Critiquing Cosmos - Episode 1


In 1980, Carl Sagan's Cosmos changed the way we talk about science.  Science could be flashy; it could be down-to-earth; it could be for everyone.  Thirty-four years later, here we are again.  Since Sagan's death in 1996, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been America's, and perhaps the world's, leading advocate for science.  Never a scientist of the same caliber as Sagan, Tyson has devoted himself to bringing the discoveries of others to the street corners, park benches, and living rooms of the nation.  Who better, then, to take us on another journey to the stars?

Every week for the next three(ish) months, I'll be bringing you my likes, dislikes, and overall impressions of this highly-anticipated show.  Critiques needn't be negative and, if this first episode is anything to go on, I'll have little to say on that front.  So, let's dive in and see what this first hour had in store for us.

I loved...

The visuals: How could you not?  This show blends gorgeously-rendered artists' conceptions with actual imagery from space telescopes and our robotic explorers.  The cartoon animations are a great way to depict the past and serve as a nice interlude between various locations.  Jupiter's swirling Great Red Spot was simply beautiful.

Distinguishing fact from conjecture: Often the greatest flaw of popular-science television is a failure to communicate to the viewer when the narrative has progressed from well-founded science to mere speculation. This conjecture is not always bad - after all, it's difficult to talk about the future without at least some uncertainty - but differentiating it from known results is vital.  Cosmos did an excellent job of this.  Whether talking about the Oort Cloud or the Multiverse, Tyson always couched his statements with an appropriately-sized grain of salt.  Wonderfully, this even extending to pointing out that Giordano Bruno was at best lucky in his at-the-time-completely-unsupported theory of the Universe.

I liked...

Our cosmic address: Although at its core it was really just a simple distance-based exploration of the Universe, describing our cosmic address was a great way of revealing the various scales of structure in space.  It's a nice reinforcement of the notion that we're just one house in a giant suburb.

Seeing the "butterfly effect": When Tyson pointed out the asteroid that was deflected just a hair, I figured it would be the asteroid that went on to strike the Earth and form the Moon.  But no, that asteroid had another four billion years to travel before finally colliding with the cretaceous Earth and ruining a lot of dinosaurs' days.  Neat!

The cosmic calendar: Again, not exactly a new way to represent the history of the Universe, but the show depicted it very nicely.  Talking about all of human history as the last hour on the last day of the last month of the cosmic year makes humanity seem like one really great New Year's Eve party.

I didn't like...

An exploding Big Bang: This is a tough one and no one has really cracked it yet.  Because we're three-dimensional people, we always envision the Big Bang as an exploration in space, but that's not really how things went down.  Space itself was being created, so there wasn't really anything to expand into.  Also, the Universe was so incredibly dense at this point that it would be hundreds of thousands of years before light could even propagate to our hypothetical eyes.  All that said, however, I'm not sure how else to represent such an otherworldly event on the television screen.

A dash of ethnocentrism: As beautiful as the animated story of Giordano Bruno was, it really only gave us one take on the development of astronomy.  Observational, record-keeping astronomy was independently developed many times around the world.  From the China to North Africa to South America, a huge array of notions about the nature of world were developed in the millenia before modern science emerged.  Medieval Europe's regrettable assaults on scientific thought were only one reaction to our widening view of the Universe and astronomers like Copernicus and Bruno were hardly the only to consider a grander existence.

I'd like to end with a special appreciation for Tyson's tribute to Sagan at the end of the hour.  Even though I'd heard the story of Neil and Carl's meeting before, it always resonates strongly with me.  Sagan is an inspiration to all of us who communicate science and to many who are engaged in expanding it.  The specter of his legacy is perhaps one of the driving forces that keeps us working to better the public's engagement with science.  We all know we can do better because we've seen it done better once before.  Carl was a real scientist talking about real science to a public desperately in need of an ambassador.  If the rest of Cosmos plays out like it did tonight, Neil has taken a big step in that direction.