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Let’s Talk About Cosmos!

(If you missed the first episode and you live in the US, check it out now on Hulu!)

Last night was the premiere of the Cosmos reboot starring Friend of Skepchick Neil DeGrasse Tyson in all of his glory. Well, most of his glory – I didn’t see any cowboy hats or ridiculous vests, but NDGT looked pretty damned fly walking through a lush forrest while wearing a well-tailored black-on-black suit.

But enough about the fashion choices. What did you all think of the show? Pretty great, right?

First, I’d like to address a complaint that I didn’t hear from anyone before or after the show: is NDGT awesome enough to fill the shoes of the late, great Carl Sagan? That complaint never came up because duh, of course he is. But lest anyone did worry, the first episode included a moving tribute to Sagan in which NDGT described how Sagan personally inspired him to become an astronomer and a science communicator. I know that there were many people rubbing the bits of stardust out of their eyes during that bit.

Second, there’s NDGT’s ship of the imagination, which got a big upgrade from Sagan’s. Like, it’s the difference between Sylvestor McCoy’s TARDIS to Christopher Eccleston’s. NDGT’s ship looks exactly like a really sleek and sexy vibrator, with better viewports on the sides and the floor. All jokes aside, I like that they kept the idea of the ship, but I do think that because of that, this version of Cosmos will look just as dated as the original in about ten years, and I wonder if the hokiness will turn away some of the teens who will invariably be forced to watch this in science class.

Third, I’d like to talk about the treatment of religion. This was something I was curious about leading up to the premiere, knowing that Seth MacFarlane was the producer. MacFarlane is an open and vocal critic of religion, while NDGT appears skeptical (and atheist) but tends to avoid commenting directly on theism until it directly contradicts scientific evidence, either because it doesn’t interest him or because he realizes that his pro-science message could get lost if he turns off religious people.

Because of that, I was surprised to see that the last half of last night’s episode focused on Giordano Bruno, the 16th century philosopher who suggested that the Earth circles the sun and that the universe is infinite. He was caught up in the Inquisition and burned at the stake for his beliefs. All of this was represented in animation (the style of which I quite liked, but I worry that younger kids may see it as being a bit old-fashioned. It actually reminded me of old religious cartoons). The depiction of the religious leaders was really not at all subtle: their black-ringed eyes and disapproving mouths were sinister and threatening, while Bruno had an air of innocence and courage. In his final moments, Bruno turns away from a cross thrust into his face.

Compare that opening episode to the original, which opens with a broad overview of the universe, like the recent incarnation, and then also like the recent incarnation switches to a history of the study of our universe. But in the original, Sagan begins 1,800 years earlier than Tyson, with Eratosthenes, who deduced that the world was round and calculated its circumference to an impressive degree of accuracy. Sagan then moves on to the Library of Alexandria (including a shout out to Hypatia), and then finally he jumps to Kepler. Despite mentioning the Library of Alexandria and Hypatia, he doesn’t go into detail on the possible involvement of religious groups in the eventual demise of either.

So why did the new series use the first episode to tell the classic story of a man dying for a heretical belief? As Tyson points out in the show, Bruno wasn’t much of a scientist – he made a guess, and that guess could have easily been wrong. There are a hundred other good places to start when discussing the history of the exploration of the cosmos. The conscious choice of starting with Bruno, to me, shows an interest in exposing a mass audience not just to science but to the danger of dogma.

Is that a bad thing? Will it turn off religious people who are interested in learning more about the universe but bristle at the idea of a show with an anti-religious message? Or is it the perfect way to start this series, considering that religious people continue to try to control and suppress scientific ideas that contradict their worldview, as in the unending evolution vs. creationism fights?

Maybe a science show that is at once entertaining and unafraid to jump into the science vs. religion fray is just what we need right now. So, I’m looking forward to the next episode and I hope that many other people – atheist and religious alike – are as well. But we’ll see.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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16 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved it! I felt close to tears a few times. I actually liked that they kept the ship but I agree that it might be a bit old-fashioned for teenage viewers or people who didn’t watch the original series. In regards to the style of the animation, I have the feeling that this type of drawings is actually the newest trend as I’ve seen this type of animation in some RPG videogames recently (sorry about the obvious display of nerdiness).

  2. They referenced the births of Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed during the last 10 seconds of the celestial calendar. I’d prefer interpret it as their legends being born rather than the people. I don’t recall them mentioning the birth of the Buddha, though I didn’t go back to check. Bit of Abrahamic bias?

  3. Overall, I thought it was great. It’s fantastic to see Cosmos not on PBS, where it might get some exposure to people who might not otherwise be predisposed to watch it. The Bruno story did seem a little out of place, or at least misfocused. Sure, Bruno was right, but as NDGT said, he wasn’t a scientist. He guessed. It wasn’t the story of the struggle between science and orthodoxy. It was about religion and heresy. There were certainly other stories that could have been told to convey the intended meaning better, I thought.

