Last night I was able to watch the first episode of thirteen of the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fortunately, I was able to watch it on the big screen at a local theater, and while waiting there was an episode of Family Guy showing. Interesting, that episode was about understanding and dealing with death. Cosmos, on the other hand, was set to breath new life into science education on TV.
I will not do much to compare this with the original Cosmos from 1980, but to note a couple of things. One is that the sorts of use of verbiage by Tyson is notably different than that of Sagan. Carl had a melodious use of language that gave his speech rhetorical power and poetry. Tyson is hardly laconic, but it did not sing as Sagan seemed to. On the other hand, the pacing and mood of this new Cosmos is faster and feels more up-beat. Sagan made the whole of the story into a sort of epic that was reminiscence of watching The Ten Commandments when compared to Tyson’s approach. The universe still has the same level of grandeur now as it did in 1980, if not more, but Tyson allowed for more show and less tell, having a lighter touch, and when he spoke it wasn’t trying to seem so much as Moses come down the mountain. This all has advantages and disadvantages, but really it is only different. Tyson is not Sagan, Sagan is not Tyson. Each has the sort of character and approach that works. The differences mean that this Cosmos will not replace the previous version. And that is for the best. Tyson speaks with his own voice, one that he has found to resonate in our time, and I am glad the script is allowing him to be him and not simply trying to be Sagan again.
So, onto the episode itself.
The episode began by handing off the baton from Carl Sagan to Tyson with editing, voice-over, and grace, beginning at the same place Sagan did in 1980, standing on the shore to represent our place relative to the cosmic ocean. And now Tyson stood there, ready to take us into the ocean with a new, CG-rific ship of the imagination.
What the episode set to do is provide a sense of scale in space and time. First was to provide us a sense of our coordinates or cosmic address in the universe–and even in the multiverse. From the corona of the Sun to the jewels of the planets, not to mention Pluto. The Oort cloud was also presented, but of course the scale quickly widened to included the local galaxies, our supercluster of galaxies, the edges of the observable universe. After this came a historical interlude about the famed martyr for scientific inquiry, Giordano Bruno. The animation style I thought was brilliant and really enjoyed it. I will come back to the story of Bruno later. But after that, the time scale was considered, using the cosmic calendar implemented before by Sagan, but with updates on the development of life on earth, not to mention great visual effects. I also liked the use of actual, practical effects to produce a moving Tiktaalik, a rarity in this day of computer graphics. But most importantly, it put into scale just how little time human history has been around comparatively–a matter of seconds compared to the cosmic year.
Lastly, there was a return to Sagan, his love of science and making that love known, and Tyson revealed his close connection to Sagan when he was a young man from the Bronx. I saw some people complaining it was hagiographical, but it seemed appropriate, didn’t inflate the facts (Sagan did a lot of work in so many planetary science projects in the 20th century and had several papers published in Nature), and the personal connection I found sweet. Perhaps there was too much focus on Sagan rather than the science, but for an introductory episode, trying to carry on Sagan’s legacy, I find that difficult to fault.
I for one found watching this first episode a good experience, and I think it helps set up a good beginning for the series. Not much science was provided, but that is expected for the intro to a 13-part series. Just like the first Cosmos. But there are some things I believe some will find in somethings fault. In particular, the story of Bruno was at the center of the episode, especially his ordeals and final execution by the Catholic Church. Now, Bruno had a lot more than the infinity of the worlds used against him in charges of heresy, but it would be strange to deny that it was a reason that he was put to death. After all, it was one of the reason the Inquisition said he was a heretic. Still, it’s hard to imagine the church would have gone after him on just the infinity of worlds, and there were lots of other charges of theological nature. Those things were mentioned, but they were hardly highlighted like Bruno’s cosmological beliefs. There is also the issue that Bruno would not be considered a scientist in our modern meaning of the term. His beliefs about the universe were not reached at using careful observation or anything empirical. It would be better to use the term that was given to medieval and early modern physicists, the natural philosopher. His sorts of musing are more similar to the methods of Nicholas Oresme than of Galileo or Kepler. But to be fair, Tyson did say that Bruno was not a scientist, and his beliefs were not based on evidence but speculation. It took the sorts of evidence gathered by Galileo to actually make a real, scientific case of heliocentrism and that other stars are like the Sun.
In reality, what Cosmos did here was a reasonable balance on the history of science and its interactions with religious authority. It notes that Bruno was not only charged based on a cosmological view; it notes that Bruno was not really a scientist. And what it did was show that this was a time when free inquiry was stifled. That is absolutely true. Scientific or not, the problem was that you were not allowed to have the wrong views, and they could get you killed. And in that, Bruno remains a martyr for free inquiry and bravely standing up for what you believe to be right based on your own reasoning. Of course, had Bruno been wrong he is unlikely to have been remembered; that heliocentrism was correct should vindicate him. But as was said in the episode, you should question everything and go wherever the evidence leads. It is in that which we can justifiably condemn the Inquisition for stamping out inquiry and not allowing assumptions to be questioned. Those assumptions may be right, but if they must be protected by force then progress and understanding will remain impossible and we would not have our modern world.
So, the science vs. religion question is not provided with great nuance, but that makes sense since it wasn’t religion being questioned but religious authority. The point is not about religion, but about an authority using something like religion to squash inquiry.
But if we want to complain about things, I saw two things that I thought were not accurate. One is that when the ship of the imagination was traveling through the solar system, it went through the asteroid field between Mars and Jupiter as if it were difficult to maneuver through. The reality is that the asteroids are thousands and thousands of miles apart, so you have to carefully aim to actually hit an asteroid. What we saw was something from Star Wars, Episode V. Also, when going through the cosmic calendar, they placed the approximate time of Moses; problem is that Moses probably never existed, nor did the Exodus from Egypt. (I also did see that for Jesus, they had a comet-like Star of Bethlehem fly over, but that was just good Nativity imagery, not an endorsement of any view). Lastly, the reference to Martin Luther about the implausibility of the Copernican solar system has been questioned as actually coming from Luther. It is mentioned only in a collection of ‘table talk’, which isn’t usually a great source for accurate quotes. I note that Owen Gingerich thought there wasn’t something quite right about it in his The Book Nobody Read, p. 136.
But enough for these nit-picks. Overall, the episode seems to be a great introduction to the new Cosmos series. I eagerly await the next episode and hope to see some great science and stories.