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Some Thoughts on “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”

Cosmos - LogoLike many of you, I have my own history with science.  As a kid, I’d wonder why I’d shock myself whenever I reached for a metal handle in the wintertime.  I got older and would spend recess digging up the school’s yard, looking for the dinosaur bones I was sure were buried there (I’m sure I found a fossil of an archeopteryx).  I joined the Young Astronauts in middle school and was the only kid to do a science project for a fair (Helped get me out of a test).  I took a summer geology trip in high school and visited places I’d never imagined — canyons, caverns, national parks.  I majored in biology in college.  I’ve worked for labs and in the science fields of different kinds.

I say this for two reasons.  First, because one of the strengths of this new iteration of Cosmos is how personal host Neil deGrasse Tyson makes the entire series feel.  Yes, this is a show about humanity’s journey from ignorance to knowledge, but it’s a journey of individuals lifting society by lifting themselves.  Secondly, because how much you get out of this version depend on your own personal tastes, background and ideas regarding science as a whole and its place in our society.  But we’ll get to that later.

After years of trying to get Cosmos back on the TV screen, co-creator Ann Druyan — Carl Sagan’s widow — co-writer/astrophysicist Steven Soter and astrophysicist/podcast host Neil deGrasse Tyson managed to partner with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to help convince the heads of Fox to put their money in a revival of the groundbreaking 1980 PBS series.  Using the latest in computer technology and the most up-to-date scientific discoveries, this version of Cosmos, dubbed A Spacetime Odyssey, would continue on Sagan’s work in his successful, A Personal Journey.   Dr. Tyson would stand as the new host and pilot the updated “Ship of the Imagination”.  It still took 3 years of work by teams of scientists, special effects experts, prop guys and other workers to bring the new Cosmos to life.

Cosmos - Dr Tyson at the Edge of the CalendarThe show describes the growth of science and understanding from a historical standpoint to explain how our modern understanding of things was formed.  Isaac Netwon influences Edmond Halley, who takes Newton’s work to understand the movement of celestial objects.  William Herschel influenced Michael Faraday who influenced James Clerk Maxwell and they all eventually lead Albert Einstein to his theory of relativity.  Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Swan Leavitt inspire Cecilia Payne, who would use their work to explain just what makes stars — and galaxies and the universe.  Knowledge built on top of knowledge leading to further knowledge and understanding of everything from what makes our world at a cellular level, a stellar level and everything in between.  This is mostly done through the animated sequences that the show liked so much.  Some people weren’t fans of the art, but I found that it was a good way of speaking of history — better than acted recreations.

The animated stories also help to bring to the foreground one of the key concepts of the show:  How science differs from the other major philosophies of humanity.  Dr. Tyson goes to great lengths to explain how scientists of all kinds rely on data that’s been collected, analyzed, challenged and continuously studied.  This is the core of the scientific method:  hypothesis, research, experimentation, analysis, conclusion, presentation and replication.  Before something can be considered a theory, results must be replicated by others and conclusions accepted by other scientists.  Even when something is accepted, it doesn’t mean it’s set in stone and cannot be challenged.  This stands in stark contrast to most other forms of thinking by humans, including religion and societal notions.

These animated tales also help to show the cost that scientists have had to pay to expand human understanding as well as the capriciousness of human society that has worked against furthering knowledge.  Whether that is the dogmatic view of the Renaissance-era Catholic Church who burnt Giordano Bruno for daring to suggest a heliocentric solar system or the prejudices against women that Cecilia Payne faced when she presented her research at the turn of the 20th Century, science has never occurred in a vacuum.  It is as subject to the whims of time and the dominant philosophies of the day as any other mode of thinking. Cosmos - Ship of the Imagination Dr. Tyson points to Michael Faraday — one of the greatest scientists to ever live — and makes him an example of what happens when genius is stifled by class systems, poverty and limited education.  One of humanity’s greatest minds, limited because he wasn’t born wealthy enough in a time when education was something reserved for the wealthy.

This ties into another of the big themes of the entire series: the perilous quality of life.  Dr. Tyson spends many episodes describing the myriad of ways life has come close to never starting or going out on planet Earth.  Hitching a ride on an asteroid from Mars perhaps.  Asteroid and meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions, ice ages, greenhouse effects; these are some of the culprits for one of the five major extinctions that Earth has seen.  Each time, the dominant species have been wiped off the face of the Earth and it’s been those small, unseen bacteria or plants or animals who’ve managed to live on and take over the planet.  He also pushes forward into the future and explains what are some of the choices for humanity:  death by asteroid strike, death by solar expansion, exploration of the cosmos or death by our own hands.

Because a lot of what Cosmos really tries to work in has to do with how it is in our hands where the story of humanity goes.  Not just the support for sciences and scientists but in how we accept and work with what they uncover.  The show details the hard work of Clair Patterson in revealing how dangerous lead was to humans and how this was fought by the business interests in lead and the petrochemical industry; most pointedly through the work of Robert Kehoe.  In the most poignant episode on climate change, Dr. Tyson brings up how close we have been to solar energy breakthroughs — through the works of men like Augustin Mouchot and Frank Shuman — only for them to be ignored due to convenience or war.  But he always goes back to this same theme throughout the series:  if humanity is to survive its Terran cradle and stretch out into the stars, it’s going to have to think of more than just its current way of doing things.