    Also, I find Alan Silvestri’s score a little uninspired. I’d have loved to see a blatantly electronic score, as in the original (though, of course, VERY VERY different from Vangelis’s). Silvestri’s feels a bit samey samey.

    But honestly, if that’s one of my biggest complaints, then well done!

  4. Carl Sagan was pretty clear about his position on religion in Billions and Billions. Some religions contradict science, some don’t, and some vary. To the extent that religion doesn’t contradict science, religion is going to have to play an important role in helping solve the existential problems of our age (which at the time of writing were climate change and nuclear proliferation).

    This was one of the key reasons why Sagan didn’t go around badmouthing religion, only specific beliefs which were demonstrably untrue.

  5. I liked the shout-out to Lucretius in the Bruno segment. I’m not that familiar with Bruno, but I’ve read On the Nature of Things, and it’s clear that Bruno’s vision of an infinite cosmos with infinite worlds (at least as depicted in the episode) was very directly inspired by ideas like Lucretius’s (and the other atomists before him). Seriously, this is a book worth checking out. There are parts that read like they could have been written in the 19th or 20th century CE, instead of the 1st century BCE. It blew my mind a bit when I read it, and it doesn’t surprise me that it blew Bruno’s mind too — everything that last night’s episode animated of Bruno’s cosmic vision is in there. Reading it also makes it clear that while the ideas of the ancient atomists certainly weren’t science, they were informed by a rational way of looking at the world. They were SO CLOSE to being scientists: if only they had really mastered empricism.

    And that’s one of the things I really liked about the original Cosmos, and what I saw last night in the new one. Sagan and Druyan really emphasized that our modern understanding of science descends from an intellectual tradition stretching back thousands of years, and which historically includes religious thought as well as atheistic thought (e.g., Lucretius). We don’t necessarily have to think that the religious beliefs that informed our ancestors’ thought are valid, but neither should we disdain the intellectual achievements of people like Bruno who were working within a religious framework when they were rooted in free inquiry and expanding our cosmic perspective.

    One thing I hope to see more of in future episodes would be greater exploration of the historical roots of our modern scientific perspective outside of Europe and the Mediterranean. The original series fell a bit short on that in my opinion, and since one of the major themes of Cosmos is that science is a universally human enterprise, it would be nice if the new series can improve on that.

    I was sad Hypatia didn’t get a mention though. She was so cool.

  6. I know it’s not fair really to compare them as the original series is majorly date but…I missed the visual with the well and the sticks (Eratosthenes) I think next to the cosmic calender those were some of the most memorable moment of the series for me. They made me understand how science was done, how simple observation and thought could open the world to you.

    Maybe it’s just a difference with age (I was 15/16 I think for the original?) but it just didn’t seem to have the same excitement as the original. I left this version pleased because I knew NDGT would be excellent and I hoped I’d remember to watch it next week. The Sagan version was like being hit with a firecracker. He wanted me to be as excited about the cosmos as he obviously was. He was taking me on a breath-taking journey, he knew it and so did I. I was already programming the VCR for the next episode.

    The cosmic calender is still one of the best visual for understanding the universe I have ever seen
    Flowers, December 30th — WTH!

  7. I watched, and quite liked it. However, my 6 (almost 7) year old son who has seen the original said that he liked Sagan’s first episode better because “It had more facts”. He was wanting more talking and less grandiose pictures. As for the section in the middle, he did like the cartoon style, though said he was scared. We’re looking forward to the next episode, and yes, I teared up at the end.

  8. I really liked the segment on Bruno. I’ve noticed on Reddit that a lot of people hated it. The atheists seem to hate it because Bruno was a religious man who believed he was divinely inspired to find the secret of the universe. The religious seem to hate it because they are portrayed as villains who are trying to stifle religion.

    The way I see it, they meant each of the points that people seem to hate about it to be for the other side. They have specifically mentioned in press releases that they are going to focus more on lesser known characters in the history of science, because we have all heard plenty of recreations about Galileo or Da Vinci. They couldn’t have talked about Galileo or Coepernicus without mention of the Religious state trying to shut them up, but this way they covered that theme with a religious man as the protagonist. This way religious people aren’t simply the bad guys, but also the good guy. Personally I thought the cartoon was really good, and the whole episode was fantastic.

  9. …was a religious man who believed he was divinely inspired to find the secret of the universe

    Gee, that’s sound an awful lot like Sir Isaac Newton. I doubt many of these reactionary atheists would have a problem if he were discussed. Have to wonder how many of those same atheists feel a twinge when wielding Occam’s razor given William of Ockham’s profession.

    Yeah, probably not.

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