Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Episode 11
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!
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
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
It looks like we are off to a great adventure.
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.