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.

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Minor things

First, this column at Slacktivist is amazing.

Second, tomorrow is Wednesday, January 27th. At 10:00/9:00 Central is the mid-season premiere of Psych on USA Network. I’ve been planning to write up a full post about Psych for some time, but every time I pop in one of the nifty DVDs I got for some recent winter gift-giving festival, I get a little distracted. I hesitate recommending the show only because it sometimes feels like it’s targeted directly at my weird ’80s-reference-based sense of humor, and I don’t know if that works for many people. It certainly doesn’t work for a lot of the people who hear my weird ’80s-reference-based attempts at humor. In any case, the relevance to this blog is that Psych is one of the best skeptical shows on TV. Now, it’s not hard science or skepticism like Mythbusters or anything; it’s more skeptical in the vein of the original Scooby-Doo. For those who don’t know, it’s a mystery series following a fake psychic detective who works with a somewhat credulous police department. The protagonist is hyper-observant, which serves him both in the over-the-top psychic pantomime and the whole mystery-solving routine. Despite having some potential rooting in woo-woo, the show has tackled “real” psychics, ghosts, mummies, and other “paranormal” topics without ever giving credence to the supernatural. In the end, it always turns out to be the dude who owned the abandoned amusement park.

To recap: tomorrow night. Catch it!

Finally, I never quite managed to write up my review of They Might Be Giants’ newest album, the absolutely incredible “Here Comes Science.” Had I done so, I would have mentioned that my only real problem with the entire album was that their video for the song “Put it to the Test” used the word “theory” when they really meant “hypothesis.” See for yourself:

Simply fantastic. If you like science and quirky music, the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up. If you don’t like quirky music, then the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up for your kids!

Gosh, this post comes across sounding like a commercial, doesn’t it? I hope my corporate paymasters are paying attention.


1. If you don’t know already, They Might Be Giants recorded a song in the ’80s called “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” It was a cover of an educational song from the ’50s, and they rerecorded it for “Here Comes Science.” The cool part is that, recognizing how much we’ve learned since 1951, the next track on the album is a follow-up called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma).” Not only do they update and correct the earlier tune, but they manage to work the line “that thesis has been rendered invalid” into verse.

We don’t need no steenkin’ rewards!

So, PZ found this ignorant, incompetent bit of “artwork”:

accompanied with an equally ignorant, incompetent screed about how sad atheism must be, and how atheists can’t even believe in love. Those are old canards, which, surprisingly enough, aren’t true. Anyway, besides the weird not-quite-perspective (yeesh, dude, I learned single-point perspective in 8th Grade Art Class; I guess you must have fallen asleep that day), I thought some minor changes could really help this image along. First, I thought “what would I be doing in an empty room with no windows?
Such a good book.
Reading, of course. If I were better at Photoshop, I would have filled the room with stacks of ’em–because there’s no restriction on what the atheist is able to read (or think, for that matter). Also, because I like reading. But I figured that I might be able to do something that fits better with the caption:
He's got the whole wo-rld, in his hands...
Ah, right, the ability to examine the world as it is, free of supernatural superfluities. The ability to see the beauty in the garden without having to imagine there are fairies at the bottom of it. A view unmarred by pleasant fantasies–that seems “reward” enough for me. But, I figured, I could make it a little more universal.
Now I know what wallpaper I want.
The reward of the atheist: a life where the only boundaries are oneself, and the natural universe (and, um, a bunch of jaggy pixels in an aura around oneself–cut me some slack). Now that’s much better.

Now, of course, all this misses the point: I didn’t become an atheist because of some “reward.” I became an atheist because of the evidence (and the lack thereof). I didn’t determine my beliefs based on which one gives me the most pie in the sky when I die. I don’t do good things to get a celestial gold star on the divine chart next to my name, or to avoid getting put in the corner during eternal recess. I’m older than I was in Kindergarten, and my morality is more grown-up too.

A life of eternal obedience to an absentee father, of choices between everlasting torment and everlasting subservience, a life fearing punishment for impure thoughts, a life where you simply can’t understand how people could live and be happy with the universe as it is…no, I don’t think I’m the one who’s worthy of pity.

Side note: there’s some great stuff in the comment thread on the original Pharyngula post I linked above. Check it out. Bring a sandwich.

Collision with Reality*

'Any crash you can walk away from is a good one'--Launchpad McQuackI’m not sure how solipsists do it. I mean, I can understand reducing the universe down to your existence, a la Descartes**. I can understand doubting your senses, because any rational person will tell you that they can be fooled. We know that we’re not infallible.

