Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey


Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken it on himself to update the classic Cosmos series on PBS that was done by his old friend, Carl Sagan. It’s a daunting task, but I think he’s up to it.

First, and to no one’s surprise, the visuals are way, way, way better than in the original. That’s no aspersion on the good folks who did the original; they used the best available technology. It’s simply that what we can do now is light-years … or maybe billions and billions … of times better than 1980 computing power.

Another thing you notice is that the episodes are shorter. Since this wasn’t filmed for PBS, there are commercial breaks, so the segments probably clock in at around 45 minutes instead of a full hour. That’s okay, really, because the pace is quite a bit faster. Looked at now, the only thing I didn’t like about the original series is that it tended to drag here and there. The directors of these new episodes pick up the pace right smartly, without losing anything in the way of understanding the material.

Another difference is that instead of using historical re-enactors, this series uses animation to portray historical figures. I wasn’t sure I liked it at first, but it grew on me, and after a few episodes I actually liked it better.

1. “Standing Up in the Milky Way.” The series gets off to a great start here. As I expected, Neil’s “Ship of the Imagination” is way, way cooler than Carl’s was. And Neil never tries to drive it, as Carl did, in what I felt were the hokiest shots in the original. He would walk up to a mingy little control panel and punch a few buttons, looking solemn. Didn’t work for me. Neil apparently drives his ship with his mind. When the going gets really rough, as when he descends into a black hole, he will sometimes strap himself into a seat, but that’s all.

So we begin by finding our “address” in the universe, starting with Planet Earth and pulling all the way back to the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, and then back farther still to the edge of the observable universe. Then we get pure speculation regarding the possibility of a Multiverse, an infinite number of universes, something I can’t imagine will ever be proved or disproved.

That’s our place in space. Then we get our first look at the universal calendar, 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang mapped onto a calendar where one month equals about a billion years. It’s a great way to show just how recent humanity and all its works are, how tiny a slice of time we have been in existence. So that’s our place in time.

2. “Some of the Things That Molecules Do.” Uh-oh. Here we go. In this episode Tyson explains evolution, and the “creation science” assholes crawl out of the loony bin. They are demanding “equal time,” if you can believe it. I guess their reasoning is that evolution is a political issue. Only in America … land of the Bible Belt and the crazies who believe the universe was created 6000 years ago. Well, fuck ‘em, Neil. Keep doing what you’re doing, which is telling them that there’s no science in creation science.

It’s a good episode, too, covering artificial selection by showing how we unconsciously selected from the wolves that gathered around our campfires to eat scraps, to the hundreds of dog breeds we have today. Creationists often use the eyeball as an example of how evolution just can’t work; Neil shows exactly how eyes evolved, step by logical, random step. Then we pay a visit to the Hall of Extinction, where he shows the five great extinction events, of which the death of the dinosaurs was only the most recent, and not the most catastrophic. He also discusses the possibility of life on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

3. “When Knowledge Conquered Fear.” More about natural selection, showing how polar bears evolved from brown bears, because they were better adapted to blend in with the ice they hunted on. And how they may be facing extinction now that the polar ice is melting.

We move on to the story of Edmund Halley and Sir Isaac Newton, and we learn a lot about the two men. Halley did a lot more than just predict the return of the comet that bears his name. Newton was a strange bird, obsessed with the “codes” to be found in the Bible (he never found any, probably because there aren’t any) and alchemy. He never transmuted base elements into gold, either. But what a fine mind he had, and what a shame that he wasted great parts of it on nonsense like that! The villain of the piece is Robert Hooke, a man of whom we have no portraits at all, and who is shown here as an evil hunchback, always seen from the rear. It’s pretty clear what Tyson thinks of the man, and I can’t help but agree. He was a genius, but as an older man he kept trying to steal the ideas of his betters, like Newton. He almost succeeded in stopping the publication of the Principia Mathematica, one of the most important books ever to see print.

4. “A Sky Full of Ghosts.” The historical figures are William and John Herschel, father and son, who made many key astronomical discoveries. It was William who first realized that when we look at a star, we are seeing it years, centuries, millennia ago, not in the present. Then Tyson virtually recreates a sequence from the original series, biking through the Italian countryside and discussing what would happen if we traveled near the speed of light. But the showpiece is a trip into a black hole, beyond the event horizon. This is very well done.

5. “Hiding in the Light.” More about light. The invention of the camera obscura, which goes back a lot farther than I had realized, all the way to China 2000 years ago. (There’s a really nice one at the Griffith Park Observatory, admission free.) Then Newton and the prism, the different colors of light, and the absorption spectra of various elements, and how the light from distant stars tells us what they are made of.

