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I just discovered that Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos series is available on “instant” Netflix, and I’ll be showing the series to my kids (also of note, almost all of Ken Burns’ historical documentaries are available on “instant”). One of my favorite episodes was the one on Johannes Kepler, dubbed by Sagan according to the title above. He had believed, along with Copernicus and other astronomers out of reach of the Catholic Church, that the orbits of the five known planets were circular and that the orbits could somehow be explained in mathematical terms by the five geometrically perfect (or “platonic”) solids. He eventually obtained raw data from fellow astronomer Tycho Brahe (for whom my dog is named) which caused him to abandon his theories and ascertain his three laws of planetary motion. Sure enough, I found a portion of the episode on Youtube.
Sagan is easily satirized and his series is probably “dated” in both style and science, but he is exceeded by nobody with the possible exception of Isaac Asimov in explaining complex science to the lay person. But the real value of the series is that it provides a good history of science. Kepler’s discovery in particular easily represents one of the major turning points in the history of science – certainly among the top 10 – both for the discovery itself and for his willingness, after much struggle, to abandon theories which were backed up by his spiritual views and for which he had invested much of his life. That takes courage as well as intelligence, and established by example a standard of objectivity which probably remains rare to this day.
Addendum: Another portion of the same episode.