With Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s modern-day reboot of Carl Sagan’s 1980 documentary series doing so well, here’s a look back at the original, which was a surprising pop culture phenomenon.
- “Cosmos” is a Greek word that literally means “order.” In science, however, it means “the universe” or “everything, including space, atoms, and everything in between. Cosmology is thus the study of how everything came to be.
- Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was the brainchild of Cornell University astrophysicist Carl Sagan, one of the most recognizable and influential scientists of the 20th century. In addition to his many books, talk show appearances, and lectures, Sagan helped shape NASA’s Voyager and Viking programs.
- Inspired by American and British TV documentaries about individual scientific subjects, Sagan wanted to do a story of the cosmos—of absolutely everything. Sagan and producer Ann Druyan (the duo would later marry) took the idea to PBS, who gave Sagan a whopping $6.3 million and two years to make Cosmos.
- The 13-part series aired in the fall of 1980, and was one of the first documentaries to use special effects, animations, and intricate scale models, all to give the impression of host/narrator Sagan interacting with distant space objects and molecules.
- It was a huge hit, earning the biggest audience in PBS history (only surpassed since with the 1990 Ken Burns documentary The Civil War). Around the world, it’s still the most watched PBS show ever, reaching 500 million viewers.
- Sagan’s Cosmos tie-in book of the same name was a hit, too. Each of its 13 chapters correspond to a Cosmos TV episode, and like the show, explain complicated scientific concepts in a simple, but exciting way. It sold five million copies, and until Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Cosmos was the bestselling science book of all time. It spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
- Even the Cosmos soundtrack was a hit, combining classical compositions with newer music by Greek composer Vangelis (who would go on to score Chariots of Fire).
- Cosmos was so big, Johnny Carson parodied it (and Sagan’s unique look and speech patterns) on The Tonight Show: