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.

The Ghift that keeps on Ghiving

In a previous post, I talked about an image bestowed upon us by Ghislain, a commenter here and over at Action Skeptics. In that post, I referred to Ghislain as a “troll,” and I’m really not sure about that appellation. To me, “trolling” involves some degree of intent to annoy or deliberately irritate the writer/community, and I don’t get that vibe from Ghislain. I don’t even dislike the guy, though I think he’s a little egotistical. I really think I hit on it in the comments to that previous post: that he’s been honestly suckered into this Newage garbage because it allows him to feel special and talk like he’s intelligent and claim some superiority, without having to learn anything of substance. It’s easy to learn catchy buzzwords like “imaginify” and pop philosophy like “you create your own universe;” it’s a lot harder to learn actual information and philosophy and whatnot.

And I think that’s an attraction for most religious groups, particularly the younger ones (Scientology and Mormonism especially, it’s also a feature of the early Gnostic Christian sects)–they tell you you’re special and superior to other people, and they give you the “secret knowledge” that lets you feign intellectual superiority and lord it over the unenlightened rubes all around you. New religions don’t have things like tradition and majority to help convince people to join, so they have to offer something else, and that something else is often “everyone else is wrong, and you can be better than them.”

But that’s all neither here nor there; my purpose for this post was to explore the contents of a link that Ghislain left in one of his last posts at Action Skeptics. Unfortunately, he’s deleted the post, but it went something like this:

god bless

carpe diem

Ghislain left the same post here, sans links, which is why I was able to reconstruct it. The last link there is to a terrible Michael Jackson video, so feel free to watch that, but the first link is to a tiny cornucopia of crazy.

Oh, this is my +4 shield of insanity.
“Ummac Dan”
Galactic Federation Symbol For The Sirian Star System

The “Ummac Dan” is the symbol of the Sirian Star system.
It is an emblem that intensely activates all humans.

What does it mean to “intensely activate” all humans? Why would a symbol from the Sirian star system have an effect on humans? Shouldn’t the symbol of the Dog Star have some effect on dogs? How do you know this is the symbol of the Sirian star system? For that matter, why would a whole star system have only one symbol? Is there an equivalent symbol for the Sol system? I suppose the Voyager disk might qualify, but that seems more a symbol of Earth than of the whole system. As far as we know, the Sirius system consists of two stars and some dust…who, then, created the symbol?

The escutcheon, or shield, consists of three parts. A gold six-pointed star tetrahedron, lies at the centre.

Yeahbuhwha? No, no it doesn’t. A gold six-pointed star lies at the center, sure, but not a tetrahedron. Nothing in that image could be described as a tetrahedron: a tetrahedron is a three-dimensional solid (-hedron) with four faces (tetra-) that are all triangles. There are triangles in that shield, and there’s a six-pointed star, but there sure as hell isn’t a tetrahedron anywhere near it.

Superimposed on the gold star is a silver cross. On either side of the cross is a silver scythe.

Really? I see a couple of curved lines, but neither one looks like a scythe. This is a scythe:
Oh, this is my +2 scythe of death-bringing.
They look, if anything, like bows.

Cross, scythes and star are encircled by an inner band of silver and an outer band of gold. All are set on a background field of purple.

And they all have some wacky symbolic meaning, I’m sure. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, or something.

Each part of the “Ummac Dan” is symbolic. The gold star tetrahedron represents the essence of all sentient life in Creation. Silver cross and scythes stand for the manifestation of spirit into matter and its victory over darkness. The silver and gold circles embody the union of male and female principles. The purple field symbolizes God’s holy Creation.

Man, I love dualistic Manichean Newage Christian Space-woo!

The word “PAO” means “Peace and Inner Strength Through Unity”. It originates from a galactic language that is spoken by a civilization of advanced land Cetaceans living in the Cetus star system. Composed of six planets, this star system is approximately 800 Light Years from our sun.

Cetus isn’t a star system, it’s a constellation, consisting of a whole bunch of stars, the closest of which, sci-fi favorite Tau Ceti, is a mere 12 light years from the Earth. Isn’t it convenient that a planet in Cetus, the whale constellation, would have a species of land-dwelling sea creatures as its main intelligent life? It’d be like Ursa Minor being populated by bear-people, or Sirius bearing canine-inhabited planets.

I’m curious about this galactic language. Why would a language spoken by Cetaceans be pronounceable by people? And so simply? No weird inflections, no different sounds or vowels, just sounds that can be easily formed with human mouths and teeth and tongues and vocal cords, even though the language was invented by land-dwelling water-evolved mammals with a completely different sound-forming apparatus. And how, exactly, did we learn of this galactic language, since it originated 800 light years away?

I love this kind of stuff, because the stories spiral so quickly into inconsistency and insanity, and rarely have any actual science content. The nice thing about Newage is that its stories are new and different, rather than the tired old myths of the Abrahamic religions. Debunking Newage woo, especially space-woo, is just refreshing, because you’re not always making the same old arguments about the same verses and passages. You’re making the same old arguments against new verses and passages, but ones that we can all see are silly and unbelievable. They’re not really any sillier than the beliefs of the more prominent religions, but they don’t have tradition to protect them. Everyone can see that the Newage Emperor is naked.

So thanks for that, Ghislain. One last laugh before you dumped all your posts down the memory hole.