Cosmos 2.0

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Cosmos Rebooted

The Good

Homages to Carl Sagan abound, thanks to Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and Tyson's own respect for Sagan. The science is up to date and includes a lot of things unknown in Sagan's day. And there is lots more history than even the history-rich original series.

The Bad

Make fun of Sagan's "billions" if you will (and who doesn't love to do it? - Even Tyson affectionately parodies Sagan in one YouTube video.), but when Sagan spoke, it was authentically him. Tyson often has a breathless tone that sounds affected and, frankly, a bit like a televangelist issuing a particularly maudlin altar call.

The Ugly

First, instead of the creative and insightful use of classical and modern serious music that characterized the original series, this version of Cosmos features an insipid elevator-music score. The music is by Alan Silvestri, a respected TV composer. It's still an insipid elevator-music score.

Second, instead of the exquisite and carefully staged historical recreations in the original series, this series features not just animations, but really lousy animations. They are as bad as the laughable Taiwanese animations of news stories that are so popular on YouTube. At times they make early Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound look inspired.

I understand these are stylistic choices by the producers. They're still lousy stylistic choices.

Episode 1:  Standing up in the Milky Way

This episode covers many themes of the first episode of the original Cosmos. The episode begins with Sagan's beginning of the original series, followed by Tyson giving an introduction on the very same spot where Sagan was filmed. Tyson summarizes the rules of science, including test ideas by experiment and observation, and question everything, and concludes "accept these tenets, and the Cosmos is yours," a line as catchy and quoteworthy as anything Sagan ever said. In contrast to Sagan's voyage from the outer edge of the Cosmos inward, Tyson travels outward, briefly visiting the planets before traveling to the stars and galaxies. Then he returns to earth to view the knowledge of the universe in the time of Giordano Bruno in 1600.

The portrayal of Giordano Bruno prompted protests from the Religious Right, who argued that Bruno was hardly a scientist but instead was a believer in a mystical corpus known as the Hermetic mysteries. This in turn prompted defenders of the series to dismiss the protests as "revisionist."

Well, even a dumb squirrel occasionally finds a nut, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and even the Religious Right sometimes gets it right. And in this case they were right and Tyson and his defenders were absolutely wrong. Bruno was a mystic who tried to use Copernicanism as a framework for his mystical views. If anything, there's reason to believe he cast a pall of suspicion on Copernicanism that made life harder for Galileo. He was no more a scientist than Jenny McCarthy is an expert on autism. This segment is a flagrant example of the worst simplistic historical stereotyping.

The story of Bruno was told by Lawrence Lerner and Edward Gosselin in "Galileo and the Specter of Bruno" in Scientific American in 1986, some 28 years before the Cosmos reboot. Dismissing Bruno as a scientist is "revisionist" only if it's "revisionist" to say that Indians hardly ever attacked wagon trains, that Roman warships didn't use galley slaves, or that educated people in the Middle Ages didn't believe the earth was flat. In other words, it's "revisionist" only to people who never read serious history.

Ooops. Tyson said that only one man dared to believe in a vast universe. Unfortunately, the title of one chapter in Ptolemy's Almagest, the ruling theory of planetary motion in Bruno's day, utterly demolishes that pretense. Book I, Chapter 6 is titled: "That the Earth has the Ratio of a Point to the Heavens." In other words, compared to the sphere of the stars, the earth is a point with no size. Tyson even goes so far as to animate that famous engraving showing a man crawling to the edge of the world and looking through the enclosing sphere to see the clockwork of the heavens. That figure is a 19th century forgery, probably an artist's (erroneous and steretypical) conception rather than a deliberate hoax. The likely artist was Camille Flammarion, a talented artist as well as a popularizer of astronomy. The Wikipedia article "Flammarion Engraving" does a good job of describing the evidence and supplying references.

For Tyson to repeat misconceptions like these is absolutely inexcusable. They are signs of shoddy research at best, deliberate repetition of stereotypes at worst. He could hardly have gotten the series off to a worse start.

Tyson concludes with the Cosmic Calendar, the same device used by Sagan to illustrate cosmic time, updated with modern data and visuals.


Galileo and the Specter of Bruno, 1986; Lerner, Lawrence S. and Gosselin, Edward A., Scientific American, Vol. 255, Issue 5, p.126.

Episode 2:  Things Molecules Do

Tyson begins with the story of how wolves domesticated people. That is, wolves with a little less stress hormone than usual dared to come closer to humans and scavenge. What would normally have been a suicidal handicap turned into an advantage as wolves and humans learned to coexist. Not stated, but quite possibly, humans with a little less stress hormone were more willing to risk close encounters with scavenging wolves as well. Speculation: did that encourage more rational risk-taking by humans? In any case, wolves and humans ended up partners, and eventually the domesticated wolves radiated into the myriad breeds of dog we have today. Dogs were originally named Canis familiaris (Latin for "family dog") but now many zoologists refer to them as Canis lupus familiaris, that is, a subspecies of the wolf. None of the research on the role of hormones in animal domestication was known in Sagan's time.

