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