"Cosmos" Week 4: A Sky Full of Ghosts
This episode was both the strongest and the weakest so far. Strong because it went and did emotional gut punch things with memories and fathers and ghosts, and weak because it opted for CGI grunting through a fancy ride down into an event horizon rather than actually getting into the meat of Einstein.
The latter bugged me quite a bit. It felt like there was probably another ten minute segment that they could have done with it, but that it got dropped to the cutting room floor after mounting frustration that they couldn’t make it make sense to a lay audience. Maybe at some point we’ll come back to those ideas, but Einstein’s thought experiments about how light works are to me at least very intuitive. What happens if you’re going the speed of light minus 50 miles per hour and you throw a baseball in front of you? The ball cannot go the speed of light plus your blistering 70 mile per hour fastball. So reality warps the closer we get to such speeds. That and the implications of there being no center at all, no absolute frame of reference, make your mind do such wonderful things. If you haven’t had the pleasure, go do a proper google and look at those thought experiments. There’s no math, and your mind will be blown.
One of the great things Einstein did, that is alluded to a bit in the show, is the fact that his basic insight with relativity was essentially just sitting there waiting for someone to pick it up. It built on centuries of physics, and on simply taking what we already knew, and taking it to the logical conclusion. But those logical conclusions were so alien to our way of thinking that generations had been blind to that being where the physics led.
This is a recurring theme of the show that I find deeply moving. We build on the generation before. We think our hardest and shove that boundary of understanding just a little bit more. Every scientist stands on the shoulders of giants, and that’s something to be celebrated not condemned. The truth of the universe was not handed to us static from a mountain top, but is something we earn year after year.
The undercurrent of this show was so beautiful though, the notion of time travel and memories. The sky is full of ghosts, light from stars dead before the Earth even existed. And black holes, as Tyson notes, are things that are impossible to see by the very laws of physics, and yet we find them because we don’t need to see a thing to know its passage. We see the footprints in the sand.
It’s one thing for science to explain that evidence is not always direct, for instance that evolution cannot be proved by there being an ancient photograph of a monkey turning into a human. To insist that we can figure things out from the evidence we have it, without it being chicanery. But this metaphor hits like a gut punch because it’s something every person can understand. Your grandfather is gone, dust in the wind. Where is the evidence he ever existed? And what of his grandfather? Who lived and died before photographs immortalized the masses?
The evidence of his life is recorded in the memories of ghosts, and so too are the answers to the universe.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.