But there are times when you’ve really got to have trouble denying the existence of the external, material world. Times when you realize that you’re not something else that starts with “in-” and ends with “-ible” and has a fall in the middle: indestructible.

See, I bought a new bike recently, in hopes of cutting down both on my gas usage and my weight. And ever since I started riding this new bike, I’ve been somewhat afraid of the maneuver that has often led to cuts and scrapes in the past. If you’ve ridden in a moderately urban area before, chances are you’ve stupidly tried something similar, where you’ve managed to ride off the sidewalk or the road, and think “it’s not that much of a height difference between the ground and the paved path on which I wish to ride, I’ll just steer slightly to the right and get back onto the concrete.”

And get onto the concrete I did. I got fairly intimate with that concrete. I think I may have left a small piece of myself behind on that concrete, some epidermal cells from my elbow and my dignity, to be specific. I stood up, checked that my iPod wasn’t damaged, and realized that I was. The abrasion on my elbow hadn’t yet started hurting, but my left wrist and the heel of that hand ached more than when I’d broken the same wrist in 5th grade. I picked up my bike and the scattered pieces of my not-yet-used headlight and walked back toward my building.

Once there, I cleaned my elbow and wrapped my wrist in an Ace bandage, and noticed that my right knee kind of hurt as well. And why wouldn’t it? But, bravely I decided that I’d get right back on my bike and pedal my ass to the grocery store.

I made it about ten feet on the bike before my wrist said “oh no you don’t” and my left shoulder said “mmm-hmm.”

So I called my parents about insurance information, did a little research on local care providers (and found out to my dismay that my insurance company’s website includes “homeopathy” and “chiropractic medicine” among the “specialties” you can search by), and went to the hospital. By this point, the ominous black clouds had rolled in and the rain was starting to spit down, and I realized that if I hadn’t humbled all over myself, I’d probably be a couple of miles from home on a sidewalk next to a moderately busy road, cursing the cruel skies.

Now, you may be unaware, but when you’ve spent the preceding weekend watching over a dozen episodes of “Scrubs,” heading into an actual hospital is a little surreal. You may find yourself whistling a song about Superman and wondering if the attending doctor seeing you is wearing green scrubs because he’s a surgeon, or if that convention is specific to Sacred Heart.

But I had a nice little chat with the nurse in the front office and the paramedic who took down my symptoms. When I told her what the weather looked like as I came into the hospital, and mentioned that if I hadn’t crashed I’d just be heading back from my errands at this point, she chuckled “See? Everything happens for a reason.”

And she’s right, you know. I mean, I doubt that my meeting with the sidewalk was the universe’s way of saying “hey, you’ll thank me when you’re dry.” To be quite honest, I think I would have preferred the moisture to the pain. After all, I’ve come home from most of these rides soaking wet, thanks to the heat of late. But the crash did happen for a reason, namely “my absolute stupidity in failing to think, brake, and lift my bike onto the pavement, instead doing precisely what I’d been worried would end up with me receiving serious injury.” I think that’s sufficient cause.

She asked me, as part of the interview, if I had any religious beliefs or objections that would require consideration in my care, and I said “none.” It occurred to me, though, that I don’t know what the baseline is in that regard. Is the starting point “all treatment is acceptable,” and then you subtract things if the patient is a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christian Scientist or a kosher-keeping Jew or a Muslim? Why don’t they assume organ donation, in that case? I mean, I can see fine arguments for making organ donation a conscious decision, but why opt-in when every other medical treatment seems to be opt-out? Is there a common non-religious objection to organ donation? I’ve heard the “if you sign your license, the doctors will give you crappy care because they’d rather have your organs” quasi-conspiracy theory, but does anyone really believe that? Enough to justify making it an “opt-in” option?

So, I waited and did a bunch of different movements to try to describe my pain in clear and specific terms. A nurse asked if I needed a wheelchair, and I declined, since I’d walked into and around the hospital without much more than an exaggerated limp, but she insisted just to be on the safe side. At this point, I’m hoping they’ll give me a cane before I leave, so I can look like House. Or, more specifically, like Dr. Cox in the episode where he’s making fun of House. I figure, if I’m going to hobble, I ought to hobble in style.

Given how much my mind fixates on fictional physicians when I’m in medical situations, you’d never guess that I spent a large portion of my childhood nose-deep in the American Medical Association’s Family Medical Guide.

