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