Cosmos: A Very Biased Review

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The popular thirteen-part miniseries narrated by Carl Sagan in the 1980s is currently getting a makeover courtesy of astrophysicist celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson. A lot has happened in the field of astronomy since the 80s, so this revamp was much needed and there is no shortage of new material to work with. As I see it, one of the main struggles the writers and producers have is to carefully choose facts and stories that can be curated to work in a show where you want the primarily non-science-literate audience to be able to easily digest the information.

As a fan of the original Cosmos series with Carl Sagan, one of the immediate concerns raised was whether Tyson was being cast as a Sagan replacement or a Sagan descendant and how this distinction would be made in the structure of the show. As it stands, it seems this was a meaningless concern since Tyson is cast in both roles, occasionally using lines from the original Cosmos to great dramatic effect and at other times (especially in the first episode) praising Sagan as a mentor and role model.

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In a fun March Madness competition on Facebook, the Science is a Verb page has been pitching famous scientists up against one another in a voting competition. The one with the most votes in that bracket moves up a level to compete in the next round. In a controversial decision, the page pitted Sagan and Tyson against one another in what has resulted in one of the most voted on rounds so far. The popularity competition isn’t over yet, although I’m quite confident it’s going to be a showdown between Tesla and Newton with Newton taking the prize. This pic shows the Sagan v Tyson round.

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Sagan won by a fair stretch, although I was surprised to see quite a few people throwing their votes in for Tyson. I think this was because they don’t really know Sagan’s work or the original Cosmos all that well, which some of them admitted. Granted, this was still a fair way to vote since the page admin specifies each time a new round goes up that people must vote according to their individual preference based on whatever criteria they wish, but I still can’t help but feel the only reasonable approach is to look at each person’s contributions to the field. These contributions might be more philosophical, such as Valentina Tereshkova being the first woman in space. (If I had to choose a favourite communist, it would be her).

Sagan’s contributions to the field of science far outstrip Tyson’s. Granted, Tyson is younger than Sagan was at the time of his passing and Tyson has accomplished a heck of a lot so far with multiple honorary doctorates and deserved applause for continuing the much-needed popularisation of science. In his capacity as director of the Hayden Planetarium he was one of the people who “controversially” (yes, scare quotes because people just enjoy being upset about this, but no one actually is) demoted Pluto’s planetary status. He’s acted as president of the Planetary Society, hosts StarTalk radio, has narrated several shows about astronomy, and has always spoken out against the concept of intelligent design as a reasonable scientific theory. He has a lot of merits which we can’t overlook. Sagan’s contributions, however, are staggering in their significance and direct impact on scientific undertakings.

It will be pointless for me to paraphrase what has already been succinctly described elsewhere, so here’s a link to the Wiki page. You only have to read the first paragraph to get a feel for his involvement in the scientific community:

His contributions were central to the discovery of the high surface temperatures of Venus. However, he is best known for his contributions to the scientific research of extraterrestrial life, including experimental demonstration of the production of amino acids from basic chemicals by radiation. Sagan assembled the first physical messages that were sent into space: the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, universal messages that could potentially be understood by any extraterrestrial intelligence that might find them.
He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books.

Amiright?

So, Tyson is a modern day astrophysicist rock star, which is hopefully going a long way to continue the popularisation of science. Of the three episodes of Cosmos released so far, the last two have sensitively touched on the topic of religious thought and its place in scientific inquiry, primarily to remind us of the role evolution played in our history and to debunk the notion of prophecy, respectively. He, or perhaps the writers, do so in a way that will hopefully minimise the potential for offense in religious viewers, maximising the possibility for learning. There are a few instances where I’m sure theists might find it appropriate to sneer or cringe but such instances seem to me, as a rather subjective atheist, to be few and far between. Phil Plait has some more to say on this topic. Check out his review.

The staggering visuals in the show are enough to draw you in. The fact that it is produced by Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and co-creator of the original series, makes it easier to sit back, relax, and enjoy the visuals without feeling benign panic that they’re not doing the original series justice. The ship of the imagination Tyson flies throughout the Cosmos, from massive galaxies to tiny tardigrades, basically takes The Magic School Bus concept to the next level.

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The animations for the history of the astronomers and scientists Tyson discusses is well executed and not over-done. If they had gone the Pixar-level route with the history animations it would have been overbearing combined with the intense effects used elsewhere in the show. It’s clean-cut, understandable, and effective by not distracting from the story the viewers have to follow for large portions of the episode. The amount of information Tyson is able to cram into each episode is truly remarkable, and he presents each fact with incredible flair.

Although episode 3 focuses on Newton’s contributions as much as Edmond Halley’s, the sheer volume of things I learned about Halley stand out to me because I did not know them before.

He discovered that comets were bound to the Sun in long elliptical orbits. In a stunning example of true pattern recognition, he was the first to realise that the comets that appeared in 1531, 1607 and 1682 were one the same and was able to predict their next appearances. No one else but Newton had yet attempted to apply Newton’s new laws of physics to an astronomical question.
He invented the diving bell, mapped the magnetic fields of the Earth, and laid the groundwork in population statistics. He invented the weather map and the symbols he invented for describing prevailing wind are still in use today.
He gave us the actual scale of the solar system by using the transit of Venus across the Sun to measure the distance of the Sun from the Earth.
He discovered that supposedly fixed stars aren’t fixed.

Halley discovered the first clue to a magnificent reality. All the stars are in motion streaming past each other, rising and falling like merry-go-round horses in their Newtonian dance around the center of the galaxy.

Hearing Tyson present lines like the ones quoted above is enough to make your toes curl in joy.

There have been some valid criticisms of the show so far from the science community. One of the critics, who does love the show, is Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society. She mentions that in the first episode objects in the solar system are depicted as being too close to each other. Traveling in the ship of the imagination fails to demonstrate the extreme distances between objects. Further, as gorgeous as the red spot of Jupiter is in the show, it is actually 8km higher than the surrounding clouds in real life, whereas its depicted as more of a hole in episode 1.

These are valid criticisms if you’re coming at the show from a highly granular, scientific angle. However, the show has not been made for those who already have a sound understanding of science under their belt, but for the layman who is curious about how the cosmos works and wants a share in the historical and present well of knowledge people like Tyson have to offer. It’s excellent that he has the platform and backing to do so. For those who are already scientific aficionados, there’s the joy of looking for small things to pick at about the show (which sounds like a negative point, but isn’t) and revel in the wonders of the universe.

 

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