Annie Jump Cannon, Carl Sagan, Cecilia Payne, Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson, science education, tardigrade
TV and film-wise, I usually come late to the party. I like to watch things at my own pace. So there was a bit of a lag before I got around to Cosmos, even though I have been looking forward to seeing the re-boot of one of my all-time favorite shows.
The new version does not disappoint. Visually, it is stunning, the pace never drags, and Neil Tyson is a natural as the host. He radiates charm, charisma, and intelligence. Several aspects of the new series surprised and delighted me.
First of all, series writers Ann Druyan and Steven Soter are not afraid to deal directly and candidly with the conflicts between science and religion. The tone is never harshly critical of religion, yet they get right to the point in the very first episode, with an animated sequence telling the story of Giordano Bruno.
Bruno, a disciple of the Roman philosopher Lucretius, was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1600. His “crime” was expressing the view that the universe was infinite, that the stars were distant suns, and that life might exist on other planets. The animation vividly conveys the horror of what was done to him in the name of religion (though I am glad, for the sake of younger viewers, that his final agonies are not shown).
Time and time again, religion has enforced human ignorance and stood in the way of knowledge, often at great cost to civilization. Where religious predictions of the future have repeatedly failed, scientific knowledge allowed Edmond Halley to accurately predict the return of the comet named for him. I’m glad that the writers of Cosmos were courageous enough to point this out.
The series retains certain features of the original, co-written and hosted by my childhood hero Carl Sagan. There is the cosmic calendar, which represents the 13.8 billion-year history of the universe through the metaphor of twelve months. On this scale, the Sun and Earth are formed in August, the first life in September, and the first humans on December 31, toward the close of the day.
Like many fans of the original Cosmos, I was less than enthused at the return of the “Spaceship of the Imagination,” the visual device used to explore the universe at the atomic, molecular and cosmic levels. The writers stuck to the concept, but it works better this time around. The interior of the ship is dynamic, and there are lots of Star Trek-style shots of it nipping about the galaxy. Still, it looks rather like a giant Norelco electric shaver.
Episode One includes a moving tribute to Carl Sagan, who spent a Saturday in 1975 with the teenaged Neil Tyson, trying to recruit him to Cornell’s program in astronomy. Tyson chose Harvard instead, but said of his meeting with Sagan, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”
Episode 2, “Some of the Things Molecules Do,” covers evolution, using the metaphor of the Tree of Life to show how all living things on earth are cousins. When you compare the DNA, it’s easy to see that we are directly related not only to apes, but also to fish, mosquitoes and trees. To me, this is a more profound spiritual concept than any idea generated by the world’s religions.
I particularly enjoyed the demonstration of the steps in the evolution of the eye, an organ creationists like to argue could not have arisen through natural selection. What a brilliant idea, to show a continuous “creature’s eye view” as the structure of the eye evolves. It was news to me that early on, sea creatures had excellent vision. Emergence onto the land, in fact, created certain problems which natural selection has never quite overcome.
My favorite moment in the episode is the appearance of the tardigrade, perhaps the most amazing creature on earth. It is the size of a pin head, and can withstand absolute zero or boiling temperatures. It can survive the pressure found in deep ocean trenches, and even the vacuum of space. It can go without food and water for ten years. Not only that, but it’s really cute!
The other thing I love about this version of Cosmos is its celebration of scientists–not just the famous ones everyone knows (though Isaac Newton gets plenty of attention), but the unknowns whose contributions have nevertheless been fundamental. They turn out to include a number of women, like Cecilia Payne, who has been called the founder of modern astrophysics, and Annie Jump Cannon, a Deaf woman who created the modern classification scheme for stars.
Why is it that every American knows who LeBron James is, but few have ever heard of Ibn Al-Haytham, Michael Faraday or Cecilia Payne? Truly, these heroic and inspiring stories should be required viewing for every family with children.
Carl Sagan would have been thrilled with this show, and in it, his spirit lives on to inspire and delight us. Thanks for everything, Beautiful Man!
