Obligatory Cosmos Commentary

It says here in the fine print that my blogging license could be revoked if I fail to offer a public opinion on the Cosmos reboot, which premiered last night. I missed the first couple of minutes– I had The Pip for bedtime, and he didn’t start snoring until 8:58– but saw most of it in real time. I posted a bit of commentary on Twitter, but will offer something marginally less ephemeral here.

The show opened and closed with tributes to Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson standing on the same cliff where Sagan opened the original series back in 1980. That was good and fitting, and Tyson’s story about visiting Sagan at Cornell in 1975 was very touching.

Between those bookends, the first episode was more or less an introduction and outline of the series to come, and as such served mostly to showcase some really amazing visuals. The tour of our “long address” from Earth through the Solar System to the Milky Way and out to the observable universe was spectacular. The “cosmic calendar” sequence at the end was likewise extremely well done. There wasn’t anything all that new or amazing about the content– I think SteelyKid’s after-school program covered all the information about the Solar System– but the vast improvement in effects technology over the three and a bit decades since Sagan’s original series really showed up in these bits.

I was less taken with the animated “Giordano Bruno, martyr of Science” section, which my limited understanding of the history suggests was playing a little loose with the facts. Bruno’s one of those historical figures where if you tilt your head and squint like a confused dog, you can make parts of what he was saying seem to match up with modern science. Provided you’re willing to ignore some other bits that just look nutty. And this played up the modern-ish bits in a big way, while completely ignoring the nutty parts.

I understand the attraction of Bruno as a metaphor, and it’s probably not any less valid to cite his infinite cosmology as a historical antecedent of modern cosmology than it is to cite Democritus as the precursor of the modern notion of atoms. In both cases, there’s an element of similarity, and a gap of centuries in which everybody basically ignored the idea, before it was picked up again to give a veneer of historical depth to a new development. At the same time, though, I’m uneasy about the way the useful bits of Bruno’s cosmology get picked out and highlighted, while ignoring the rest of the package– this doesn’t strike me as all that much different than the games the 2012 cranks played with the Mayans, grabbing hold of the accurate parts of their astronomy while ignoring the goofier bits, something Tyson has directly and specifically mocked.

Then again, while I remember being blown away by the original Cosmos — contrary to this post, you don’t need to be over 50 to have seen the original, thankyouverymuch– I don’t remember much about the history segments. I remember they were there, of course, but mostly what I was interested in was the “spaceship of the imagination” sequences, zipping off to look at other planets. The couple of times in recent years that I’ve watched bits of the original, I’ve had a lot of “Oh, right, historical recreations…” moments. As such, I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of the history of science presented by the original. So this might not represent a departure from the form, just a change in my state of knowledge.

And that was kind of the other theme of the evening– my reaction to this reboot was largely colored by the fact that I know so much more than I did in 1980. So, while there were a lot of gosh-wow moments, I also found myself mentally quibbling about little details, like the vast overabundance of asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects. (And Giordano Bruno…) I totally understand the practical reasons for this– I’m not arguing that such minor inaccuracies for the sake of great visuals are a cardinal sin, or anything– but it was striking how much knowing stuff changed my reaction. I thought several times that this would’ve been way more awesome if I could go back to being 9 years old to watch it.

Sadly, SteelyKid is probably a little too young for this– it’s certainly airing way past her bedtime (particularly on a Sunday night– Monday mornings are rough even when she goes to bed on time)– and by the time she’s eight or nine, I suspect there will be chunks of it that are out of date. Of course, that very fact is kind of awesome in its own right…

But, you know, I have it on the DVR, so maybe I’ll try it out and see what she thinks, sometime next weekend when The Pip is napping. I suspect the talky bits are a little too slow for her (and Bruno’s trial might be too scary), but I bet she’d be appropriately awed by the visuals of the Solar System tour.

Anyway, as a series premiere, I thought this hit the right notes: paying respects to the original, showing off the spectacular new visuals, and setting the stage for the rest of the series to come. I expect future episodes will go into specific areas of science in a bit more depth, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

(Also, I look forward to seeing this on DVD, because, damn, the commercials are irritating…)

11 thoughts on “Obligatory Cosmos Commentary

  1. Not bad.
    For my personal taste I thought it hopped around a bit too much, could have lingered on fewer points.
    My primary irritation with the Bruno sequence was not the historical oversimplification, that is sort of inevitable, but the style with the dark eyed shadowy “bad guys” was irritating, that was a a dangerous way of presenting it.

    Kids really liked it.
    Want to see the rest.
    Can’t argue with that.

  2. Was it just me, did only I hear “September 31” uttered during the calendar fandango?

    Stellar conveyance does not travel broad side forward lest it intercept particles at great relative speeds (and hydrogen atoms that erosively add up). Even ISS FUBAR flies tangent to the surface instead of equilibrium normal to it to minimize air resistance at its implausibly low orbital altitude, burning out reaction wheels as it does so.

  3. Thanks for that! How do you feel about FOX hosting this show? I don’t watch a lot of tv, and I don’t know if we can watch Cosmos here in Canada yet. But I just read this article about how “we” are losing a generation of oldsters to ranting pundits on FOX.

    Either Cosmos is contributing to their undeserved credibility, or the dedicated cable-news folks will appreciate a break from the usual fare.

  4. GregH; Global TV is airing the series so even us Canadian cable-cutters can catch it. I’ll also point out that Fox-TV also airs shows like “The Simpsons” so it’s primarily the soi-disant “News” part that’s cloud-cuckoo-land crazy on science and social issues. (Now if we could reconquer Discover and History…)

    — Steve

  5. He did note that Bruno’s cosmos was simply a lucky guess, not backed by evidence. The larger point was the importance of remaining open the discussion of new ideas, and being willing to find a way to test them.

  6. I too was really annoyed by commercials because I rarely watch TV. what I missed from the first segment compared to Sagan’s first (which I just re-watched) was that Sagan illustrated the way that Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the world in detail. Actually showcasing an ancient experiment and giving a concrete example of how science was done. much more meaty and a better illustration of what science is than Bruno. But I am really glad to see science in the forefront and the effects were splendid. Just hope the substance keeps up with the style.

  7. I did like most of the graphics, just not the poorly illustrated cartoon. I thought the theory about how our moon was formed had changed. Overall, I’m not impressed. Yet.

  8. I agree the commercials were irritating. I suspect, based upon the number and sort shown, that some effort was made to limit the number and content. But it would have been better with none.

    I was glad, and proud, they didn’t soft pedal the evidence contradicting the major religions. They didn’t offer any ‘ours is but one theory’ or couch the facts when they directly stated the fact of how old the earth and universe are shown to be by evidence. They, as far as I saw, completely avoided any teaching of ‘the controversy’.

  9. What’s most important is that Cosmos reaches the masses and inspires them to think. Tyson’s brains & experience give me strong confidence that he knows exactly what he’s doing with this, and that it has a very substantial chance of changing the national dialog on science and policy issues.

    Those of us who hang out here & in other science geek forums may find some quibbles from time to time, but we need to keep in mind the #1 objective of this series, and evaluate its success based on how it affects the broader public discussions.

    Also, we need to plow right into those discussions in other forums, and show support for the series and for Tyson. I’m certain to three decimal places that the anti-science crowd will be out in full force in every public forum to try to dump megatons of negativity on this series. We need to be there too, to counteract that nonsense and make our case.

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