Obviously, Dr. Tyson and Cosmos makes the point that science and scientists are not apart from the world but are an important dynamic part of it.  After all, the smartphones in our pockets, the satellites that give us turn-by-turn navigation and all the other advancements of our world are not derived out of some magical hole.  They’re the modern applications of the work by Newton, Faraday, Halley, Maxwell and so many other scientists.  However, people still are unwilling or don’t want to acknowledge when science goes against their bedrock preconceived notions of the way things are or are meant to be.  So you’ll have creationists challenging natural selection education in schools or you’ll have people still challenging the human cause of modern climate change.  The show tackles both hot button topics in specific episodes and explains how the science is really in and these are not really considered debated topics any more by those who study biology, geology, climatology or any of the sciences focused on these topics.  Instead it is the inherent desire to refuse to face the facts that clouds so many.

Cosmos - BrunoAnd Cosmos also shows how that is not a modern man’s mistake.  At every turn and on both the macro and the micro level, humanity is fighting against itself to come to terms with its newfound knowledge and the boundaries it pushes.  For some, like Bruno, it’s a fight against the Church.  For others, like Newton and Faraday, it’s a personal fight against the leading scientist of their day.  So the issues that we today have when dealing with climate change, evolution/natural selection, the cost of space exploration or other issues are neither new nor impossible to overcome.  It’s often our own proclivities that deny us the opportunity to deal with them.

Now let me be clear: I loved the show.  I loved what it did and what it said and how.  It took Sagan’s concepts like the Ship of the Imagination and the Cosmic Calendar to make difficult ideas clear for its audience.  If you are a science neophyte or a young viewer, watching Cosmos must have filled you with wonder.  However, and this is not a criticism of the show itself, if you’re someone with a stronger science background — even if that is nothing more than lots of Science Channel, Discovery Channel and National Geographic viewing — you may find that a lot of the material Cosmos covers is basic, 101 level stuff.  That’s not a bad thing per se.  All education starts at the beginning.  And this is beginning-level science show.  It’s hope is to fire up the imagination of viewers and dare them to seek out more and more detailed science.

Also, he cannot possibly be compared to Carl Sagan, but Neil deGrasse Tyson manages to imbue the show with his own personality.  He’s as amazed and as excited by what he is sharing as many in his audience.  His passion is clearly his own field: astrophysics.  But he manages to touch on the biology, chemistry, geology and other science topics with equal aplomb.  He’s equal parts educator, cheerleader and preacher, spreading the gospel of science.  The only time he missteps is when he becomes less the teacher and more the prosecutor against antiquated modes of thinking — like the Bruno vs Church moments.  Cosmos feels less open to all and more like it wants to try and adjudicate against the foolishness of old men who have long since been proven wrong.  There’s a point to be made there regarding human short-sightedness but it’s ham-fisted.  It feels like a direct shot at climate change deniers and creationists.

Any issue or doubt I could have with the show is driven away by what is a beautiful final episode.  In it, Dr. Tyson pushes to reveal the limits of what science knows about the universe.  Topics like dark matter and dark energy — basic concepts for stuff we know we don’t know.  And he presents perhaps the most important idea of all: that it’s okay to recognize our limits even as we push past them.  Science isn’t a dogma.  It’s a method for understanding our universe, large and small.  Everything we know is because we have observed it, we have tested it, we have thought about it and sought to refine what we saw and observed and tested.  It’s not perfect, like humans aren’t perfect.  But it allows us to find out and allows us to be honest about what’s been found out.  It’s only when the answer must fit a preconceived notion of how things should be — how they must be! — that things falter.

Cosmos - Pale Blue DotThe series ends with a repeat of Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” monologue (Listen to it here: http://youtu.be/XH7ZRF6zNoc) before Dr. Tyson brings the entire series together.  He presents the future fate of the Voyager spacecrafts — the first human-made machines to ever leave the solar system and enter interstellar space — as the culmination of the work of countless scientists, physicists, biologists, chemists, astronomers and others.  Men and women who wondered, who challenged, who erred and who learned from even their mistakes.  He then ends with a challenge to the next generations of scientists:  to continue seeking the answers to those large and small unknowns.  Because in those answers, there’s a humility to our place within the larger frame of things and it forces us to make decisions about what kind of lives we want to live and what kind of world we want to build.  It’s a beautiful message that makes A Spacetime Odyssey a worthy successor to Sagan’s work.

Like I said, what you get out of it will depend a lot on your own individual science biography.  Are you someone who questions things or accepts what he or she is told?  Have you wondered about how things have come to be and sought those answers?  Can you have your viewpoints challenged?  Ultimately, Cosmos is about humanity: its totality and its billions of individuality.  Its past, present and its future.  How we’ve managed to figure out that the stars are hydrogen are helium.  How we know about photosynthesis.  How we’ve managed to leave footprints on the Moon, put machines amongst the stars and dared to ask where does that leave us in the complexity of everything.  When you consider all we’ve managed to achieve in our relatively short window of existence on the Earth, it’s an amazing concept.  And it dares us to do more.

It’s a beautiful sentiment.  It’s a great show.

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