There are “billions and billions” of stars, but only a few beautiful men.
That’s true Ellen! I have been giving a lot of thought to the definition of a Beautiful Man. Maybe one day I can write a post about it.
well, a few compared to “billions and billions.” would merely a few million or so be “a lot”?
Yes, I am sure Carl Sagan would say that we have to put these things in perspective. The Universe has enough Beautiful Men to keep me blogging for a long time.
That almost inaudible clapping you hear is me, far off at a safe distance, applauding your courage and intellectual integrity in talking of the “r” word. As an atheist I stay right the hell away from that topic in my blog. I just don’t have the energy to deal with the aggravation.
I went all shivery when I read that Sagan had a meeting with a teenaged Tyson. 😀
Isn’t that fantastic about Sagan meeting Tyson? I had the same shiver. Carl Sagan is one of the people I most admire, truly a Beautiful Man. It’s a pleasure to see Tyson following in those footsteps. I was surprised to see how forthright the show is in asserting the superiority of science over religion as a system for generating knowledge. One of the final episodes is about climate change–a real eye opener and a lucid, simple explanation of the science involved. After seeing it, one concludes that only the ignorant or the viciously greedy could deny the facts of global warming.
ohhhh, sounds like totally the kind of program i love! and the Sagan references! one of my heroes! I’d love to see this, need to check out if i can catch it on any streaming services..
Interestingly enough i’ve recently seen a brief series about evolution which i absolutely adored! Not sure if you’re familiar with Brian Cox, the program was called Human Universe and basically tracks human evolution from zero to exploring space and the whys and hows. Utterly fascinating and he’s a charming combination of scientist and engaging presenter.
The tardigrade is an amazing little fellow, but cute he ain’t 😉
Thanks for the tip on Brian Cox. Looks like a show I would really enjoy, and he’s easy on the eyes 🙂 At first I thought you meant the actor Brian Cox— he is great too!
It must be the chubbiness of the tardigrades that appeals to me. They are like little Pooh Bears with eight legs. I just discovered that they are also called water bears and “moss piglets,” moss being their best known habitat. They are also the subject of an upcoming exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History: http://www.buzzfeed.com/kellyoakes/tardigrades-find-a-way
from that point of view they are cute 😉 i just can’t get over their ,naked’ look 😉 Oh wow that exhibition is something else!
thanx for the exposition/summary. ‘b’ ‘n me really enjoy such shows usually when we stumble across ’em.
i think i’ve always marvelled, and sad to say, the stark bright light of day not so much.
and … put a hair-like wiggly tail on the Spay-ship uv dee M-ah-gin-ayshun, and it could be …
A wiggly tail? I thought it mostly looked like a Norelco shaver.
I’m so glad I went back into your archives to find this post, Linnet, because I too was a massive fan of the series. I waited excitedly for every Sunday evening at 9 to roll around last spring. I desperately wanted to watch it with my daughter (the aero/astro kid), but after one episode we both agreed it was not going to happen. She refused to watch anymore because she kept shouting at the screen, insisting that many of the facts were either incorrect, dumbed down to the point of inaccuracy, or were so poorly explained and misleading that it verged on science sacrilege. Discovering the religious element to the programming had her looking for the remote control to snap in two. She’s a feisty, hypercritical one, that kid.
I decided watching it with her would be unproductive because I would never hear what it was Neil was trying to teach me over her shouty criticisms.
Then I tried watching two more episodes with my 16 yr old son. He gave up because the cartoons were lame and cheap.
I repeat. I loved it. I shall watch it all again. And this time take notes.
LOL. Scientists who take on the work of teaching a popular audience always come in for criticism from their colleagues. It seems your daughter has already joined that group! As for the animation, the figures seem a little stilted in their movement, but the backgrounds are really detailed and lovely. I think the style was quite deliberate. Maybe your son should take a closer look! Here’s a little clip about Seth McFarlane and the animations: