Thoughts on “Cosmos”

I just finished watching the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revival of the classic Carl Sagan series. Now, on one hand, I’m a fan of the classic “Cosmos.” I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from it. It has a unique way of blending together the big with the small, the old with the new, and the abstract with the concrete. On the other hand, I’ve never actually seen the whole series. While I’ve had it on DVD for years, I’ve only watched maybe half the episodes.

So I came into the new “Cosmos” as an interested party, a fan of the old series, but not an expert. I have a preexisting love for Sagan and Tyson, and less fond feelings for producer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox network in general. But I talked up the show before it aired and made sure to watch it right when it aired.

There was a lot to like about the show. The effects were gorgeous, light years beyond the simple animations and computer effects of the original series. Tyson made complex ideas accessible, and gave a lot of little tastes and hints about huge, mind-blowing ideas, which people could easily find out more about on their own. There’s a lot about the methodology of science, and how our knowledge builds up over time. The “cosmic calendar” metaphor works better than the 24-hour clock metaphor Tyson employed in “Origins.” There’s no sense of apology or embarrassment or uncertainty about basic (but nonetheless controversial) science, like evolution or anthropogenic climate change or the age of the universe or the big bang.

There was a lot to dislike, too. I worried a bit, given Seth MacFarlane’s involvement and the way he’s used “Family Guy” as an unsubtle way to beat viewers over the head with his personal atheism, that “Cosmos” would be similarly blunt on the topic of religion. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, but “Cosmos” shouldn’t be it. More time should be spent kindling that ‘religious’ awe for the natural world than explicitly attacking believers. The new “Cosmos” managed to disappoint me in both ways in this regard; on one hand, it had a lengthy (and at least somewhat ahistorical) animated digression on Giordano Bruno, characterizing him as a lone heliocentrist scientist against the oppressive church. I was skimming along with the Wikipedia article on Bruno during the segment, noting places where the storytelling glossed over or twisted facts for the sake of narrative. On one hand, it painted Bruno as a man whose religious ideas drove him toward scientific truth, and whose idea of God was more expansive and awesome than the contemporary orthodoxy; on the other, it made him into a scientific martyr, right down to showing him ascending into the heavens in multiple visions, arms outstretched and knees bent in a crucifixion pose. Later, as Tyson went through the history of human history, specific mention was made of the “births” of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at least two of whom were likely never “born” at any point in history. Somehow the show managed both to bend over to accommodate religion, and to attack the church and give science its own Christ figure.

I realize that the show was limited in scope, and couldn’t go into detail on everything, but I really wish there were even a couple more lines to indicate why some scientists believe in a multiverse or what current research has shown about the origins of life. I hope the latter question will still be addressed in a future installment, but this episode’s brief treatment of it made it sound like it’s still a complete mystery.

To get to the nitpicks, I’ve always thought the Ship of the Imagination was the cheesiest part of the original “Cosmos,” and while the effects here are better, the idea still feels kind of out of place. Tyson has a history of picking at science mistakes in movies like “Titanic” and “Gravity,” so it’s weird to see him helming a show that depicts the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt as such densely-populated regions of space. The amount of commercial interruption was ludicrous, but more ludicrous was the commercial for “Noah” right in the middle, showing off similarly expensive and pretty special effects in service of a much less evidence-based story. The animated segment, in addition to its other flaws, looked like a cross between a five-year-old Flash animation and ten-year-old cel-shaded cartoons, very out of place in the otherwise space-age show.

Overall, I have high hopes that future episodes will have tighter foci and greater depth, but this first installment was a pretty mixed bag.


Great view, but terrible atmosphere

Apparently CNN’s website had a poll yesterday to coincide with the launch of the LRO, which should be taking some neat pictures of the moon and doing an impact study to see what lies below the surface. One of the stated purposes of the mission is apparently to scout out potential sites for lunar colonies, which I’m sure is what inspired the CNN poll.

I didn’t get a chance to vote before the poll disappeared from the CNN site, but I think I can sum up my answer thusly:

Incidentally, I have similarly expressed positions on maintaining a healthy fantasy life, methods for combating insomnia, and how best to handle fowl.

This post was brought to you by Wonkette (notice), Pillow Astronaut (image), and the letter N.

Turn around…

There are better places to stargaze than the basketball court outside my apartment complex. Unfortunately, none of those places are within walking distance of my bedroom.

Aside from that, last night’s lunar eclipse was a sight to see. I headed out ’round 4:30 central time, when the moon was about half-shadowed. I’ve seen lunar eclipses before, but I’ve always only paid attention at totality. “Oh, neat, the moon is reddish,” I would typically think, then go back to whatever else I happened to be more interested in at the time.

But, since I just finished Phil Plait‘s Bad Astronomy book last week, clearing up a lot of my moon misconceptions, I figured I ought to give the event some more attention. And boy, am I glad I did. It’s one thing to watch the moon at totality, it’s quite another to watch it approach totality, as that bright sliver of white slowly shrinks until it looks like a single bright spotlight gleam, and then nothing but a rusty ball, hanging up in the sky.

While I was out, I also caught sight of two meteors (yes, I still wish on them–never saw one as a kid, so I’m making up for lost time), Mars (which I correctly identified by sight–I’m so proud of me), and two things that were either small or fairly distant aircraft, or satellites (I don’t know what features characterize satellites). Mars looks neat arranged right near the Hyades in Taurus.

I hear that in areas with less light pollution, you could see the full moon at totality set in a field of stars. Next time one of these rolls around, I’m going to try to get away from campus and towns, out into the fields, so I can really appreciate the sight.