By now, you’ve either seen the first episode of the new Cosmos or you’re not going to. The nerdverse has been breathless with anticipation for months now, and now that it’s here, the reviews are… pretty good. I don’t make it a point to be a culture critic, but as the Drexel University Relations department asked for my take on the new show, I thought I may as well give a reasonably thoughtful one. Below are my somewhat expanded comments.
There’s a lot to admire about the Cosmos reboot. Neil Tyson, for one, is one of the best evangelists for science we have right now. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, personable, passionate, and a dedicated public educator. That said, while the science in the show was generally very accurate, I do have a fear that there is an element of preaching to the choir. Much is made in the introduction about the rigors of science, and yet there’s no discussion of how the science is done. Dedicated fans of science will already know much of what is presented, and those who doubt the scientific method, or evolution, or the Big Bang model of cosmology, are unlikely to be persuaded by Tyson’s assurances.
Instead, there’s a clear effort to overwhelm the audience with special effects. To a certain sort of fan, Tyson’s authoritative intonation of the scale of the cosmos (the focus of the first episode) will genuinely evoke excitement. It is also potentially a great entryway for kids who are just learning about science for the first time. Sagan’s original packed a wallop in large part because people like me were kids at the time. It evoked curiosity and an excitement about science. There is the very real hope that Tyson’s version will do the same.
As of the first episode, most of the updates (apart from the host) are cosmetic. Certainly, we know the timescale of the universe a bit better than we did in 1980, but the biggest changes center around using computer graphics to project the earth into the future, or to draw Tyson’s spaceship. Some of these effects (and the rather gratuitous use of lens flares) are a little cheesy. But there is also some excellent footage from modern spacecraft that is integrated seamlessly into the narrative, especially of Mars.
The most significantly new discussion centers around Giordano Bruno, a Franciscan Friar who proposed the possibility of many worlds (and thus, many aliens, each with their own savior), who was ultimately killed as a heretic. Bruno is a somewhat more complicated figure than Cosmos makes out, but it was refreshing to see a usually overlooked thinker included in the discussion.
There were a few instances in which the visualization obscures scientific accuracy. For instance, as Tyson flies through the asteroid belt in his “Ship of the Imagination” (a ray-traced, Prius-esque reimagining from the original series), the animators make the typical science fiction mistake of putting the field so crowded that Tyson is barely able to squeeze through. In reality, the typical distance between asteroids is about a million miles, roughly 4 times the distance to the moon. While a realistic asteroid field would look dull, I feel as though the show missed a number of opportunities to realistically portray the true scope and emptiness of space.
There were several other occasions where “what if?” scenarios were played interchangeably with “This is what happened.” The most glaring of these occurred during a sequence in which we’re shown a particular asteroid nudged gravitationally in its orbit and then later that same asteroid is seen to commit mass dinocide. This is meant to be a hypothetical, but to the uninitiated (including, apparently, the folks on the Culture Gabfest at Slate), it isn’t clear that is not, in fact, a detailed model rather than a very vague guess.
Those concerns aside, we would have a far more science literate audience if the public at large internalized the content of the show. In many ways, the reboot is long overdue. There’s a great deal of mistrust and misunderstanding of science. One need only look at the public views of evolution, global warming, and the anti-vax community to be aware of the backlash against science — real science, as opposed to “geek culture,” like in The Big Bang Theory and elsewhere. This is why it is so important that Cosmos not only get the next generation excited, but also to explain not only what we know, but how we know it.
I want to close with an observation about the final scene — one which most reviewers found quite touching. Tyson shows us Carl Sagan’s appointment book from when he (Tyson) was a boy, and that Sagan made an entire day for him, signed a copy of his book, and generally took Tyson under his wing and mentored him. It took me a little while to articulate what bothered me about this scene, but ultimately I feel as though it smacks of predestination. It reminds me of that famous photograph in which a fresh-faced Bill Clinton met JFK as a boy. The implication, in both cases, is that there was a symbolic passing of the torch. The problem, of course, is that most kids aren’t going to have such an experience. If a kid isn’t marked by some great scientist or mentor very early on, do they simply lack the spark?
I realize that this isn’t what Cosmos was trying to say in the sequence. Tyson and the show were simply trying to convey the generosity of Sagan’s spirit, and I appreciate that. But given the cult of personality that has grown up around Tyson in the last decade, it’s very easy to see it in another light.