While in the doctor’s room, sitting on the bed with the butcher paper upholstery, I spent some time trying to recall various bones, initially to figure out what might be broken (I’d resolved myself to having a fracture in a medial carpal or metacarpal, a sprained or dislocated shoulder, and a sprained knee, in my own amateur diagnosis), but continuing on for my own practice. I hit a snag when I couldn’t remember what vertebrae lie between the cervical and the lumbar (turns out it’s thoracic).

The doctor talked to me and did a couple of tests for my pain, and then a nurse wheeled me into the X-ray room. I’ve had probably an inordinate amount of X-rays done in my life; I broke my left wrist on the last day of fifth grade, I slipped on ice my Junior year of college and burst a bursa in my left elbow, and checked that out for further damage, and I’m reasonably certain that I’ve had at least one more X-ray session done on that and one on my other hand, not to mention all the dental and orthodontic X-rays I’ve had. This time, though, was a real treat. I’ve never had multiple body parts scanned before. I got a barrage of pictures of my wrist in different positions, and then laid down on the table with a lead sheet over my abdomen, allowing the technicians to slide me around and pose me as they saw fit. I found myself examining the machine, and thinking about the logistics of the whole thing. How much lead was in that apron (it really didn’t feel all that heavy, and I’ve handled lead strips and bricks before, so I’m a little curious as to how thick the lead has to be)? What did they try before they figured out that lead blocked radiation? Since we know that bone appears to block the X-rays, would it be effective (if impractical) to have a sheet of bone instead of a sheet of lead?

Eventually they wheeled me back to the treatment room, and eventually one of the nurses came in to share the doctor’s notes with me. I assume he was busy with Dr. Turk and The Todd, and I can handle that (preoccupation five!). Apparently no serious injuries or fractures showed up on the X-rays, so I was prescribed icepacks and ibuprofen. No wraps, no cane, no crutches, just “don’t do anything you can’t handle, and if it still hurts in 3-4 days, and the pain is increasing, let us know.” They’re going to have a radiologist take a look at the X-rays and give me a call if they find anything, but given the subsiding pain in my wrist and the low level of pain in the other injured areas, I imagine they probably won’t.

On one hand, I’m glad, because I hate being in a cast, especially in the summer. On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed, because I’d kind of gotten used to the idea of walking with a cane for a few days. On the other hand***, I’m kind of embarrassed; if I’d just kept ice on the wounds and waited a day or two, I might have avoided a trip to the emergency room. But better safe than sorry, I suppose.

So, I came back home, dinked around, and went to my Bio 100 class, where we went over Mitosis and Meiosis. Somehow, I’ve managed to retain most of the details about IPMAT, so it wasn’t much more than review. During the break, I walked around a bit (the ibuprofen they gave me really seemed to take care of things) and found a table with apparently (but not explicitly) free books, presumably discarded from the science professors’ shelves. I snatched a copy of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, since it reminded me of my previous Bio class, in High School, where we read a little Ehrlich and learned about the Tragedy of the Commons. I also grabbed my second copy of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods. I figured, better that I get it than someone who will actually be convinced by the contents.

I picked up my first copy of that swill at the library book sale here earlier in the year. Later, I discovered a copy of one of his sequels (maybe Signs of the Gods?) in my parents’ bookshelf. I also found one of Hal Lindsey’s books of unfulfilled prophecy in that same bookcase. One of these days, I should start a series of posts on the books in my parents’ bookshelf, because there are some doozies in there, from space aliens to ESP to the Shroud of Turin. Crazy stuff.

So, all in all, it’s been a day full of collisions with reality and fantasy, both big and small. But as much as you may try to claim that alien astronauts visited ancient Peru, or that the Hippocratic Oath is “first, do no harm; second, ignore the first part if there’s organs to be had,” or that God will smite you for accepting antibiotics or blood transfusions, or that the entire world is an elaborate fabrication of your solitary mind, reality is always ready, willing, and able to smack some sense into you. Reality is hard, unyielding, rough, and mostly gray, and when you come into contact with it, you’d better be ready for some painful realizations.

When I picked myself and my bike up off the sidewalk, my iPod’s Song Shuffle shuffled out the next song: The Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

*And by “reality” I mean “the pavement.”
**Get it?
***I have three hands now, apparently.**** All those X-rays, no doubt.
****Or maybe that just moves it back to the first hand.