Science Television, Tabloid Programming, and God

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Years back, I asked Dr. Carl Sagan to appear on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Inside Space television series. It was the first original program for the fledgling new channel and my first outing as a series writer/producer. Carl was a legend – a Pulitzer Prize winning author, environmentalist, and human rights activist. He was also considered the most famous scientist in the world.

I was quite nervous on the day of the studio shoot. The Inside Space team wanted to present “real” space science subject matter, while the channel was pushing for something closer to “UFO and Alien Abduction” stories. The Vice President of Programming told me straight out that Inside Space should not be “heady” like the other PBS series (NOVA and Space Age) I’d worked on. The dictum was “play up Carl Sagan’s celebrity status and ask him about ALIENS”. It was going to be a tough balancing act to explore “real” science and make it entertaining enough to keep the tabloid style programmers off our backs.

horsehead-nebula

When Carl walked onto the Inside Space set, he saw our backdrop – a 10 x 20 foot printed slide of the Horse Head Nebula. He uttered just one word, slowly – “A..s..t..r..o..n..o..m..i..c..a..l”. That one word broke the tension. We all laughed and got on with the ninety minute interview.

Carl and the show’s host, Bill Mumy, talked about many issues: the environment, human piloted missions to Mars, Star Wars technology, and even UFOs. But the most interesting topic, I thought, was the subject of God.

sistine chapel

Carl did not believe in “God”, or at least the god that is depicted on the ceiling of the

Einstein

Sistine Chapel who looks over everyone and everything. His point of view was closer to that of “The God of Einstein”, a force that guides the shape and ultimate destiny of the entire universe. I remember Carl said, “It is far better too grasp the universe as it really is, than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” I knew the topic would bring dignity to Carl and play well with the channel’s programmers.

I was wrong. The channel preferred ALIENS over science poetry.In Carl’s PBS television series, he suggested that all the matter in our bodies was created in a dying star. All the atoms that make up who we are, were created in the last moments of a sun’s life as it fused hydrogen into helium, helium into lithium, lithium into beryllium… all the way down through the heavier elements. As Carl said, “We were all ‘Star Stuff’ ” and were quite literally “Children of the Stars”. How could the channel argue with such poetry?

Inside Space with Carl Sagan was to be my last show for the Sci-Fi Channel – show #47. My contract for another year was not to be renewed. I returned from our 30 Rock, New York City studio to Boston and joined up with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Science Media Group.

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Dr. Sagan passed away a couple years after his appearance on Inside Space from a rare form of leukemia. It was a great loss. I often thought, “How could someone who knew so much just die?” It made me angry at God – exactly the way I felt when my grandfather died when I was eight years old.

For some time after Carl’s passing, I ran this fantasy around in my brain – I was Carl’s great-great grandson and I had come back from the future with a cure for his disease. But as time passed, the fantasy died and I fully accepted that Carl was no longer with us. And then something wonderful happened. I came to realize that Carl was not really dead – energy can never be destroyed. Carl’s influence lived on in the millions of people he touched – in the documentary, environmental, human rights, and space science communities. And…in me.

gse_multipart33748The Tonight Show’s host, Johnny Carson (a space buff) was partly responsible for making Carl into “the most famous scientists in the world”. He would often mimic Carl’s Brooklyn accent and repeat again and again “billions and billionsof stars”. Truth is, Carl never said the phrase “billions and billions of stars”.  He might have said “millions of stars” or “a billion stars”, but he was far to precise and to great of a communicator to utter “billions and billions of stars”.

Cosmos

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