Thursday, March 20, 2014

Culture Shock 03.20.14: New 'Cosmos' gets A for science, D- for history

Neil deGrasse Tyson takes the conn.
Astrophysicist and science populizer Neil deGrasse Tyson begins our tour of the cosmos — and his new Fox TV series "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey" — with a trip through the solar system.

Past Mars we go, then on to the outer planets: the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and finally Neptune, discovered only in 1846, which should tell you something about the reliability of the 4,000-year-old practice of astrology.

Next, on to the icy bodies beyond the planets. One of those icy bodies is Pluto, cast out of the planetary pantheon in part because of Tyson's tireless anti-Pluto campaign. The murderer has returned to the scene of his crime.

My personal grudge aside, Tyson is the natural successor to Carl Sagan, who brought the wonders of the universe, from faraway stars to the atoms in our bodies, into our living rooms in his 1980 PBS series "Cosmos."

To an 8-year-old, even one watching on a snowy, rabbit-eared, black-and-white TV, Sagan's "Cosmos" was enthralling and illuminating. It was even a little bit haunting, thanks to liberal use of music by ambient composer Vangelis ("Chariots of Fire") and Sagan's reminders of just how small we are compared to the immensity of the cosmos.

Sagan's "Cosmos" was filled with spiritual awe. Like Albert Einstein before him, Sagan flirted with the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, the heretical, 17th century Jewish philosopher.

Spinoza defined the cosmos and God as one and the same. That view doesn't put humanity at the center of the universe, but it does give us a crucial role.

"We're made of star-stuff," Sagan said. "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself."

We are still getting to know the cosmos, and Tyson gives us a refresher course.

If Sagan was a spiritualist, Tyson is a kid in a candy store, a wide-eyed 8-year-old with an adult astrophysicist's knowledge and a natural storyteller's gifts. He's no less in awe of the universe, but he is equally in awe of following in Sagan's footsteps on what Sagan called the "shore of the cosmic ocean."

Tyson starts where Sagan did. We tour the universe in a "spaceship of the imagination," only with better special effects. We see what all of cosmic history would look like compressed into a single year.

Hint: All of our written history takes place in the last minute of the last hour of the last day.

Science moves on. New discoveries happen all the time, and we've learned a lot since 1980. Back then Pluto was still a planet.

The new "Cosmos" also adds animated history lessons. They dramatize the lives of scientists who have expanded our knowledge. This is where we most see the influence of executive producer Seth MacFarlane (yes, the creator of "Family Guy").

Unfortunately, this is also where the new "Cosmos" trips up.

The first episode focuses on 16th century Italian friar Giordano Bruno, who believed, contrary to prevailing views of the time, that the universe was infinite. The Roman Inquisition burned Bruno at the stake, and "Cosmos" holds him up as a martyr for free inquiry.

Actually, Bruno's theological — not scientific — speculation about the universe's size played little role in his ending up on the Inquisition’s naughty list. The church was more put off by his heretical views on the divinity of Christ. Anyone can Google it, so there is no excuse for "Cosmos" getting it wrong.

The second episode is on more solid ground, in more ways than one. The action shifts from outer space to inner space, to the molecular processes that drive evolution. What humans did over thousands of years, turning wolves into every breed of dog we see, natural selection did over hundreds of millions of years, turning single cells into every plant, every animal and every slime mold.

The story of the cosmos remains as vibrant now as when Sagan was our guide, and not just because today's 8-year-olds get to watch on better TVs.

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