Critiquing Cosmos - Episode 3

A week after taking a detour through the wonders of biology, Cosmos this week swung back into more expected territory.  Rather than an exploration of the origin of life, "When Knowledge Conquered Fear" traced the earliest days of modern science and the rivalries between those at its forefront.  Let's take a look at how this episode fared.

I loved...

Different constellations, same stars: Astrologers (not astronomers!) ascribe significance to the Sun's position in the twelve zodiacal constellations.  But these constellations are arbitrary and there is no easier way to realize this than to discover that virtually every culture in history took the same stars and combined them in different ways to make their own pictures and tell their own stories.

Halley as the unsung hero: No man is as important to science as Isaac Newton, but, as we discovered in this episode, without Edmond Halley, Newton's work may have never seen the light of day.  An intensely private man, Newton required nearly constant hand-holding to complete the Principia.  On top of shepherding a giant of history, Halley made a variety of contributions to science and engineering  which remain important to this day.

Colliding galaxies: Looming several billion years in our future, the Milky Way's collision with Andromeda will be a major milestone in the history of our galaxy.  Tonight it was depicted gorgeously with a beautiful simulation and moving music.  Wow!

I liked...

Life of a comet: It's easy to think that comets always have that big, beautiful tail, but it's sadly not so.  Comets only have tails for a brief part of their life, when they're passing close to the Sun; otherwise they're just big snowballs.  It was neat to see how Neptune and Jupiter's gravity can affect these icy wanderers.

Forgetting universal gravitation: Think about the biggest, most pressing problem facing science today.  AIDS? Cancer? Grand Unification Theory?  Now imagine if it turned out somebody had already solved that problem five years ago, but forgot where he put it.  It's astonishing, but true, that Newton discovered the most powerful law in physics but didn't think it was important enough to bother keeping track of.  Just sheds a little light on what it must have been like to discover so many fundamental ideas that they just become passè.

Predicting Halley's comet: He may not have actually discovered the comet, but Halley's early application of Newton's laws may have been one of the first cases of science being predictive.  Today prediction is a fundamental role of physics and the standard against which all theories are held.  It's hard to imagine a more dramatic debut of predictive science than that of the arrival of a comet.

I didn't like...

A lack of detail: A week after evolution by natural selection was deftly and soundly illustrated, universal gravitation was denied a similar treatment. One of the most breathtakingly simple laws in physics, Newton's law of universal gravitation governs the formation of planets, stars, galaxies, and practically everything in between.  Surely, in a show devoted to these wonders, it merits a succinct explanation.

Paying scientists in books: A criticism of the seventeenth-century Royal Society, not the twenty-first-century Cosmos, it was sad to see one of astronomy's great contributors paid in copies of an un-sellable book.  Hope things never get that bad today...

 

Another week, another enjoyable episode of Cosmos.  While episode 3 may have tread more heavily on the historical, it was once again a change of pace for the show.  With varied topics and a variety of delivery styles, Cosmos seems to be keeping things fresh and it's certainly keeping me interested...