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Why "Cosmos" Matters

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | June 9, 2014 | Comments ()


PaleBlueDot.jpg

The header photo is the final one taken by Voyager One, as it turned its camera back to snap a photo of Earth from a distance beyond the furthest planets. The pixel inside the blue circle is Earth. Here is what Carl Sagan famously said about it, a portion of the monologue repeated in last night’s episode of Cosmos:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Last night was the final episode of this season of Cosmos. I say “this season” because I’m optimistic that it will be but the first of many. It’s been one of my favorite things to come onto the television in quite a number of years, and I think the only show that I’ve actually watched in its time slot every week, commercials and all, since Battlestar Galactica flew into the sun.

The ratings are encouraging in any case. Each week, Cosmos has managed to retain most of the Family Guy lead in according to the Nielsens, so it’s also got that going for it, even if it does tend to be third and last, it’s a close third and last. I don’t usually cite ratings, because frankly I couldn’t give two shits what most people watch, but it turns out that those other people watching shows determine whether they stay on. Seems like a rather convoluted system. I don’t know why they don’t just ask me what shows should be renewed, it’d be a lot simpler.

The show certainly ended with a bang, the last three episodes the strongest of the season. This last one spent its wrap up time on some beautiful and very precisely written words, emphasizing exactly what science is and why it matters. Arguing that science is not about knowing everything, but acknowledging our ignorance. Every genius in history has been proven wrong, and it’s only the willingness to be wrong that moves us forward as a species. Insisting on being right is the dead end of history, the path to learning nothing at all. Certainty is suicide.

Little is more discouraging than paying attention to the news when it comes to science. There’s always some Congressman sitting on the committee responsible for science funding only too happy to be quoted saying that the Bible is the literal truth and that some dude in a beard made the world in six days at a time when the first cities we’ve unearthed were already old. Their proud certainty of smallness is deeply tragic. Tyson says near the end that it’s okay that some people prefer to live in a world that’s small, though he revels in the vastness of the universe we know is there. There are almost tears in his eyes as he explains what makes science a better alternative, and it has little to do with facts or figures, or the technologies it has brought us that would make us gods to our ancestors.

It has to do with truth.

We like to think that history always moves forward, an ineluctable grinding of hidden gears towards a better world. People living at the height of civilization always have that privilege. Those who live amongst thousand year old ruins that they have no idea how to rebuild don’t have that luxury. It’s happened before, it will happen again, always a race of the builders against the violent inertia of hairless apes.

It’s not enough to have science, and it’s not enough to have scientists. What we need is a scientific society, a civilization of people who think like scientists, even if they are stay-at-home-moms, plumbers, farmers, or even that most ancient of scourges: senators. Else the barbarians are already in the gates. That’s the role Cosmos has tried to play, at least in a small way. I hope it has made some difference, and I hope it gets the chance to do so again.

I’ll leave off with a different quote from Carl Sagan than the “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy quoted in the show, but one that is just as poetic:

“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

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


  • jon29

    The Demon Haunted World might be my favorite book ever, such a perfect quote.

  • Wrestling Fan

    I am, for the most part, an emotionless bastard. But Sagan's words brought tears to my eyes. I grew up with the original Cosmos. As a kid, Sagan made the unknowable, knowable. The Pale Blue Dot brought me right back to my childhood.

  • Dennis Albert Ramirez

    the scene in the Library of Alexandria and the mention of Hypatia reminded me of the movie Agora, which took place there and was also about the pursuit of truth while barbarians are at the gate, in this case the rising tide of Christianity (its more complicated, but that's the spark).

    i loved every episode of this series, and learned quite a few things (the full explanation of the dark bands in the light spectrum was never fully explained to me and blew my mind).

    my favorite segment in this episode was about the message on the Voyager probe. i've known about it, and about the "sounds of earth" disc in general, but when he started to go into what the actual sounds were, and how thoughtful they were (like the sound of a woman's brain as she falls in love, the sound of pulsars, a baby's first words) it almost brought me to tears.

    should that probe ever be found, even if the beings that receive have no context, desire or ability to even try and interpret/understand that message as an attempt at communication, i still love the idea that whatever happens on our little rock, that little craft will be out there proclaiming the best of what we could be when we wanted, a (hopefully not) lonely shout in the dark of interstellar space

  • Mrs. Julien

    Cosmos is the most important program in our house. It had some recent competition with the return of American Ninja Warrior, but Cosmos won the day. Watching the show is an event in our house. All three of us are riveted to the set and we will buy the series the second it becomes available. It feels like a seminal event in Little J's life. He has tremendous intellectual curiosity and even when he may not understand everything, the import of what he is learning, the way it is presented, and the import of the consistent framework of science as a process of hypotheses, exploration, and testing, and that this framework sets a basic structure for approaching learning, cannot be underestimated.

    Cosmos is going to be especially helpful when we have the inevitable, (but contractually delayed owing to an agreement with Mr. J) "Is there a God" discussion with Little Julien. I look forward to bursting that balloon. It's got a slow leak, but I am still eager for the pop.

  • emmalita

    If you haven't seen it, the NdT Nova Science Now on why Pluto isn't a planet is marvelous. My nephew loves it.

  • emmalita

    While we wait for Cosmos to come back there are some good science podcasts and tv shows. I have become a fan of NDT's podcast, StarTalk Radio. I also really like Brian Cox and Robin Ince's The. Infinite Monkey Cage podcast. Two good entry points into that podcast are a 2012 episode called Oceans and a 2010 episode called Science Fiction/Science Fact. Brian Cox's tv shows Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the. Universe gets into more of the science than Cosmos.

  • StarTalk is great. Will look for Infinite Monkey Cage

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    This show is probably my favourite program that's been on TV in the history of ever. It's just so accessible and good and wonderful and makes me feel so small. If it isn't made into a recurring series, I'm pretty much going to have to send the Fox executives after the Voyagers via nut kick.

  • I've been watching the show on National Geographic on Monday nights (Sundays being way too crowded). And I've loved it. Even if the science is just skimmed and it loves to spend more time on the lives of scientists, I have loved it.

    Can't wait for tonight.

  • Totally, absolutely, 100% agree.

    And anything that mentions Sagan's pale blue dot gets instant love from me. This version of it is still my favourite thing on the internet:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • Nicholas

    And not a single brown or black face to be found. Otherwise, nice montage.

  • emmalita

    It was way whiter than Carl Sagan would have liked, but the speech itself is powerful.

  • NateMan

    It’s not enough to have science, and it’s not enough to have scientists. What we need is a scientific society, a civilization of people who think like scientists, even if they are stay-at-home-moms, plumbers, farmers, or even that most ancient of scourges: senators.

    Yes. Absolutely this. Because not only would we be capable of making smarter decisions for our society, stay-at-home moms, plumbers, and farmers can raise MORE people excited about science who can become scientists themselves and continue to make the world a better place.

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