Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Episode 1

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March 18, 2014 by kittynh

Claus Larsen has offered to do a review of the Cosmos episodes for Yankeeskeptic.  He has to wait a bit longer to see each episode than those of us living in the United States, but a review of each episode I think will be a wonderful resource to have online.  Thanks Claus, and I look forward to the reviews to come!

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by Claus Larsen, editor, SkepticReport.com

The much anticipated Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the sequel to the 
iconic tv documentary, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, by Carl Sagan, from 
1980, promises a new take on that most difficult of endeavours, to 
explain science to the general public, by telling the story of the 
universe. The host is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, and 
science communicator, and already a known and welcome figure at The 
Amazing Meeting, where he has been a very popular and knowledgeable speaker.

The full impact of the original series, Cosmos 1980, is hard to gauge, 
but there is little doubt that the show was a trailblazer for science 
communication through the power of television. Although comparisons to 
Cosmos 1980 are unavoidable, the new series should not lead us into a 
battle of which is best, coolest, or most durable. All works are 
children of their time. It is impossible to produce a show that will not 
look fake or old-fashioned in a short time, and thus, it becomes a waste 
of time lamenting this rather obvious fact. The medium, be it the format 
,or the host, is not the messenger.

The documentary is preceded by a brief introduction by the President of 
the United States, Barack Obama. It is highly unusual that a political 
leader introduces a television show about science, but it certainly 
helps drawing attention to it, much needed in these times, where 
passionate opinion trumps empirical evidence all too often.

The show itself starts where Cosmos 1980 started, on the same shores 
that Carl Sagan walked. Neil deGrasse Tyson lays down the ground rules: 
This is about science, the systematic testing of ideas through 
experiments and observations. Those ideas that pass the test, and reject 
those that do not. Evidence, not personal opinion or political agendas, 
should lead us. Question everything, not as a form of rebellion for the 
sake of rebellion, or to grab power from those in power. The goal, the 
only goal, is to find answers.

The format of storytelling is a spaceship of imagination, free from 
space and time, also used with great effect in Cosmos 1980. As a 
starting point, we must know where we come from. What is our place in 
the cosmos we are about to explore? In a lengthy sequence, destined to 
become a classic in visualization, we are taken through a breath-taking 
view of the cosmos itself, from Earth, to the Solar system, to the Milky 
Way, to the Virgo Supercluster, to the observable universe – and, 
perhaps, a multiverse.

Given the permeation of religion in society, especially the United 
States, the perhaps biggest challenge in producing such a hardcore 
science show is how to decide on the issue of religion. How should the 
religious beliefs rejected by science be presented? Should a 
reconciliatory tone be used, or should it be a confrontational show, 
where science shows itself to be consistently superior to religion?

Cosmos 2014 has chosen the third way, namely education. After we have 
established where our place in the universe is, Cosmos 2014 does the 
wise thing, by not repeating the historical sequence of Cosmos 1980, but 
moves straight to Copernicus, who, as the first using experimental data, 
suggested that Earth was not the center of the Universe. The emphasis on 
empirical evidence permeates the documentary.

A short animation shows the story of Giordano Bruno, his rebellious 
nature, his search for knowledge (as it was then defined, by God), and 
discovery of Lucretius’ thesis, that the Universe could be explained by 
natural laws, and did not need divine intervention. Lucretius’ arrow 
philosophically proves an infinite universe, as opposed to the religious 
dogma of a finite universe, on a rather limited scale.

While Bruno does not accept a creator-less universe, he takes the notion 
of an infinite universe as confirmation of his infinite god. Bruno 
envisions a limitless universe, as much later illustrated by Flammarion, 
resulting in his banishment from continental Europe. After being 
ridiculed by the English, he recklessly returns to Italy, where he is 
jailed and subsequently burnt at the stake.

A religious renegade, prophetically challenging existing dogma with a 
vision of a better way to know God, and being tortured and executed for 
this, bears a clear resemblance to the fate of Jesus. However, the story 
of Giordano Bruno is used not as an attack on religion, but as a warning 
that freedom of thought cannot be oppressed by a thought police, 
exemplified by a religiously controlled state. Dogma, in all forms, are 
anathema to scientific progress.

The punchline is Galileo’s discovery, a mere decade after Bruno’s 
martyrdom, showing that the latter was right: The Milky Way was, in 
fact, made up of stars, with worlds other than our own. The lesson is 
that, while you can think your way to possible answers, you have to do 
experiments and gather data to back it up with.

What Bruno lacked, was an understanding of time. Cosmos 2014 uses the 
familiar calendar analogy, to great effect. From the Big Bang, on 
January 1st, we are taken through the formation of galaxies, with stars 
being born and dying, resulting in the atoms that formed planets and, 
much later, life itself. You, me, everyone – we are made of star stuff.

After the formation of our sun and planet, on to the creation and 
evolution of life. This does not take up much of the walk-through, 
rightfully so, since the goal is not to explain life and evolution, but 
to point out the vastness of time. Thus, dinosaurs, an easy way of 
getting kids to watch any science show, is not shown here. Instead, a 
passing asteroid during the formation of Earth is brilliantly used to 
explain that small events can have a big impact later on. Since Tyson is 
not only impervious to the Big Bang, the asteroid obliterating the 
dinosaurs have no impact on him either.

To understand our history and the evolution of man, a change of scale, 
yet again, is applied. Humans only appeared in the last hour of the last 
day of the year, and all of recorded history takes place in the last 14 
seconds before midnight: The invention of astronomy, the switch from 
hunting to agriculture, the necessity of mathematics and writing. As a 
nod to the great religions, the relative birth times of Moses, Buddha, 
Jesus and Mohammed are shown, subtly explaining that no creation story 
of either religion can be true. The discovery of science is only one 
second old, yet has shown itself to be the best way to discover the 
universe, going from Galileo looking at the Moon to astronauts walking 
on it, in a mere four hundred years.

This first episode rounds off with a heartfelt tribute to Carl Sagan, 
and how Tyson met him. Already knowing that he wanted to be an 
astronomer, Tyson was inspired to become the kind of scientist that 
Sagan was.

We round off with the words of the host:
“Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the 
generations. It’s the passing of a torch, from teacher to student to 
teacher. A community of minds, reaching back to antiquity, and forward 
to the stars. Now, come with me. Our journey is just 
beginning.”
It looks like we are off to a great adventure.

One thought on “Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Episode 1

  1. terrythecensor says:

    I have to say, I was disappointed by the first episode. All the science facts were things I’d heard before dozens of times — it felt like a long string of “isn’t that amazing?” clichés. Near the end, I said out loud to my friends, “Are they using the same script as from 1980?”

    I certainly hope it gets better so I can watch it with my 11-year-old godson.

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