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We are a way for the cosmos to know itself: 'Cosmos' is a Supernova in Your Brain Bits

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Cosmos | March 10, 2014 | Comments ()


tyson_cosmos.jpg

The original run of Cosmos was profoundly effective at communicating science to a new generation, and since that run, we’ve discovered piles more about the universe, in addition to developing some quite lovely special effects capabilities. That makes it about time for a new version. And the simple fact that science is goddamned awesome, combined with the fact that Neil deGrasse Tyson is at least a demigod in the pantheon of Pajiba luminaries, means that we’re giving this show episode summaries every Monday after it airs Sunday nights. In the words of the great sage and eminent Jessie Pinkman: Yeah! Science, bitch!

First, a word of note. Tyson has been trying to get a new version of Cosmos on the air for seventeen years. A few years ago, he met Seth MacFarlane at an industry event for hooking up science folks with entertainment folks, and MacFarlane had been a fan of the original show as a kid. Said MacFarlane: “I’m at a point in my career where I have some disposable income … and I’d like to spend it on something worthwhile.” He was instrumental in getting network investment and sign off on this project and is one of the executive producers on it. We’re hard on MacFarlane around here: I can’t stand any of his television shows and I don’t think I’ve ever had a kind word to say about his work. And here I don’t have enough kind words to say about this.

So, where does this show take us? Oh sweet Einstein’s brain, this is what science television is supposed to be. It shows us grandeur and such sights that we can only imagine, but refuses to just be documentary. This is a show making a gorgeous connection between what we know about the universe, and how we have come to understand it on a personal level. The show’s opening graphics run through an exquisite sequence of vast galaxies morphing into tiny seashells and a dozen other permutations on the same basic shapes, emphasizing the repetition, the patterns. And it concludes with a circular field of stars and gas, which fades into the iris of a human eye. It’s not just a neat effect, it gets at the spirit of the show: it’s not just about knowledge of the universe, it’s about us comprehending it. It’s about the wars we have waged to understand the universe in order to understand ourselves.

Billions and billions. Oh those words, though Sagan never quite said them, but how they ring. The show is filled with an awestruck wonder that epitomizes everything I’ve ever loved about science. It is the distillation of every kid standing in his yard gazing in longing at the stars. The universe is unbelievably massive, unbelievably old, and we are such ludicrously tiny parts of it, such humble little creatures that are less than mites on sand in the grand scheme of it all. Cosmos is a show that cultivates a sense of pure wonder.

But it’s also a show of finely honed passion.

The show opens with President Obama introducing the series. How many shows can claim that level of pure gravitas to open with? And then Tyson, once he gets rolling into showing the ever zooming out nature of the universe, shifts gears for a full fifteen minutes of the forty minute runtime, for a strangely affecting animated segment of an excommunicated priest from right after Copernicus. And as the show does, cutting back now and then to Tyson narrating while walking through the streets of the Vatican, a quiet anger tightens his voice as the story rumbles to the inevitable burning at the stake.

There’s a passion here, a fire. A repeated use of religious terms such as “martyrdom” to drive the point home. The layering of language that talks about both the advance of science and of civilization itself: growing up is realizing that we are not the center of the universe, while the Vatican looms in the background. There is such confidence on display here, a challenge thrown down to those who champion ignorance and suppress learning. The naive kindness of just wanting to teach that so typifies most science television has been burned out of these lessons in favor of something harder and darker and entirely necessary. Tyson has brought a quiet rage to the table, rage at the intentionally ignorant, rage at those who destroy imagination, rage at the charlatans who insist that the universe is small, rage at the hierarchies that tell us not to think. It reminds me of John Stewart at his most devastating. It is the rage of the gentle man.

Tyson begins with wonder, transitions to the righteous fury of an old testament prophet, and then for the final segment breaks into outright poetry in prose as he details just how short our time has been. If the universe was a year old, then all of recorded history happened in the last 14 seconds. But that monologue adds a touch of such triumph at the same time. In fourteen seconds we changed from jumped up apes learning lunar phases for planting to putting our footprints on the face of the moon itself. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” Tyson quotes Sagan here. When we accept that the universe is as massive and ancient as science has demonstrated, then the ballsiest thing possible is to insist that we can understand it, we can make sense of it.

The show finishes with Tyson reminiscing about Sagan, genuine tears in his eyes as he shows us Sagan’s old calendar from the seventies, and the marking in it where he was scheduled to meet some high school kid named Neil. It will bring all the feelings out. And if it seems like an odd sort of thing, it shouldn’t, it fits perfectly with the story this nominal documentary is trying to tell. Humans matter. Our simple faith that the universe is understandable, and that we must communicate that to each successive generation, that we must all climb up and build upon the shoulders of giants, that’s the very core of what the show is trying to convey.

“Our journey is just beginning.” Watch last night’s episode on NatGeo tonight, and make sure to catch episode two next Sunday. And I’ll be back here with round two of our commentary on Monday.

