Monday, July 19, 2004

Global terrorism and the need for Carl Sagan's Cosmos in Arabic

When I saw a re-run of Carl Sagan's Cosmos in 2000, I thought "Rerun. Yawn." Yet when I saw it again in late 2001, following the 911 terrorist, I thought "Wow." It was incredibly prescient. I was sufficient impressed by the series re-run in 2001 so many years after it's initial broadcast that I wrote an email to Cosmos Studios in 2002. This resulted in a rather remarkable email exchange, which I have quoted below. A reoccurring theme of Carl Sagan's Cosmos was that religious leaders were conspiring for political power, and this results threatened civilization itself. Carl Sagan was referring, of course, to the Cold War, which was still raging in 1980. Twenty years later, after 9/11, Sagan's words suddenly made sense again, but in a different context: that of global terrorism. When it came out, Cosmos was the most watched television series in history. It was seen by 600 million viewers in 60 countries and literally built PBS stations. The Cosmos DVD has subtitles in every major language -- except, of course, Arabic, where it would be most needed.

Here is an excerpt from my first email to them [I date myself here somewhat, always a dangerous thing to do]:

[I was very young when I first saw Carl Sagan's Cosmos], and I was immediately mesmerized. I most remember Dr. Sagan's question "We must ask 'who created the gods'" which neatly paralleled my own "who created God?". [I] would remain fascinated for many years by Dr. Sagan's descriptions of the library of Alexandria, the motorcycle driving at the speed of light, the toilet paper with the Google-plex written on it [yes, the famous search engine got it's name from this concept].

[Carl Sagan's Cosmos occupied many years of my young imagination, and I would] never really [forget] the program. Years later I would see if divide a cherry pie (he used a lemon pie in his program, I believe) down to an individual atom with my rather crumby butter knife. I would only need to divide 72 times as he suggested. Invariably I would fail, as I well knew I would, but it made baking cherry pie all the more delicious.

[B]ut in looking over the Best of Cosmos and going back to my memories of the original series many, many years ago I cannot imagine a more profound global statement on the need for science, on the need for understanding and interaction between cultures, and the likely consequence if we fail to reach that understanding by being distracted by our superstitions and succumbing to our passions.

I cannot imagine a stronger refutation of religious fundamentalism and its current threats to world peace than Cosmos. Dr. Sagan foresaw twenty years ago that our religious superstitions and at times seemingly uncontrollable passions threatened our very existence as a species, and advocated cooperation among the many races of humanity and the search for truth as the only viable solution to these ills. By filming Cosmos at locations around the world at great cost he demonstrated that his commitment to globalism was more than just talk.

What could be more compelling today in countries threatened by terrorism, nuclear war, and destruction by the forces of fundamentalism than Dr. Sagan's optimistic vision of global cooperation and simultaneous seemingly prophetic warning produced some twenty years ago?

I notice the DVD does not have the program subtitled or better yet, dubbed, into Hindu and the various Islamic languages; I would strongly suggest that the DVD be made available in these languages and donated to young, receptive audiences in these countries.

I haven't asked their permission to post this private e-mail correspondence with me, so I won't embarrass them by posting their name or email address, but it is so warm and well-written that it would be a same not to share with the Net, especially on an issue of such importance:

[Y]our suggestion to translate this series into Hindu and other Islamic languages is an excellent one. I will pass on your email with that thought to our President....

As of early 2004, they have not yet been able to come up with the money. As the statistics on Arab translated cited in my Thurow article suggest, translation of scientific books and television programs into Arabic is unlikely to be popular. (Although the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran claims, in the book, that David Hasselhoff was broad Baywatch was the most (illegally!) watched satellite television program in Iran. They do like satellite T.V., especially when owning a dish is illegal in their repressive countries.) My Thurow article, incidentally, started a long discussion thread on the Blogcritics site (linked from my article here), where it was cross-posted.

I've suggested U.S. government grants be used to subtitle Cosmos into Arabic would be a worthy taxpayer expenditure (perhaps for U.S. gov't broadcaster Al-Hurra, which is looking for programming), but the U.S. moves very slowly in such matters, unfortunately.

My correspondent at Cosmos Studios does go on to share the following remarkable insights into Carl Sagan in a subsequent email (again, dating back to 2002):

Your observations on how the series impacted you ... are very interesting, and you bring up some things I hadn't considered, ie the frightening aspects of the Wells re-creation for [young children]. I think Dr. Sagan was trying to recreate some of the atmosphere around his own first experiencing of the universe at an early age, which also had to include some frightening moments, most notably the War of the World radio broadcast. Fact and fantasy definitely continued to overlap during his later youth; in the series he talks about his early love of the then popular pulp fiction science fantasies and his identification with the heroic monster-slaying young man who also wins the hand of the beautiful young alien woman. Your conclusion is exactly right. The Cosmos series affected people emotionally, that is what made this science show unique for all times. I think that most people remember best the things that have some emotional content for them, whether scary or joyous. Dr. Sagan understood this, and since his real goal was for people to really learn from this series, he took the dramaturgic risk of linking emotion and story telling with science. Carl was certainly always a risk taker. Thank you for pointing out this very important way that that manifested.

Sagan repeatedly argues in Cosmos, as indeed in his whole life, that religious and some political leaders were greedily seeking to manipulate populations through ignorance and superstition and, unless countered, would send the world into conflicts capable of destroying civilization.

Listening again to the rebroadcast of his series in 2002, some of Sagan's words took on a prophetic tone in the aftermath of 911. Religious leaders such as Osama and his clerical cronies were indeed conspiring for secular power for purposes that were truly evil. (War mongers on our side, supported by right-wing religious leaders were also a problem, although less so.)

Sagan wrote in a 1992 essay:

[Our] nation sinks into lethargy and economic decay; in which ignorance and greed conspire to destroy the air, the water, the soil and the climate; in which, with over 50,000 nuclear warheads still in existence.... Where are the cartographers of human existence...?

Again, Sagan is clearly talking about the Cold War, but he could easily be talking about global terrorism. Greed and ignorance are still destructive forces, and very much a part of global terrorism. (See my debate thread on the skyscrapers being built by the bin Ladens as one of many here on this issue.) Where, indeed, are the cartographers of human existence when it comes to dealing with global terrorism?

Sagan wrote numerous Pulitzer-prize winning books-more than can easily be listed here. A Hollywood film (with Jodie Foster) and companion book, Contact, on a fictional first contact with extraterrestrials, were more commercial ventures.

Sagan's Cosmic Connection still remains one of his most popular earlier books and is still relevant today. I recommend it fully.

Sagan's Cosmos is IMHO a must see for everyone living on the planet, particularly scientifically-inclined children and those who missed it the first time around. The region zero DVD encoding means the DVD will play anywhere in the world. This, together with the availability of subtitles on the DVD itself makes Carl Sagan's Cosmos IMHO an excellent gift for friends or relatives living abroad. The topics are universal, and the series was filmed in an international style on locations all over the world.

Now if only someone (e.g., the U.S. government) could come up with the money to get Carl Sagan's Cosmos subtitled into Arabic. This twenty-year old program is profoundly and remarkably relevant to the global war on terror; it's translation would be a most worthy cause. It was the most popular scientific T.V. series of its day, watched by more than 600 million viewers. I'm certain the Arab world would still appreciate it today were an Arabic translation available.