6. “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still.” The amazing world of the neutrino. A supernova in the Magellanic cloud was observed through telescopes, but subterranean neutrino detectors recorded a burst of neutrinos arriving three hours before the light. How could this be? Were they traveling faster than light? No, it was simply because when the star exploded, the photons had to work their way out of the chaos, while the neutrinos were formed already traveling at light speed, and nothing stopped their escape. At this moment billions and billions of neutrinos are passing through your body, from whatever direction the sun is. If it’s midnight, they are all coming up through the Earth, stopped by nothing at all.

7. “The Clean Room.” The story of Clair Patterson, one of the unsung heroes. (This series specializes in unsung heroes, I see. And that’s great. I had not even been aware of most of them.) While trying to calculate the age of the Earth by determining how much lead there was in the environment, he noticed that lead levels from ice and seawater samples were much, much lower only a few hundred years ago than they are now. He correctly identified leaded gasoline as the culprit, and then had to endure years of abuse by the lying bastards who made the stuff and were getting rich off of it while poisoning all of us.

8. “Sisters of the Sun.” This series is taking pains to point out some of the lesser-known people who made great scientific advances possible, the grunts who crunched the numbers before computers took over, who developed the optics that made things work, who ruined their eyesight poring over astronomical plates. Many of the latter were women, like Annie Jump Cannon (and her all-female colleagues at Harvard), who developed the system of star classification still used today, and at a time when women were widely believed to be incapable of mathematics. Another was Cecilia Payne, a British ex-pat who came to America because women were not allowed to be astronomers in England at the time. She discovered that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium, which contradicted the prevailing theory. She was told by Henry Norris Russell not to include that in her doctoral dissertation, and then he decided four years later that she was right. And, the world being what it is, he is most often credited with discovering this, even though he himself acknowledged that she was the one. Sucks, right? After that we get the life cycles of stars of various sizes, up to Eta Carinae, which may already have exploded in a hypernova that is so powerful it could kill any civilization within a hundred light years. Luckily, we’re 7500 light years away from it.

9. “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” The evolution of the theory of plate tectonics, as proposed by Alfred Wegener, one of those poor fellows who was laughed at by the greatest geologic minds of his day, which was astonishingly recent. He wasn’t the first to notice that the Americas fit rather nicely into the coasts of Africa and Europe. He added to that by showing similar geologic formations and fossils across the Atlantic. No one listened to him, until it was shown that there is a mid-Atlantic ridge of mountains that is continually spreading. It wasn’t until the 1960s, in my lifetime, that his work was recognized. Oops! Sorry, Al, we were wrong!

10. “The Electric Boy.” Deals mostly with Michael Faraday, the man who rose from poverty to become the most famous scientist on the planet. He basically invented all the important electrical devices we still use today, with the exception of things like printed circuits and computer chips. And he did it in spite of never having learned to do higher mathematics. Even more amazing, from the age of 49 he suffered from some form of dementia that made it hard for him to recall things, and also severe depression. But he soldiered on, and was still making discoveries concerning electricity, magnetism, and light and their interactions right up to his death.

11. “The Immortals.” One of the strongest arguments the “creation science” people advance against evolution is that no one can explain how life got started. And it’s true, we can’t. But the strength of science, it seems to me, is that when we don’t know, we say we don’t know. Which doesn’t stop us from having theories. The most prevalent is that, through processes we don’t completely understand, carbon atoms eventually combined in ways that enabled them to reproduce: the earliest, most primitive bacteria. Another idea, which Neil explains here, is that some organisms could survive inside rocks and cross even interstellar distances. Which, of course, begs the question of where did those organisms arise? Me, I think that on a planet with water and enough time, life will always evolve. But I don’t know for sure, and I admit it.

12. “The World Set Free.” Mostly devoted to that issue that most thinking people are just stunned to realize is hotly debated by many others in this country: Climate change, and whether or not it is being caused by human activity. It’s a done deal to the people who should know, but that doesn’t stop idiots from denying it. So it was a politically charged episode, and as far as I’m concerned, Tyson completely destroyed every argument the deniers have.

13. “Unafraid of the Dark.” So I read that forty-three percent of Americans subscribe to the notion that the Universe was created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Forty-three percent! Un-fucking-believable! In the face of this, it takes more gumption than Carl Sagan needed (not that he would have shrunk from the task) to come down unequivocally in favor of evolution, a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, and climate change. Neil deGrasse Tyson stood up to the Christian idiots without a word of apology, and I applaud him for it. This was an excellent series, a worthy successor to the ground-breaking classic by Sagan. Let’s hear it for him!