Then Tyson describes the process of natural selection, illustrated with a mutation that causes some bears to lack color in their fur. Bad if you're trying to hunt in a forest, not so bad if you're hunting on an ice pack. Some scenes were filmed at Kew Gardens outside London, where Sagan filmed some of the original episode on evolution. Fortunately Tyson passed on the "mad scientist" scenes in the original episode.

Creationists really don't like this episode, and it's easy to see why. Tyson barely mentions religion at all, treating intelligent design not as a rival theory but like a gnat to be casually swatted aside. He dismantles the whole "what good is half an eye?" argument by showing how organisms could evolve from light-sensitive chemicals to fully functional eyes, with every intermediate step being fully functional. In fact he even states that our own eyes are a step down from fish eyes, because we never fully adapted to seeing out of water.

And Yay, Neil! for not repeating that stupid, historically inaccurate, and intellectually dishonest redefinition of "theory" as a highly confirmed idea. Darwin himself called evolution a "theory" in origin of Species - it could hardly have been called "highly confirmed" at that time! Tyson does indeed compare evolution and gravity as theories, which he asserts are facts. Another Yay! for simultanously sticking a thumb in the eye of creationists and people who think it's bad form to assert that anything in science is a "fact."

Tyson envisions a monument to lost species and describes the worst extinction in geologic history. Not the well known asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs, but the far worse Permian mass extinction, which he ascribes to the vast volcanism that covered much of Siberia with lava flows about 225 million years ago. The Siberian volcanism is a leading candidate for a cause, but not nearly as generally accepted as the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. Then Tyson takes an imaginary voyage to Titan to see what, if anything, might be luring in its hydrocarbon lakes. Finally, he salutes the original series by replaying Sagan's animation of the evolution of life in 40 second from the original episode "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue." Which, ironically, despite the use of a baroque music score, doesn't have a single fugue in it.

Episode 3:  When Knowledge Conquered Fear

This episode deals with the discovery of the nature of comets. In a sense, it picks up where the original series' episode, "Harmony of the Worlds," about the work of Johannes Kepler, left off.  Comets have been sinister portents for most of human history. Comet Hale-Bopp, in 1997, was perhaps the first great comet that most people saw as a thing of beauty rather than something to be feared.

A good deal of the episode deals with the reclusive nature of Isaac Newton, who largely went into hiding after some bruising priority battles with Robert Hooke, who is portrayed as attempting to steal credit for some of Newton's ideas. The hero of the tale is Edmond Halley, who encouraged Newton to publish his ideas and in fact financed the publication. It was a book about fish, of all things, that nearly prevented Newton from being published. The book was lavishly illustrated (and good science for the time) and the expense of printing it nearly bankrupted the Royal Society. Halley stepped in and paid for the publication himself. Even so, the Society was forced to pay Halley's salary with unsold copies of the fish book. One wonders how Halley was supposed to live off the proceeds of the book if the Society itself couldn't.

Halley and Hooke had been struggling to understand the shape of a comet's orbit and the laws governing gravity. Even though Kepler had established that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits, nobody yet knew why, nor whether they could assume comets traveled elliptical paths also. But Newton knew. He had shown that gravity was an inverse-square force and that bodies moving under the influence of gravity traveled orbits that were conic sections.

Halley undertook to analyze all the comet orbits he could. One interesting point not made in the episode was that Halley approximated the orbits as parabolas, considerably simplifying the math. He found one particular set of orbits that had nearly the same orientation, and matched comets that appeared at intervals of 76 years. He predicted the comet would return in 1759 or 1760. Halley died before then, but his prediction was vindicated, and thus the comet was named in his honor.

Once the period was known, Kepler's Third Law enabled the size of its orbit to be calculated. The far point, or aphelion of the comet's orbit, was three times as far from the sun as Saturn. This was the first new object orbiting the sun to be discovered. And it tripled the size of the solar system.

The real virtue of this episode lies in showing that Halley was about far more than just the comet. Navigator, explorer, businessman, inventor, a perfect mix of practical, social and theoretical to complement Newton's reclusive theoretical genius. And Newton's only friend.

Episode 4:  Hiding in the Light

The discovery of the nature of light and the ways it can be used to determine the chemistry of the stars. A huge round of applause for mentioning the Chinese philosopher Mo Tsu, who for a time was as renowned as Confucius and Lao Tsu, and who came closer than anyone else in early China to formulating a scientific world-view. The story then jumps forward to the Islamic philosopher al-Hazen, who also studied the nature of light and formulated some elements of the scientific method like systematic doubt and questioning of authority.

Then the story jumps ahead to Isaac Newton, who discovered that white light is a mixture of colors, and, the story hints, came this close to discovering spectroscopy, if only he'd bothered to look at the spectrum with a magnifying glass.

