Cosmos and the Women

Back when the first episode of the Cosmos reboot aired, somebody put together a composite of the cartoon people who flashed on screen, and we played a guessing game on Twitter. The image above is from a blog post by Meg at True Anomalies, and I think it was probably her, but the ephemeral nature of Twitter makes it annoying to track down the original discussion.

Anyway, we collectively got four of the five right: ibn al-Haytham in the upper left, Annie Jump Cannon in the middle top, Isaac Newton on the lower left, and William Herschel on the lower right. Well, five of six, if you include young cartoon John Herschel. Nobody got the woman on the upper right, though (at least not that I recall– at the time, the glamour-shot framing of that image made people guess Hedy Lamarr). She turned out to be Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin (though the Gaposchkin wasn’t there at the time of the story they used in the episode), who with Cannon was one of the women highlighted in last night’s Very Special Episode.

As it happens, I recently did a bunch of reading about the third woman mentioned, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who didn’t get as much screen time as the other two, because I wrote up her story for the book-in-progress. Along the way, I read about Cannon and Payne-Gaposchkin as well, though they didn’t get much more than a name-check in the final draft. As a result, I have a somewhat better idea of the history than usual, and I didn’t notice any major gaffes. All three women undeniably made critical contributions to modern astronomy, and deserve greater recognition. It was nice to see their stories told on screen.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cosmos reboot recap without a “But…,” and I have two complaints about this, both sort of similar. One is that I’m not wild about the fact that the only stories to date about women in astronomy are split off into a special episode about women in astronomy, rather than worked into the regular flow. This is kind of a provisional gripe, though, as the series isn’t complete– if these turn out to be the only stories highlighting women, that will be a major problem. If women like Leavitt and Jocelyn Bell and Vera Rubin turn up as they go on through the remaining episodes, though, this won’t end up being that big a deal. (To me, anyway; others might reasonably find it more problematic than I do.)

I was more bothered, though, by the split within the episode, which was divided roughly in half, with the first part being a set of cartoons telling the stories of Cannon classifying stars by spectral type and Payne determining their composition, and the second part being a CGI tour of the life and death of stars of various sizes. And I thought they missed some opportunities here to better integrate the two. Specifically, they talked about how Cannon classified different types of stars into bins by color, and how Payne demonstrated that these classifications are related to the temperature of the star. That discussion was never brought up again, though, even as Tyson ran through the size and color changes of an aging star, and different types of stars. It would’ve been great to have some callbacks in there to the historical cartoons– the Sun at present would look like a Type mumble star to an extraterrestrial Annie Jump Cannon (Naavr Whzc Pnaaba, let’s call her), and a billion years from now, it would look like a Type different mumble. Or some such.

But then, I say this partly because I don’t really know how this stuff works– I’ve never taken an astronomy class, so the classification and evolution of stars remains somewhat mysterious to me. It’s the biology of the physical sciences, with a complicated taxonomy of types and subtypes and terminology that’s mostly historical accident. I thought the latter half of this episode could’ve been a chance to clarify that a little bit, by bringing Cannon’s classification system back again. Instead, they were basically dropped until the final toast at the end of the episode.

But, you know, pretty pictures! And reasonably accurate history of women whose contributions should be better known! So, on the whole, a pretty good episode.

8 thoughts on “Cosmos and the Women

  1. Talking about star classes as we talked about star death would have been nice, at least linking the colors (‘red giant’, ‘yellow star’, ‘blue-white star’) to types. Or even that star temperatures also depend on size: even in their hydrogen-burning lives, a star like Rigel or Eta Carine doesn’t look like our Sun.

    One thing I did like was showing that sexism wasn’t over just because one woman did one awesome thing, so women help each other with navigating sexism. (And in general, that science is a collaborative enterprise. Not only did Payne build on what Cannon did, but she talked to Cannon and worked with her to understand the data Cannon had collected.)

    It would be a lot stronger if this is not the only time female scientists are mentioned, as you said. (Mentioning William Herschel’s sister Caroline would have been good, since they did work a lot in the family expression.)

  2. You know what would have been great two episodes ago? A bit on how the work of Emmy Noether led to the “symmetry of the universe requires momentum/energy to be conserved”* which would have given a much clearer reason of why we should look for neutrinos rather than “yeah, energy conservation is a thing”.

    *Also, symmetries of the universe having important practical consequences would fit into the mind-bending aspects of the universe to delight children and stoners alike.

  3. The part about co-operation versus competition, I wonder this is unusual outside of teams collaborating on a project. I remember the only talk I ever gave at an astronomy conference, my prof warned me not to embarass him, sure enough one of his competitors asked a question that would stump a fresh from undergrad student, and I bungled it -and got chewed out. So it seemed to me the sociology of astronomy was rather ruthless, use any trick you can to make your competition look bad…. Is it really that way, or was this just a single not so nice guy.

    I thought it odd, that Tyson made the identification of color with temperature out to be a big deal, wasn’t the relationship between thermal emission color and temperature already widely known. I suspect her contribution was probably something that wouldn’t be so easy to explain to a lay audience.

    I also was not happy with his apparent confidence that Eta-Car would *definitely* end as a hypernova (which I think means collapse to black hole with a gamma-ray-burst). Do we really know the limits of what it takes in terms of mass, rotation or other characteristics well enough to make this call?

  4. “I was more bothered, though, by the split within the episode, which was divided roughly in half, with the first part being a set of cartoons telling the stories of Cannon classifying stars by spectral type and Payne determining their composition, and the second part being a CGI tour of the life and death of stars of various sizes.”

    If you watched all the episodes of Cosmos you can see a pattern in them: first half with cartoon explanations (history, etc) and in the second half with CGI journeys. This kind of format is OK.

  5. The problem isn’t that the cartoons were only in the first half, it’s the the people in the cartoons weren’t mentioned in the second half, despite the fact that their work was extremely relevant.

    The lack of Emmy Noether I attribute to the general “It’s not a show about physics, it’s a show about astronomy” line. Noether’s theorem is incredibly important to physics, but she wasn’t a professional astronomer, and thus doesn’t get a shout-out. In much the same way that we got Herschel discovering infrared rather than Thomas Young demonstrating the wave nature of light, despite the fact that wave nature was important later in the episode, while infrared never came up again.

    Of course, the lack of Noether (or any of the many physicists associated with energy) meant that the discussion of energy production that came up toward the end of the latest episode had a very New Age sort of quality to it. But that’s depressingly common in popular science discussions, going back to Feynman’s famous textbook reviewing story, and probably well beyond.

  6. Which has been very frustrating for me, because its through chemistry/physics/geology here on Earth that we’ve started to understand what’s going on in the stars. But then we get into the usual discussions of “this show often drops the ball on showing why we know anything”.

  7. Spoken like a true teacher, Chad @#5.

    I finally got caught up and saw that episode, and was bothered by the lack of a connection that would reinforce learning the basic ideas in the first part (from the “stamp collecting” part of astrophysics) with the larger ideas that have been developed since. The last half is presented like it was being delivered from Olympus (or Cornell or the Hayden Planetarium via Cornell in this case). That is the cult of personality in science mentioned in your Superhero discussion.

  8. Happy to see Leavitt, Cannon, and Payne get their due. “Pickering’s Harem” as it was called got started when Pickering famously told his male staff that his maid could do a better job, fired them, then hired his maid and others to replace them.

    Looking forward to seeing your new book.

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