Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Back in 1980 my wife and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary; I was also working on a research project in a medical school over in Manhattan. As such was not the typical work with school environment where water cooler talk ended around the latest sitcom will police procedural that was on TV tonight before. The atmosphere was far more conducive to intense conversations around the latest scientific breakthroughs or what was in the peer-reviewed journals that month. It was also an environment highly conducive to watching PBS. Traditionally public broadcasting was the home quality series imported from the BBC over in England, high-end children’s programming like ‘Sesame Street’, and incredibly produced nature documentaries. This decade was set in the aftermath of the science revolution of the 60s and 70s that culminated in the historic achievement of landing men on the moon. During that period there was an intense interest manifesting at all levels of our society focused on science and research. The American educational system focused more time and resources on the sciences than ever before. This is only fitting because these decades witnessed some of the most scream advances in the sciences mankind has ever witnessed. The race to the moon was more than just a socio-political struggle between the world’s two major superpowers United States of America and the Soviet Union. It was a total competition to see who could make the first meager steps off this planet to the vast frontier of outer space.
One television series stood above the rest in defining the attitude toward science in the universe that was growing among the population, ‘Cosmos: a Personal Journey’. The incredibly creative mind behind the series was astronomer Carl Sagan. As an author of both science and science fiction books he was already well known to many devotees in both communities. As a born New Yorker I felt a special connection with this incredible native son of my home city. Over the course of 13 episodes Dr. Sagan took the audience on a fantastic trip of the imagination to the far reaches of the cosmos. We visited strange worlds imagining what the physiology of strange life forms would be like. We watched in wonder as stars were born grew old and exploded in stupendous supernova creating the building blocks of the universe and the very elements needed to eventually permit the formation of intelligent life. Along with its companion hardcover book this work was seen by almost everyone I knew. We faithfully watched the series and had many times reading through the book. Like most fans I was exceptionally grateful when this series finally came to DVD and I could not only relive a part of my younger life; there was a portion of time held in amber preserving a certain point of technology and understanding forever.
Over the last 24 years there has been an immense explosion in what we know about the sciences especially outer space. Intervening years were filled with robotic missions to the moon, Venus, Mars and fly-bys to all the outer planets; Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Remarkable advances in biology have demonstrated that life can flourish in far more extreme environments and the ever thought could be possible. Physicists have stretched our understanding of subatomic particles down to the quantum level where the long-held stability we attributed to the laws of science seems to break down in a morass of confusion and seemingly undefinable, illogical occurrences. They also found that the quantum mechanics that covered the infinitesimally small workings of reality helped to define the processes that have formed the universe. One man who made a profession of combining these two professions as an astrophysicist was selected to become the host of the new series’ Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’. Man chosen revise one of the most innovative series ever on television was ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson’. This goal spoke an intelligent man is well known on science documentary series broadcast on ‘The History and Science Channels’. There Are Now a Group of Scientists That Have Collectively Been Called the Rock Stars of Science Because of their popularity on the plethora of the series because not only are they well-versed in their professions that they have the gift of explaining it to audiences of all levels of understanding. He is also the director of the New York Planetarium, were I was able to touch a real meteorite and form a personal connection to the cosmos.
During several very emotional scenes in this series Dr. Tyson makes a few personal observations. When he was a young man on a field trip for school he met Dr. Segan with a paperback copy of one of his books in his pocket. Having this bus home Dr. Segan invited the young man to stay with him into the next bus was ready. From the look and Dr. Tyson’s eyes as he related the story there was absolutely no doubt that only of the authenticity of it but the profound effect it had on him as a man and a scientist. Although not as personalized that this occurrence the original Cosmos series affected many of us in a similar fashion. Although we had great respect for Dr. Tyson there is some understandable trepidation in revising a series that has such a profound impact an entire generation. This new series not only met the challenge it exceeded in many ways. This also reinforced the feeling that most of us had; a sense of personal connection to the 1980 series.
In the original series Dr. Segan utilized the plot contrivance he referred to as the ship of the imagination. It looked like a giant dandelion seed floating through the universe. In this modernized version Dr. Tyson ship of the imagination was a sleek design rounded in front, tapering to a point in the rear. The bow was a clear dome with a seat in the center so that the passenger could look out into the universe. Looking up he could see into the future looking down into the past. The ship of the imagination could go anywhere in the cosmos and shrink in size to explore the structure of the subatomic quantum universe. Throughout another 13 episodes Dr. Tyson took us all on not only an exploration of what is now referred to as time space, as described by Albert Einstein, but he helped to place in context of the infinite and infinitesimal are all intricately intertwined in a single reality. The disciplines of science have not only expanded incredibly over the last 24 years but they have become inextricably entangled for the one means of exploration will inevitably be intertwined with many other scholarly pursuits.
One point of contention that many fans of the series have expressed is the choice of including animator Seth McFarlane in the production. Best known for his irreverent animated series on Fox, ‘Family Guy’, and outrageous films like ‘Ted’, is juvenile approach to humor is inconsistent with any work meant to be taken seriously on a scholarly level. Rest assured that none of his characters that he is made famous appear in any manner in this series. Every episode however does include an animated segment that might appear primitive by today’s standard for the art form. Usually these segments expound upon the life, times and research of the men that contributed to the level of science we take for granted. The men and women afforded this treatment run the gamut from such well-known names as Isaac Newton to Joseph von Fraunhofer, a scientist that would broadened our understanding of light and how it extended beyond the familiar visible spectrum. The material that is presented is so fascinating and the subjects so critical to our scientific understanding of the universe you can easily overlook the simplistic type of animation utilized.
The very first episode homage to the original series by examining our place in the cosmos by stressing the importance of the original series and the contribution that Dr. Segan made by introducing us to the ship of the imagination and taking us on a journey outward from out of the blue planet through our solar system, the arm of the galaxy we reside and onto the cluster of galaxies that form the overall universe. This reinforces the concept that although we think we are the pinnacle of the universe the truth is we are little more than a tiny speck within it albeit one of amazing complexity but still made from star stuff. From there the series moves on to the incredible personal and professional sacrifices that were made by the pioneers of science. Many were imprisoned, tortured or put to death for heresy by daring to question understanding called from religion, mythology, superstition and unfounded beliefs. A major theme here is how the scientific method of questioning, hypothesizing and testing change the face of how we viewed the very reality around us. Slowly science began to displace the fear and ignorance that held the world and its grip.
This series uses topics such as light to merge the study of things here on earth and use that knowledge to explore stars hundreds and thousands of light years away. The very term light-year is one of time travel. The stars we see in the skies at night how they appear now the glimpses of light that have left their stars billions of years ago. Finally the series leads us to the final episode which examines the heatedly debated subjects such as global warming and what the future holds our planet and our species.’ Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ is a worthy successor of the 1980 series. It is sure to stand the test of time and although inevitably the information presented within it is sure to be outdated and superseded, like its predecessor will remain a fixed point reminding us of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.