Critiquing Cosmos - Episode 8

Eight episodes in, we finally got the kind of show I (and I imagine many others) was anticipating from the outset: a flashy, effects-laden trip through the Universe.  But did the eye candy detract from the knowledge content? Let's find out.

I loved...

The visuals: It might have been a flashy episode, but the flash sure was pretty.  Most of the nebula and supernova remnant shots were iconic space images, but they took on an entirely different character when rendered in depth.  Seeing the gas and dust and stars move relative to each other as we zoomed in on a young star lent a physicality to the experience that a flat image just cannot match.  I was impressed!

Human computers: Talk about painstaking work!  I simply can't imagine looking at thousands of photographic plates and hundreds of thousands of stars.  And from that, to deduce a series of patterns in those tiny lines... incredible.  Astronomy owes the women who produced the first spectral catalog a tremendous debt.  It's truly a shame they haven't received the same recognition their male contemporaries did.

The Pleiades as the first eye exam: I'm constantly amazed at the ingenuity of ancient peoples and their use for the Seven Sisters is no exception.  It's easier to understand how they could develop such elaborate stories about the sky when you realize how personal and practical their relationship with the stars was.  That's something that practically no one on Earth experiences today.

I liked...

Dark constellations: Only ten percent of the world's population may live in the southern hemisphere, but they've got a virtual monopoly on the Milky Way.  Our galaxy was so brilliant and the night skies were so dark that a number of ancient southern civilizations, including the Australian Aborigines and the Inca, defined their constellations not as collections of bright stars but as patches of dark sky.  How different their view of the night sky must have been from their northern counterparts.

A glorious dawn: Avid readers of these critiques probably know that I'm not a huge fan of the callbacks to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, but tonight I've got to make an exception.  The passage describing the rise of the Milky Way as seen by a planet located above the galaxy is in Sagan's own words and it brilliantly describes a beautiful scene.  The original was so moving, in fact, that it inspired the first in a long-running series of science-themed music videos.  I've embedded it here, so take a listen.

I didn't like...

A missed opportunity: This isn't a criticism of the show and, in fact, it's maybe not a criticism of anything.  More a lament, I suppose.  Annie Cannon may have given us the first modern spectral catalog, but she condemned generations of astronomers to frustration.  When she began assembling her catalog for Edward Pickering, she took an older system for the classification of stars and compressed it.  The old system classified stars into categories labeled A through Q.  From these, Cannon selected A, B, F, G, K, M, and O.  When Cecelia Payne discovered these types corresponded to temperatures, they were rearranged into their modern, temperature-based ordering of O, B, A, F, G, K, M.  To this day they remain in such disordered form.  A little more foresight, and millions of introductory astronomy students would've been forever grateful.


  Although I personally missed the focus on history that permeated many of the previous episodes, I think this episode may have fulfilled a lot of people's expectations.  It was really the first astronomy-only episode in the series and in that light I think it worked well.  But, I couldn't help but miss the interconnected view of science fostered by the series thus far.