As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I considered television characters some of my best friends and mentors. Miss Piggy taught me karate. The Fonz taught me the cool way to repair a jukebox. Mork taught me that space aliens are a lot like us, only constantly riffing. Later on, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to create a few TV characters of my own. But with all due respect to Miss Piggy, the Fonz, and Mork (and with somewhat less due respect to Stewie Griffin and Stan Smith), the most unforgettable character ever to appear on my television screen was an actual human, in every virtuous sense of that word.
Imagine sitting down each week to watch a television show that doesn’t feature any Orange County housewives. A program that concerns both the infinite and the infinitesimal. An adventure that stretches outward to other galaxies billions of light-years away, and inward to a micro-universe of mysterious, exotic, subatomic matter of which we’re all composed (including, I guess, the real Real Housewives of Orange County). It’s about science. At one time, such a program existed. It was 1980, the show was Cosmos, and the human behind it was Carl Sagan.
Watching Cosmos, I saw a Brooklyn-born researcher pull back the curtain on a world of seemingly dense scientific concepts, which, with the flair of P. T. Barnum, he managed to present in ways that made them accessible to those of us lacking a degree in mathematics or physics. He was able to make a discussion of the most distant stellar objects suddenly become relevant to our small, day-to-day lives. And he did so with such obvious passion, enthusiasm, and love for the knowledge he imparted that even those who had little interest in science found it impossible not to want to go along for the ride.
It was the same for Carl’s appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (he was on the show 26 times, calling it “the biggest classroom in history”). He somehow always found a way to connect with mainstream audiences over decidedly unmainstream topics like molecular theory or the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project or evolution. Perhaps most important, he broke down the fear that often results from humbling scientific discoveries. With Carl, it wasn’t “We evolved from microscopic organisms; that’s scary and unsettling.” Instead it was “We evolved from these incredible, fascinating, alienlike creatures. Isn’t that amazing? Want to know more? Yeah, me too. Let’s all try to learn the answer to the mystery together.”
Whether it was on Cosmos, with Carson, between the covers of his 20-plus books, or in the pages of his frequent magazine articles, Carl was always inviting us to think for ourselves and to comprehend the ways in which science was expanding our reach as a species. Why is that important? Why not be content to just let the eggheads do all the thinking and leave us regular dumb folks to our regular dumb stuff?
Well, for one thing, Carl understood that a species with the power to destroy the planet is one that simply can’t afford to be all “herp-a-derp” about science. As Carl’s student and protégé Bill Nye (the Science Guy) notes, having a technologically advanced military at the disposal of a scientifically illiterate society is a formula for disaster. There’s no armed force more terrifying than the National Army of Derpistan.
What’s more, Carl Sagan genuinely just wanted to share, with as many of us as possible, his infectious wonder at the expanse of our universe and his appreciation for the rarity and preciousness of life on our planet (and maybe—who knows—other planets). A broader such appreciation, he believed, could only lead to a greater, more aggressive commitment to protect and cherish that life, in all of its fleeting forms. For example, Carl once said that if there is life on Mars, we should leave it alone. “Mars then belongs to the Martians,” he said, “even if the Martians are only microbes.” How amazing is that? The man advocated for the rights of imaginary Martian germs! He cared more for theoretical space bugs than I personally care for just about any of my actual coworkers. It’s a realization that leaves me awed and also makes me feel like I should apologize to my coworkers.
We lost Carl Sagan in 1996 at age 62. I regret that I never got to meet him or tell him what his work meant to me, and that I never got to show him my Carl Sagan impression (I throw a lot of “billions and billions” in there, and I fluff up my eyebrows … it’s actually pretty spot-on). But I regret the loss of Carl Sagan much more for our broader culture and for the absence of the only public, mass media–friendly figure we had who could charismatically personify skepticism, rational inquiry, and wonder—the three mismatched roommates who live together in the crowded apartment we call the scientific method. Sagan’s dedication to that scientific triumvirate hasn’t been matched on popular television at any time since, with the possible exception of So You Think You Can Dance. You can tell just from the title that that’s kind of a skeptical show.
Seth Macfarlane is the creator of Family Guy. He executive-produced the upcoming docu-series Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey with Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow and collaborator.
Fun for superfans: