Guest Review – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Let’s learn by cosmosis! Credit: Fox

Hello! Professor Science here. I enjoy reading Snooty and Goon’s TV reviews as much as the rest of you, but there’s a certain TV show that I just had to write about. This show is, of course, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey starring Neil deGrasse Tyson. This show is a reboot of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which first aired in 1980. The aim of the Cosmos shows is to bring the wonder of science to the masses. Carl Sagan was one of the greatest science popularizers of all time, and Neil deGrasse Tyson does a pretty good job of filling those shoes. So it’s no wonder that the expectations for this reboot have been astronomically high. (Ha!) If you need a little motivation, check out the trailer:

If you’ve never seen any of the original Cosmos series, I highly recommend that you check it out. All of the episodes are available to stream on Netflix. Some of the science is a little outdated compared to the latest and greatest, but most of the ideas are still solid, and Sagan’s passion for science is infectious.

The first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired on Sunday at 9/8c on Fox, and it aired again on Monday at 10/9c on National Geographic. If you missed it, the first episode is available on Hulu and might be available On Demand, depending on your provider. And now, onto the review!

The show begins with Carl Sagan’s familiar voice leading us into this long-awaited adventure. Well, his voice is familiar to me, anyway. It quickly transitions to Dr. Tyson and his “ship of the imagination.” This CGI ship, which was part of Sagan’s original series, is a little cheesy. But, it is a good way to visually represent Tyson as he explores different places and times, so I’m willing to accept it.

Tyson then takes us through our “cosmic address.” Much like how a street address starts specific and gets larger (house number, street, city, state/territory/postal code, country), the cosmic address starts comparatively small: Earth. It then zooms out to larger and larger systems: solar system, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, observable universe, and possibly a multiverse. Tyson does a good job of explaining each of these steps in ways that truly underscore how small we are in the grand scheme of things. But, I do have one small critique. When we are taken through the features of our solar system, we are shown the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The image on the screen shows a busy swarm of asteroids all over the place. In reality, however, the asteroids are not anywhere near that close to each other. In fact, if you were standing on an asteroid in the belt, you would have a hard time seeing any other asteroids at all. This is the sort of factual error that Dr. Tyson would avoid, so it makes me think that this was a decision made by the visual effects people.

The next act in this show was a little strange. It tells the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Italian philosopher who argued for an infinite universe. What makes this segment strange is that it is animated. I don’t have a problem with animation in general, but it seems a bit out of place in this context. Regardless, the story of Giordano Bruno is fascinating. Bruno was ostracized all over Europe for his views, and was eventually imprisoned by the Inquisition in Italy. What I love about this story is that it is about somebody whom I had never heard of before. If Tyson wanted to make a point about the evolution of our understanding of the size of the universe, he could have easily talked about Galileo. But the thing is, most of us already know about Galileo. By choosing to talk about Bruno instead, Tyson successfully educated many passionate science enthusiasts. And, by talking about Bruno, Tyson was about to make a wonderful point about science that he could not have made with Galileo’s story. You see, Bruno wasn’t a scientist. He argued for an infinite universe not because he had any empirical evidence or scientifically-grounded prediction, but because it seemed “right” to him since he believed that God is infinite. So, in essence, Bruno was right only because he was lucky. And that’s an important distinction to make: there is a big difference between being right due to evidence and reason, and being right due to luck.

Next, Tyson introduces the “cosmic calendar.” This visual aid condenses the entire history of the universe into a single calendar year, with the Big Bang happening at midnight the morning January 1, and today happening at midnight the evening of December 31. This calendar is used to give a sense for how long different stages of the universe took to unfold, and also a sense of how short a time we’ve been around in comparison to everything else. I found the cosmic calendar to be very helpful for understanding these points, considering that 13.7 billion years is such an immensely long time that nobody can truly comprehend it. But once again, I found a little misconception being perpetuated by the visual effects. When the formation of the moon was shown, the relative distance between the Earth and Moon was way too short. This error in properly showing the distance is not unique to Cosmos. In fact, I have never personally seen an animation or drawing in popular media that accurately depicts this distance.

The show ends with a beautiful homage to Carl Sagan. Sagan is irreplaceable, but Tyson is giving it a pretty good try anyway. I look forward to next week, where more science is sure to be had, and I hope you join me in watching this awesome adventure. Science!

P.S. You may notice that there are a lot of links in my words. These are intended to provide more information on the topic I am discussing at that point. So, if something interests you, click and learn!

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