Star Stuff…

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I suddenly have 11 minutes free…

Here’s something to fit my spare time and — with luck — your evening…

Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan — a man compendiously as well as accurately described on wikipedia as astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences.

During Sagan’s prematurely curtailed life (he died at 62), I was always pleased to chance upon things he had done: for me, he always stood out as someone who not only was able to work on original research at the highest level, but also knew how to communicate with a non-specialist audience … and which of us wouldn’t want to learn from — or to become! — such a person…?

So far as I can remember, I first heard of Sagan when his 13-part TV series Cosmos reached UK television, which was in the middle of 1981. It surely ranks as one of TV’s major science-education achievements — and it stands re-watching even today. To be honest, though, I wasn’t completely taken with it when it was first shown: I was studying for several very sciencey A-levels at the time, and there were moments where the programme’s approach was just a little too warm and fluffy, just a little too over-poeticised for me. Only years later did I come to understand that the audience which Sagan was attempting to reach was very largely a US public whose degree of carefully engineered educational disadvantage is something quite unknown in our less business-controlled, less desperately religious, and less viscerally racist European societies.

Another thing I didn’t much like was the synthesized music for which his soundtrack had such an obtrusive fondness: for me, repetitive electronic music used repetitively is pretty much what I would imagine to be the background score of Hell — and when I went and dug out the Vangelis albums from which he’d borrowed some of it, I wasn’t any more impressed.

But then, every so often, he’d drop the slathered-on electronic mush … and use a classical track which seemed to get everything just right. Click your way into the following episode at 27′ 00″ and listen for a few minutes to hear what I mean…

What’s more, it was Cosmos that actually gave me my first opportunity to hear the following piece — which I hereby present in the very same recording that the programme used. Yes, a show that laboured to bring ideas of scientific substance into the homes and minds of the largest mass audience imaginable also presented its viewers — and more than once! — with a piece of Bach written for unaccompanied violin: if you can tell me of any other way in which this little bit of Bach has been brought to the ears of 500 million people across 60 different countries, then I hope you’ll tell me what hallucinogenics you are using…

If you want to hear Carl Sagan chatting about his life and his musical tastes, you can hear his 1981 appearance on Desert Island Discs, which I see is one of the programmes the BBC has not thrown away. Yes, I listened to that too, all those years ago — and it was the first time I’d ever heard a song by Tom Lehrer: having heard the Friday evening broadcast, I tuned in again on the Saturday to tape the Vatican Rag

So, my glass is raised tonight in honour of Carl Sagan (1934-96): one of that select band of humans whose journey through the world sees them spreading sparks of illumination and education whatever they do

MD

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