Critiquing Cosmos - Episode 4

A week after delving deep into the annals of science, Cosmos tonight shifted gears and give viewers perhaps a bit more of what they were expecting.  That doesn't mean it was all flash and no substance, however.  Let's take a peek at the highs and lows from "A Sky Full of Ghosts."

I loved...

Starlight as ghosts: It's pretty eye-opening when you realize that the night sky reflects the Universe not as it is today, but as it was in the past.  Thousands and millions of different pasts, one for each star.  Every time a star dies, its light soldiers on for years or decades or eons.  In effect, it's alive in the eyes of the cosmos.

Lightseconds to lightyears: Astronomers often throw the term lightyear when discussing many aspects of space, but rarely do we remember to provide an intuitive notion of what a lightyear actually is.  This confusion is borne out in the vast number of people who think a lightyear is a unit of time, not of distance.  By starting with objects closer and more familiar to us, and thinking of lightseconds and lightminutes, Cosmos helped build that sense of how big space really is.

No absolute reference frame: It's the foundation of relativity and the bedrock of modern physics.  The visual of a bike riding against the rotation of the Earth, which orbits the Sun, which orbits the Milky way, which flies through space, showed that everything we might take as stationary in the world is actually travelling at a tremendous speed.

I liked...

A voice cameo by Sir Patrick Stewart: The actor who played the Enterprise's Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation is among the world's most famous television stars, so it was a wonderful touch to hear him voice one of astronomy's great scientists.

Refuting young-Earth creationism: Although creationist biology has been pretty extensively thought out (at least in terms of having answers for most questions), the same cannot be said for creationist astronomy.  Tyson highlights this by pointing out what a tiny portion of the night sky would be visible if the Universe were only 6500 years old.  The traditional creationist answer to this, that God created the light en route to the Earth, sure seems like a stretch...

I didn't like...

Switching between animation and live action: The animated scenes depicting historical figures have been one of the delights of the re-imagined Cosmos, so I found it quite jarring to see shots of actors portraying Isaac Newton, Micheal Faraday, James Clark Maxwell, and Albert Einstein.  A detail, but one that stood out to me.

Not explaining black hole jets: Every shot of a black hole prominently featured a giant jet shooting out.  But, if nothing can escape a black hole, how do these jets form?  In reality, astronomical jets form because conservation of angular momentum turns a tiny upward motion into a roaring velocity at nearly the speed of light.  Seems like just the thing for Cosmos to explore...

The last ten minutes: For 3.75 episodes, I've thought that Cosmos presented the viewer with what he or she needed to know about our Universe and the science that describes it.  For the final quarter of "A Sky Full of Ghosts," however, I thought the show gave us what it thought we wanted.  Flashy visuals of unsubstantiated science are the sort of fare common in other shows of this type.  I was disappointed to see Cosmos dabble in this game, too.

 

While this may not have been my favorite episode of the series thus far (episode two retains that title!), Cosmos continued to provide a level of historical underpinning not found in other documentaries today.  From our first ideas about nature, the show continues to build a story of scientific curiosity that brings us ever closer to the modern day and highlights those scientists we often overlook.

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