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


  • Semilitterate

    I've been waiting on this show for weeks. NDT did not dissapoint. I really like that calendar. It hasn't lost its impact over the years since Sagan first used it. But I digress. I want to bring to the Pajiba audience information about a book I read many years ago (even before the original Cosmos). It's titled, "The Seven Mysteries of Life", written by Guy Murchie. It is basically a rumination on the inter-relatedness of all things from the Cosmic the subatomic. Copyright 1978, Houghton, Mifflin, probably out of print, but a scrounge around the flea market or a decent used book store might reveal a copy. I can't recommend this book too strongly, probably my favorite book of all time.

  • chanohack

    It was so goddamn cool. I was thinking, "YEAH, SCIENCE, BITCH!" like the whole time.

    Last night held a lot of irony for me. I almost never watch tv that is 1.) educational and important and 2.) actually on tv right now, i.e. I can't pause it. And my boyfriend almost never needs help with his calculus homework. But last night he NEEDED me like five times and I was like "Really, right now, when I'm actually learning?"

    So I'm really happy that Emmalita found it on Hulu Plus. :D

  • e jerry powell

    From here forward, you are MY SCIENCE BITCH. I expect your avatar to change presently.

    ;-)

  • chanohack

    I'll endeavor to make you proud. Does this mean I get first swing at movies that misuse "radiation?" Because I'd like that very much.

  • e jerry powell

    All the money that MacFarlane earned from doing not-worthwhile things. The mind boggles.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Why is this so far down the home page? Boo. Move it up, overlords. This is more important/interesting than SNL or Bieber and it's buried.

  • chanohack

    Yes, I would have missed it if it hadn't been for the facebook post.

  • DarthCorleone

    I watched a lot of the Sagan show in the hours leading up to this one on Nat Geo, and the bit about Hypathia and the destruction of the library at Alexandria had me pondering this morning. (It also reminded me that I would like to see that Rachel Weisz movie about her at some point.) Where would we be in the year 2014 had that and the 1000 years of relative stagnation not occurred? Would we be on Mars? Would we have cured cancer? Would we have defeated aging?

    A while back I read Charles Pellegrino's Unearthing Atlantis. It's a great book with lots of ideas, and one of those ideas that stuck with me is the concept that had it not been for the destruction of Thera - a civilization that was far ahead of its time per archaeological evidence - by that volcanic eruption a few thousand years ago, the timeline of our scientific advancements might have been completely different. The premise is that without that setback we might have been on the Moon not by 1969 but instead by 1 A.D. My brain balked at that idea of a completely different world from what we now know as too fantastical, but given the non-linear nature of discovery and technological advancement and the fact that so much of our civilization is guided by chance - that even within those "14 seconds" of the "cosmic calendar" there is that much more variability possible - it makes a lot of sense to me.

    A volcanic eruption is one thing; there's nothing we could have done about that, just as there's nothing the dinosaurs could do to save themselves. However, willful ignorance, suppression, destruction, and Inquisition to hold back humanity's progress are something quite different. There are many things I love about Cosmos and the prospect of this new installment, but it's the "gentle rage" you mention that appeals to me the most.

    We need this voice in this mainstream outlet to combat the politicization of science. The way that Bruno recoiled at the Jesus waved in his face just before being burnt at the stake jumped out at me as a hot button moment, and I suspect that a discussion of climate change in one of the future episodes is inevitable. Ann and Neil wanted complete freedom, and per the Q&A after the premiere this past week owing to the aegis of Seth MacFarlane, they received it. I'm not opposed to religion, but I am opposed to and angered by many of the ways that it has held back science over the years. I wonder what sort of discourse this show will generate, and I look forward to the discussion.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    i really liked Agora, the Rachel Weisz movie you mentioned. I recommend it. The movie's a bit slow and the characterzation is a bit flat, but the contemplative themes more than make up for that, in my opinion.

    there's a really cool shot during a battle scene where the camera pulls up, and everyone looks like ants, and then pulls further back into space until the cacaphony fades out, and it's just a tiny earth framed by the vastness of space. it reminds me of the opening to contact where they pull back and we kinda time travel through radio signals until everything fades away

  • It's an interesting idea. But I would postulate that setbacks like the destruction of Thera and the dark ages (notice not capitalized) that followed the fall of Rome were necessary for us to improve.

    If we have no setbacks, we won't have no chances to adapt, learn and improve.

  • DarthCorleone

    I agree that setbacks are beneficial in some cases, as adversity can inspire and motivate. One also certainly could argue that sometimes too much advancement too fast can lead to complacency; I have firsthand my own laziness as evidence in that department. It's impossible to know one way or the other how an alternate future could have progressed. With an asteroid strike or a volcanic eruption, though, I find it difficult to argue that could be anything but bad. Thera's advancements were in such isolation that our civilization didn't really have any means for using them as a foundation. And willful opposition...well, I'm just going to badmouth that one and its effect on the greater good on principle. :- )

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Eh, no. You can have helpful setbacks that are considerably more minor than the dark ages (capitalized or not). Those years just represent the loss of learning available to many unique human minds.

