Why "Cosmos" Matters
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.