Thoughts on COSMOS with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson visits the Royal Society of London, England.
Neil deGrasse Tyson visits the Royal Society of London, England in COSMOS: A Space Time Odyssey

It’s a daunting enough prospect for any student to attempt to fill their teacher’s shoes. Imagine how hard it would be if your teacher was Carl Sagan. That’s exactly the challenge that Neil deGrasse Tyson faces as the host of COSMOS: A Space Time Odyssey.

The 13-part television series aired on Fox on March 9th of this year, and it follows the same 13-episode pattern that Cosmos: A Personal Voyage  took when it aired in 1980 with Carl Sagan at the helm. In many ways, Tyson’s COSMOS is an homage to the original series. In others, it’s an attempt to build upon it: our scientific community’s knowledge of the universe—and our ability to share this knowledge with the whole world—has expanded greatly in the last 30 years.

What’s new, you ask? Writing about COSMOS shortly before its premiere, Dennis Overbye from The New York Times looks back over the last few decades:

After all, a lot has happened since Dr. Sagan set off on his imaginary spaceship. Robots are exploring Mars, though nobody has been back to the moon. The space shuttle was launched and retired. The expansion of the universe has been found to be accelerating and the temperature of the earth has been found to be warming. We’ve sequenced the genomes of humans and Neanderthals.

Not to mention the internet! And so much more.

The treatment of evolution in the show has creationists griping and complaining on CNN.  They cry out about the show’s supposed unwillingness to “consider” theories of “special creation,” or give creationism equal air time.

Tyson was quick to dismiss these complaints, comparing them to “flat-earthers,” which is about as appropriate a parrallel as any I’ve heard for creationism.

But we would do well not to forget that religious objection to scientific theories has a long history. Adam Lee writes in Salon:

While we’re thankfully past the days when scientists could be stoned in the streets or imprisoned by church tribunals, the anti-science spirit is alive and virulent in the world today, waving away facts that disagree with its ideology and seeking to silence or intimidate those who speak inconvenient truths.

He continues, further down:

Religious groups have joined the banner of climate-change denial as well, calling the environmental movement a pagan religion and arguing that global warming is a nonissue because the Bible says God won’t allow the Earth to change too much. When moderate evangelical Richard Cizik argued that Christians should devote more time to environmental issues, he was pressured and eventually forced to resign his vice-presidential position in the National Association of Evangelicals by religious-right groups who said that talking about global warming would ‘shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time.’

Edmund Halley, born curious, was always encouraged by his father to explore the universe.
Edmund Halley, born curious, was always encouraged by hisfather to explore the universe.

One can only hope that the wide-spread nature of a show like Cosmos, with “the largest global opening ever for a television series” means that this kind of thinking is approaching its imminent demise.

What gives COSMOS its magic is the sheer scope of the subject matter. No other film, show or piece of writing is so successful at giving us an accurate view of humanity’s place in the universe. The cosmic calendar analogy in the first episode, for example, is a great way for to give any open mind a better sense of humanity’s diminutive place in the vastness of space and time.

Consider this: if all time that ever existed in the Universe was condensed into a single cosmic “year,” where the present, our now, is the last second of the last day of New Year’s Eve, then all of recorded history would have happened in the last 14 seconds. 0 AD is only 5 seconds ago. Our lives? A mere blip.

When comparing the two COSMOS series, Tyson version has at least one distinct advantage over Sagan’s that has nothing to do with the stature of either scientific man: the graphics and visuals are wildly better than those in the original.  The accurate (as far as I can tell) simulations of the movements of planets, galaxies, meteors and stars is incredible to witness. They will mesmerize your friends and make your screaming children, for the brief silence of an episode, gape in awe.

There is one scene in particular at the end of Episode 3, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” that shows how the Milky Way galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy several billion years in the future. The same way that Halley was able to predict the return of a comet, astronomers are able to accurately predict how the galaxies will merge. It goes without saying that tracking the collision of two galaxies is infinitely more complex than tracking the movement of one comet, but that does nothing to diminish the beauty of the visualization as two galaxies meet and dance in the vastness of space, and then  merge to become one.

You can still catch up on episodes of COSMOS: A Space Time Odyssey on Hulu.

Update 9/10/14: COSMOS is no longer available on Hulu. Find out where you can watch it on the COSMOS website.

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