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. Continue reading