Neil Tyson's Cosmos: Standing Up in the Milky Way

The entire universe in blog form
March 10 2014 7:45 AM

Cosmos: On the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

Cosms logo
An odyssey well worth undertaking.

Photo from Fox, from the trailer for the show

As I write this, the world premiere of the new, updated version of Cosmos just aired. I’ve been waiting for this a long, long, time—I first wrote about it in 2011!—and I can say, I’m happy with it. It was lovingly done, fun to watch, and had me wanting more.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

I won’t go into too much detail here; instead, I’ll urge you to watch the replay tonight on National Geographic (check your local listing, etc., etc.). But there are a few points I’d like to mention.

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Before I even start, let me note that a lot of people questioned airing this show on Fox instead of, say, PBS. This was done on purpose, as a way to get the show out to people who may not otherwise be exposed to science like this. I think that was a clever and wise decision. Good on them.

Now about the show: It’s gorgeous, both for the eyes and the brain. The special effects are wonderful and wondrous, and Neil Tyson’s style and voice are a good fit. This first episode is all about showing how small we are; it starts with a brief overview of the Universe (even writing that makes me smile), going from the Earth to the limits of how far we can see.

Interestingly, the next two segments are spent telling the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Italian monk who theorized that the stars were suns, that other planets existed, and that life existed everywhere. He saw this as an obvious extension to the glory of God, but of course the Church took a dimmer view, convicted him of heresy, and burned him at the stake.

Cosmos spent a lot of time on this, and I think they were making an interesting and subtle point. A shallow takeaway is that they were slamming religion, but I don’t think that was the reason behind those segments; that could’ve been done faster, in only a few minutes.

Instead, I see it as making the more interesting and bigger point about suppression of thought and the grandeur of freedom of exploration of ideas. Certainly, the Church was stuck in its dogma, burning Bruno and later having a go at Galileo. But you’ll note that the story was told with the focus on Bruno himself, his ideas, and how he could not be deterred from spreading the word about the greater Universe. Even as he was marched off to his death, his mind was among the stars.

Yes, that doesn’t cast the Church in a positive light, but guess what: The Church wasn’t exactly a force for enlightenment back then. Its arrogance held it back while humanity moved on. Cosmos was honest about this and still managed to present this story as a paean to human curiosity and drive for exploration. And to be honest, Tyson then discussed how Bruno’s vision of the Universe was a lucky guess. That’s the thing about science: It spares no truth for comforting fables.

But there’s more.

cosmos
Tyson faces down the Big Bang.

Photo by Fox

The next segment was about the Cosmic Calendar, retooling all of time such that the 13.8 billion year history of the Universe is rescaled to one year. On this scale, the Sun itself wasn’t formed until late August, the dinosaurs were wiped out on December 30, and all of human written history took place in the last 14 seconds before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Again, as in the previous segments, the Universe makes us seem small, insignificant. Through science we have learned that the Universe was not made for us, and we are not at its center, and we hold little or no special place in it. Indeed, its scale crushes our aspirations to dust.

Yet here we are, contemplating it. Our greatest achievement is to understand that we are a part of it, that we can understand it at all, and we can explore it if given the freedom to do so. That, to me, was the point of this first episode. And it’s a damn fine one.

Finally, the show ends on a personal note for Tyson, talking about Carl Sagan, the original writer and host of Cosmos. I won’t spoil it, because it was lovely, touching, and remarkably well-done. But it does something I wish more programs would: It humanizes scientists and shows science as a human endeavor. It is the most human of endeavors, in fact. It is our imagination, our urge to explore, our desire to discover, and our unquenchable need to find things out.

We stand on the shores of a cosmic ocean, and there is so much more about it to know.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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