    ETA: setbacks may be useful to individuals, or groups - but applying them to a continent is far too general to produce a useful motivating factor.

  • Green Lantern

    Fantastic review, SLW! I'm posting it to FaceSpace so that more people know about your smartitude!!

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    everytime i watch a visualization about just how vast the universe is, it's like for a tiny tiny microsecond it clicks, and i am always awestruck, by way of being absolutely enthralled and absolutely terrified at the same time.

    also, that Voyager 1 has left the solar system, and even taken a picture of it all before shutting off it's cameras is such a beautiful notion. we've got something waaaay the fuck out there, outside our home, even if it will eventually just become space junk or sucked into the heart of some random star

  • e jerry powell

    "even if it will eventually just become space junk or sucked into the heart of some random star"
    Or both. We are seriously some interstellar litterbugs.

  • Lea Thrace

    Two minutes in and I thought I would hate it. The spaceship threw me off. That segment was too shiny and slick. Not enough fiber and too much gloss. I figured this show wasn't geared towards me (a computational chemist with quantum mechanical and biochemical leanings) but instead a lay person. I figured all the fancy space shippery was meant to hook the "unscienced". I was going to leave Dr. Tyson to that goal.

    However, 10 minutes in and I was hooked. Someone like me who already knew everything being said was drawn in. To WANT to be taught information that you ALREADY knew really speaks to how well the show was done as well as how great a teacher Dr. Tyson can be.

    All that to say, I shall be back for seconds, thirds, and so on.

  • e jerry powell

    Now, Lea, give Tyson some credit. The man is still all about the science.

    ;-)

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Yeah, my bind was mlown by the time he got to Virgo Supercluster.

    I really like the stylized animation for Bruno, a saint of science.

    I dozed off for the last 15 minutes, not the fault of the show but of my schedule right now, but I look forward to rewatching it all.

    Someone on another thread mentioned "bonus footage" - is what's being shown on Fox at all different from what's being aired on NatGeo?

  • e jerry powell

    1) that was me.
    2) Not sure, as the NatGeo repeat hasn't aired yet. I imagine that they'll eliminate a couple of commercial breaks to get more stuff in. I probably won't see the NatGeo repeat before Saturday, though, because drag queens and stupid singing competitions and The Spader.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That would be nice. My Season Pass is set for NatGeo.

  • I was just awash in the irony that a network with a pro-Creationist news division would be so solidly behind a science education show like this. Also, the Interstellar Shoehorn is a little weird.

  • BWeaves

    Interstellar Shoehorn? (snort) I thought it looked like one of my vibrators.

  • BWeaves

    PROS:

    Science bitches!!! Yeah!

    Monty Pythonesque history lesson. Nobody expects the Italian Inquisition!

    Obama's intro.

    Sagan's diary story. (I wept. I really did, and I already knew the story.)

    Tardigrade! It's that little bug bear looking thing with eight legs and a freaky mouth thing. I think it should be the official mascot of the TARDIS. They are the first known animal to survive in space. Really!

    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/imag...

    CONS:

    No Vangelis music.

    The Spaceship of the Imagination. It takes up valuable time that could have been used to actually teach some science. I always hated the bits where Sagan just stood in the Spaceship and stared off into space.

    Tyson glossed over his downgrading of Pluto.

    Professional astronomer husband is griping that he's never read a research paper by Tyson, and so therefore, somehow, Tyson's not a real scientist. Shut up, hubby.

    IN CONCLUSION:

    I can't wait for more.

  • e jerry powell

    As Tyson's doctoral committee at UT pointed out, as it voted to dissolve itself, research is not and has never really been Tyson's strong suit.

  • DarthCorleone

    I thought Sagan's bits in the spaceship often provided the transitions where Vangelis' music could shine the most. (Silvestri's work is fine, but I agree that Vangelis is better for the mood of Cosmos.) Plus, I think it works to help "bait and switch" younger views; it was certainly the element that I found most memorable when I was five years old or less in terms of sparking my imagination and thinking the show was cool.

    I thought the mention of Pluto was enough of a concession to that whole kerfluffle given Tyson's stance, but you're probably right that a little elaboration would have helped those who weren't in the know.

  • idiosynchronic

    *lights a candle*
    *holds it high*

    And this:
    We’re hard on MacFarlane around here: I can’t stand any of his television shows and I don’t think I’ve ever had a kind word to say about his work. And here I don’t have enough kind words to say about this.

    If you didn't catch it, Brannon Braga, the antichrist of Star Trek, is also exec'ing. But that sentiment works perfectly for Brags as well.

  • DarthCorleone

    In the Q&A that they did after the premiere at the Griffith Observatory, MacFarlane and Braga both come off very well. MacFarlane is humble, and Braga is comically self-deprecating. Yeah, it makes it very hard to dislike them.

  • Green Lantern

    Yeah, I hated Braga slightly less when I saw his name in the opening credits.

  • NateMan

    It awaits, like a slumbering beast on my DVR. I just hope the wife and I can stay awake long enough to watch it tonight.

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