Midseason Check-In: COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY

In Neil deGrasse Tyson’s capable hands, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a much-needed breath of fresh air that’s both scientifically fascinating and candy for the eyes.

Stars die and are reborn […] They get so hot that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen we breathe, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. All was cooked in the fiery hearts of long vanished stars. The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

-Neil deGrasse Tyson

I hate to say it, but we’re living in a sad, desperate era for educational television aimed at adults. I’m flipping through the channel guide as I write this, and the list of shows currently playing should make anyone who remembers the days of NOVA, Horizon, and Shark Week programming shudder in fear. National Geographic Channel, History Channel, and Discovery are running the reality TV debacles Alaska State Troopers, Counting Cars, and Deadliest Catch, respectively. [Editor’s Note: Hey! I don’t watch DC, but it’s definitely fathoms ahead of those other shows.] A station whose acronym stood for The Learning Channel once upon a time is showing 19 Kids and Counting. And, perhaps worst of all, the improperly named Science Channel is right in the middle of back-to-back hours of some travesty called Uncovering Aliens. Some people may scoff at the popcorn science of Mythbusters, but, hell, at least they’re using some real physics on that show. It’s enough to make someone who fondly remembers watching science programming on their newly connected cable TV with their mom and dad in the early 1990s want to wipe a tear from their eye.

So how bizarre was it to hear that FOX, of all channels, would be making a sequel/update to the seminal 1980 Carl Sagan PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage? That’s right; the home of American Idol, Dads, and Glee was planning to tackle a true science-based miniseries that covered topics ranging from the enormity of universe to the microscopic scale of atoms. Furthermore, the show would be hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the preeminent popular science communicator of our times. Anyone who’d seen him spar with and enlighten the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in the last few years couldn’t help but be excited. So how did such a program get made on a channel best known for its comedy programming, at a time when even “science channels” seems to be jettisoning educational programming from their schedules? Much of the thanks goes to Seth MacFarlane who used his pull with the network to get the project made. Even if you hate Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, you can’t help but have gratitude for MacFarlane, who reportedly told Tyson “I’m at a point in my career where I have some disposable income…and I’d like to spend it on something worthwhile,” and used his clout with FOX to get the passion project pushed through the pipeline. There hasn’t appeared to be any reluctance from FOX supporting the show either. Ads for the miniseries ran during both the World Series and the Super Bowl, and FOX premiered the show across an unprecedented ten FOX affiliated networks.

And for this viewer it’s been nothing short of magical.

There’s a reason Tyson is held in such high esteem and has nearly 2 million Twitter followers: he’s wonderful. Possessing a honey-smooth voice and an obvious enthusiasm for the material, he is perfect for this project. While not as respected as Sagan for his scientific output, (not a dig – just being honest) Tyson is in his element as a teacher and communicator stimulating curious minds. He claims that a meeting with Sagan once had an inspiring effect on him, and one of his reasons for making Cosmos was to hopefully do the same for other young minds through the medium of television. Completely natural in front of a camera, Tyson’s narration directs viewers towards the scientific discoveries of famous scientists that they may know (Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein) and others that they may not (William Herschel and Wolfgang Pauli) whose discoveries are no less important to our understanding of the universe around us. Each episode uses the animated story of these men and their discoveries (or, in some cases, wild theories) as springboards to discuss the themes of each episode. For example, the third episode, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” uses Isaac Newton’s personal journey leading to the publication of the Principa as fertile ground to expound on the ways that the text’s revolutionary explanation of planetary motion through mathematics continues to be a framework through which we can understand the universe and space flight. The show’s writers, Ann Druyan (who, not coincidentally, is Carl Sagan’s widow) and Steven Soter, are ever aware that if we have seen farther in our study of the world today it is only because we have stood on the shoulders of giants. It’s an idea that pertains not only to Newton and Einstein, but also to Sagan whose influence is all over the miniseries.

But Tyson, Drunan, and FOX’s goal isn’t merely to preach to the previously initiated. They want to attract viewers who don’t already have a deep understanding of physics. These ideas can be mind boggling, but Tyson and company still want you to be able to understand them. The combination of Tyson’s elucidation skills and some skillful teaching methods make this possible. Take the premiere episode’s use of the Cosmic Calendar, in which the 13.8 billion year existence of the universe is mapped over the course of a single calendar year. The Big Bang occurs at the start of January first. The Milky Way galaxy is formed on May 15th. The first life on earth emerges on September 21st, and all of recorded human history occurs during the last fifteen seconds of December 31st. The Cosmic Calendar is a visually simple way to understand the vast history of the cosmos, and just how small humanity’s role in it has been.

The show is a visual wonder, and it makes great use of television’s technological advances since 1980. Tyson often teaches from stunningly beautiful places that look great in today’s dazzling television clarity, and Cosmos doesn’t miss its opportunities with breathtaking natural photography. Whether he’s standing on the edge of a seaside cliff, a bubbling hot vent, or just a serene field of flowers, the show was meant to be seen in high definition. No less magnificent are the show’s computer generated representations of far-off galaxies which Tyson explores via the CGI Spaceship of the Imagination, another holdover from the original Sagan series. People can always find a reason to nitpick digital graphics, but I think these look great for a television-sized budget whether the show is investigating distant black holes or microscopic tardigrades.

Despite the incredible success I feel the show has been so far, it hasn’t aired without its share of criticism, much of it from religious conservatives who feel the show presents a one-sided, science-only view of creation. Further criticism was reserved for the first episode’s depiction of Giordano Bruno’s imprisonment and eventual execution by the Roman inquisition for holding beliefs that were considered heretical at the time. It’s a critique that I can’t see as anything but ridiculous. As if a scientific show has a responsibility to focus on religious explanations. I don’t see The 700 Club carving out a five minute for a scientific counter-point at the end of every episode. It would be downright inaccurate to argue that the church hasn’t been an opponent to scientific discovery at times. These things happened, and it does us no good to ignore them. But even so, the show is much more concerned with exploring our vast natural world than focusing on historical disagreements between science and religion. Tyson even acknowledges that Bruno’s ideas on an expansive universe were as much of a guess at the time as the church’s geocentric teachings. Neither had the tools to study the universe yet and know for sure. Furthermore, Tyson isn’t an aggressive atheist activist like Richard Dawkins. Sure, Cosmos may showcase some ideas that certain sects of fundamentalist Christians disagree with (e.g. the age of the universe to young earth creationists), but there’s plenty of people who believe that Tyson’s science and religion’s spiritual teachings aren’t mutually exclusive, me included — not to mention many of the historical scientists featured in the show. To most of the viewing public it’s a tempest in a teapot.

I can’t wait to see what topics the show covers over its final seven episodes. Personally, I prefer the show’s space-centric hours over their explorations of evolution and other earthbound phenomena, but those episodes are still great. Wherever the miniseries is heading, I’ll be along for ride. Much like Tyson’s Spaceship of the Imagination, we all have a magical vehicle that we can use to explore the universe: it’s our television sets. And, unlike a real spaceship, you only have to remember one setting. Just tune in to FOX on Sunday nights. There’s a whole universe out there and we get seven more weeks to explore it with one of the world’s great astrophysicists as our personal guide. If the current state of “educational” television networks is any indication, than this is a rare opportunity. Don’t miss out.

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