"Cosmos" Week 5: We are the Stuff of Stars
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"Cosmos" Week 5: We are the Stuff of Stars

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Cosmos | April 7, 2014 | Comments ()


What I’ve gradually appreciated more and more about this series, is that while it is about science, it is also very intentionally telling the story of how we came to know these things. And that is a human story, not a technical one. It shows this unbroken thread of understanding going back thousands of years, as every few generations a genius pushes the previous understanding just a little bit further, and setting the stage for others in generations to come. It has portrayed scientists as the holy saints of some sacred and ancient order.

But the black lines in the spectrum were my favorite. At first they seemed to be dancing around the issue too much, making dramatic pronouncements and then stepping aside, showing over and over again Tyson bending to look into that telescope. It felt off for a bit, and then I realized what the catch really was: this is so personally important to Tyson that he didn’t know quite how to present it just right. The booming confidence he has throughout was absent here, and there was a look in his eyes, that bashful look of someone giving as a gift something deeply personal to them. A father passing on his favorite dogeared book to a viciously teenaged son. Behind that look is one of fear that the response is going to be incomprehension, a wounding retort, or worse, simple indifference.

This was Tyson baring his soul, and through all the edits and rewrites that go into these sorts of things, they could never quite work that kink out. All the better, for it was so endearing, and once recognized, such a human moment. It made you want to tell him it was okay, and that you really did love it.

And do I. The lines in the spectrum and their implication are one of the most gorgeous discoveries in the history of science, one of the few things that once understood, totally change everything that was understood before. And they are pure knowledge, in the sense that they do not immediately change anything. There are no engineering applications that burst from this discovery, no explosion of new equations describing a fresh physical understanding of the world around us. No, because this concerned the world beyond us.

For all of human history, it was assumed that the cosmos was fundamentally different than the earth. That what was up there had to be different than what was down here. It was perfectly reasonable, whether veiled in mysticism or science. Those tiny little spectrum lines telling us that the atoms up there were the same as the atoms down here? Mindblowing. Because they meant that the universe was understandable. That as massive and awe-inspiring as it was, every single building block for it was sitting in our backyard.

In some sense, all science from then on stems from that single climactic epiphany.

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.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • NateMan

    Am I the only one who wishes there was more science in this show? I mean, it's very cool, but it's also written at a 8th grade level. At least most of it. I agree the spectrum stuff was really cool and new knowledge for me. And I know why they're keeping things vague. But I wish there was more hard science detail in it.

  • I'm a historian in a family of scientists, so I LOVE that Tyson and Cosmos are telling us the history of the foundations of science. Each week I watch partly for Tyson, partly for the animated history bits that I've grown to love, and partly for the new bit of information about science that I had never learned before. This week's moment was the spectrum lines. Those are completely new to me and explain so much about the questions that always lingered in the back of my head about how we know what we know. And that's what Cosmos is all about, for me.

  • BWeaves

    He said, "Billions and billions!"

    Come on! You know you wanted him to.

    My husband is a professional astronomer and deals with spectra all the time. It's so cool. I hope Tyson goes into more detail. It's the spacing of the lines that tells you which element the thing giving off light is made of. But it's the position of the lines that tells you how fast it's moving away from you or towards you. The more the lines are shifted into the red end of the spectrum, the faster they are moving away from you.

    Hubby tends to be an, "I don't want to watch that crap" sort of a person, so the fact that he reminds me that we have to watch Cosmos tells me that he's really enjoying it.

  • chanohack

    He practically winked when he said it, too. <3

  • e jerry powell

    Here's your dinner, SCIENCE BITCH!

  • chanohack

    His shirt says woodie.

  • e jerry powell

    That it does. It's a raging Dunwoodie (™ reddit), in fact.

  • e jerry powell

    Oh, I'm so not going there with you.


  • Lea Thrace

    So I met Dr. Tyson last week as planned. It was even more awesome that I expected. His lecture was just so many levels of informative and entertaining. Meeting him afterwards is now a top three moment in my life. And I even made him laugh a couple of times.

    I was able to somewhat hold it together during our exchange. But as soon as I stepped outside the room, I lost it and fangirled all over the place.

    I am not ashamed. :-D

  • Uriah_Creep

    I am not ashamed. :-D

    Nor should you be: this is not Justin Beiber you were meeting and speaking with.

  • e jerry powell

    I'm glad you were able to restrain yourself from fondling his biceps as well. I probably would have gone all gunshow and his wife would have needed a crowbar to pry my hands off the merchandise.

  • Guest

    Hey there, Starstuff.

  • BWeaves

    Finally, a photoshop I want to stare at.

  • e jerry powell

    But who needs a fucking photoshop? The real deal is just as good.

  • BWeaves

    Congratulations. That is very cool. I'm jealous.

  • emmalita

    I love that not only is Cosmos telling the story of how we learned and advanced knowledge, but also how knowledge we take for granted today was opposed and suppressed.

  • Tracer Bullet

    Tyson brought it up during the show, but I can't help but wonder how different the world would have been if Newton had skipped dinner that night. Would our science and technology be 150 years more advanced? Maybe the Civil War would have featured stealth fighters and the first man on the moon would have landed during the James Madison Administration.

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