only in school–I felt myself tapping into a long and glorious tradition, becoming part of a distinguished stream of humans possessed of epistemic and moral rectitude. And because I felt myself to have just barely begun my studies, I sensed a long, colorful, adventure–perhaps as dramatic as those that I had seen depicted in Cosmos‘ many episodes–lay ahead of me.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I traveled through Puerto Rico, making the usual stops at beaches and rainforests. On our list of must-see destinations was the Arecibo Observatory, whose gigantic radio telescope dish I had seen in Cosmos:
As I posed for photographs that beautiful day, even though I was aware I had traveled–in many ways–far away from the viewpoints my earlier self had entertained in its first encounters with Cosmos, I could still feel their tugging at me, still provoking in me an unvarnished sense of wonderment.