The wizard of light

I grew up godless. I mean that in the best way possible. My parents were devoutly atheist, my father especially so. Do you know that childhood rhyme, “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the …” I was well into my 30s before I caught on that it was supposed to end, “and see all the people.” That’s because my dad taught me a different ending: “open the door and see all the idiots.”

My mom was also serious about her godlessness, though she wasn’t quite as dogmatic about it. In fact, she had wanted to be a nun at one point in her life. But living through the ravages of World War II and then realizing all the cruelty that people will do to one another convinced her that there had better be no god — or if there was, god had a lot to answer for.

So this is how I was raised. Godless. Churchless. Creedless. Without spirituality, I would say, except for one thing. Once a week, on Sunday nights, we would make a big bowl of popcorn, flavored with Lowrey’s seasoning salt, and gather on the couch to watch Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking and breathtaking science for the masses series, “Cosmos.”

To say we were fans barely touches it. My parents bought me the hardcover book where I read all the episodes covered and more. We bought the soundtrack — so many Vangelis songs. I even named one of my cats Cosmo later in life, and though I can’t say that’s entirely because of the series, the good feelings I had for the name certainly didn’t hurt.

Sagan, sadly is gone. But Cosmos is back, headed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The series has just started its second season with DeGrasse Tyson as its host on National Geographic (in the U.S.), and its first episode has a very special guest. Just having the series back on television makes me sentimental to the point of weepiness, with memories of my parents and I and the closest thing we ever came to sharing spirituality, but add my new friend Spinoza to the mix, and you know I’m a goner.

Ladder to the Stars

One of the great things about Cosmos — then and now — is that it doesn’t just talk about science. It also teaches the story of mankind. It deftly tucks in threads of history, weaving together a tapestry of humanity that is full and rich. It was on that program where I first learned about the Great Library of Alexandria, that Christopher Columbus was not the person to discover the world was round (and how the ancients even calculated the earth’s circumference), about great minds like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, and that people can interfere with evolution through artificial selection.

I’m so glad DeGrasse Tyson is continuing that tradition. Not everyone has a great mind for science, myself included, and sometimes we need to be tricked into the stuff. Disclosure: I loved Cosmos, and because of it, I thought I would love my high school physics class. And I loved the part where we covered the history of it. But the rest of it was a drag and I was glad to scrape by with a low C.

In the first episode of this season, “Ladder to the Stars,” DeGrasse Tyson gives a rapid overview of the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to today with the iconic cosmic calendar, and then a broad sweep of mankind’s development from a small tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers to an overly successful people ready to step off our shores to explore for new lands on distant planets.

Animation of Spinoza on Cosmos … tell me if you spot the anachronism!

Along the way, though, he talks about some of the scientific pioneers who helped us get here. And he talks specifically about the Dutch Republic in the 1600s, which was open to scientific exploration in a way that few other places in Europe were then, or had been for many hundreds of years earlier. He names Christiaan Huygens. He names Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek. Then he names a third, at around 27:30 (I would have included the video clip if I could have found it).

He was another wizard of light. Baruch Spinoza had been a member of the Jewish congregation of Amsterdam through his teen years, but in his early 20s, he began to speak publicly of a new vision of god. Spinoza’s god was the physical laws of the universe. His sacred text, the laws of nature. … 

He went even further, daring to write that the bible was not dictated by god but written by human beings. Spinoza wrote, “Do not look for god in miracles. Miracles are violations of the rule of nature. God is best apprehended in the study of those laws.” No one had ever said these things out loud. Spinoza knew he was testing the limits of free thought even for Holland.

To him, an official state religion was more than spiritual coercion. Spinoza regarded the major events of organized religious traditions as organized superstition. In his view, magical thinking posed a danger to the future citizens of a rational, free society. There could be no such thing as a democracy without a separation of church and state. He wrote a book that introducing the ideas at the heart of the American and many another revolution.

This one’s for you, dad

I can’t help but think of my dear, blasphemous father, who made an allowance for spirituality only so far as it brushed up against wonder induced by science. I wish he were still around to watch these episodes, to knock around talk about Spinoza and his philosophies, to talk about this crazy election cycle and the plague that’s closing in. Sometimes I just miss him more than others, and Cosmos just brings it out of me.

The last photo of me with my dad.

But I’m grateful to DeGrasse Tyson and Cosmos, too. They’re introducing a new and younger generation of kids to these big ideas — the exploration of space, the possibility of life elsewhere, the urgent need to preserve it here. Maybe some other young girl is hearing about Spinoza for the first time and wanting to know more, or perhaps the name will just be tucked away in her head, laying dormant until some point in the future when it becomes relevant. I hope the young people watching are picking up an encompassing wonder of it all. And if they stop to think long enough, I hope they find a gratitude for getting to be a part of it.

I owe gratitude to my parents, too, for instilling that wonder in me. Because they cared enough to make that bowl of popcorn every week, and to settle down on the couch and watch a show that opened my eyes to big ideas, and then afterward talked with me about things I could scarcely understand — but talk with me in a way like my thoughts and ideas mattered. I have been so very fortunate.

May the other young people watching this show get to have the same good fortune I did.

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