Except the story is absurd. The thin dark lines that cross the spectrum aren't visible when you simply use a prism to project a spectrum. The reason is that the sun has finite size, and light from one part of the sun slops over onto other parts of the spectrum, diluting the colors somewhat and washing out the lines. So the only way to get a pure enough spectrum is to use an extremely narrow slit to isolate just a small sliver of the sun. Did Newton ever use a narrow enough slit? We don't know, but even if he did, he would have had a long way to go to explain why those dark lines exist, because he wasn't doing research on the phenomena that would have told him. And, in fact, the chemical discoveries necessary to understand spectral lines hadn't been made yet. Newton couldn't have explained the spectral lines of, say, barium because barium hadn't been identified as an element yet.

The person who did finally sort it out was Joseph Fraunhofer, who began life as an apprentice glassmaker and was discovered and put through school by the King of Bavaria. But Fraunhofer didn't begin by studying the sun, as the episode implies. He actually wondered why different elements gave off different colors when burned, and used a prism to show that the wavelengths were very precisely defined. And Fraunhofer had the best prisms ever because he was still a glassmaker and had developed the most perfect optical glass of the era, in the process helping make Bavaria an industrial power. He also discovered that when light shined through a vaporized element, the light lost the same wavelengths that the element emitted when it was glowing. Fraunhofer had a quite practical use for these observations: chemical analysis.

The real story of Fraunhofer's discovery is far more interesting than anything in the episode. One evening, as he and his assistants were preparing to close up shop, they saw a large fire across town (Heidelberg). Fraunhofer turned his spectroscope on the fire and easily identified a number of elements. Next day, he wondered "If this works on a fire kilometers away, will it work on the Sun?" It did.

But far and away the worst blotch on the episode is the awkward attempt to show quantum mechanics without showing quantum mechanics. Atoms are shown with orbiting electrons, but not the simple planetary model. Instead the electrons travel zig-zag paths, giving a visual impression that is both less intelligible, and less correct, than either the simple planetary model or a quantum-mechanical depiction would be like. And even worse, if that can be believed, is Tyson likening the absorption of light by atoms to casting shadows. Einstein once said things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler, and dumbing down quantum mechanics accomplishes nothing.

Episode 5:  A Sky Full of Ghosts

The web comic xkcd ran this gem:

"Just think. The light from that star was emitted thousands of years ago. It could be long gone."
"That's Sirius. It's eight light years away."
"Oh. Just think. The light from that star was emitted during the last presidential administration."
"Hmmm. Doesn't pack quite the punch."

The rollover caption noted:

'The light from those millions of stars you see is probably many thousands of years old' is a rare example of laypeople substantially OVERestimating astronomical numbers.

Actually, most bright stars are within a few hundred light years. The most distant, in Orion, are about 2,000 light years away. Stars evolve on time scales of many thousands to millions of years. So we can say with very high confidence that all the stars you see in the sky are still there. A few are potential supernova candidates, but we only have about one supernova a century in our galaxy, and the chances of one of them being a star visible to the unaided eye are very slim.

This episode opens with William Herschel walking along a beach with his son John. The Herschels were two of history's greatest astronomers. William explains that looking into space is also looking back into time and that some stars might actually be dead by the time their light reaches earth. Tyson takes a few steps out into space and back into time, musing about what was happening on earth at the time the light left, until he finally reaches one of the most distant galaxies ever seen, so far away that neither earth nor the Milky Way existed then. Tyson reprises the Big Bang on the Cosmic Calendar, then returns to William and John on the beach. William tells John that he has discovered that some stars orbit others and that gravity rules everything in the universe.

We move ahead to the teenage Einstein roaming Tuscany and musing about light, and get a capsule description of relativity. And like the original Cosmos, there's no real description of why relativity is important. Time dilation is observable, but we're nowhere near capable of sending anything fast enough for it to be a viable means of reaching the stars. So what exactly does relativity do that makes it so important?  Lots of things, like making magnetism for one thing, but none of that is discussed here.

On the beach again, William tells John about a friend of his, John Mitchell, who deduced the existence of stars so massive that not even light could escape from them. These are the intellectual precursors of black holes, which Tyson describes. We see the Herschels one last time, and a mysterious figure who's been following them throughout the episode turns out to be John in his old age, reminiscing about his father. John was a pioneer in photography (he invented the terms negative and positive) which Tyson describes as another way of viewing things that no longer exist. Tyson concludes with a vignette of his own past, the day he met Carl Sagan.

And just for the heck of it, one of the best quotes about stars, ever. In C.S. Lewis' story Voyage of the Dawn Treader, stars are living beings, and when one character from Earth meets one, he says "In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."  To which the star replies "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of. "

Generally a very good episode, especially for introducing viewers to the Herschels, one of the great families of science.

Episode 6:  Deeper and Deeper

In this episode, we explore the universe of the very small. We begin by diving into a dewdrop, complete with a neat little moment of resistance as the ship of the imagination pops through the surface tension of the dewdrop. We see some single celled animals and tardigrades, tiny clawed creatures that can survive almost anything. Then we dive further still, into a plant cell to explore the chloroplasts that produce energy for the plant, and ultimately, for all living things.

And - what the ----? Instead of a molecular view, we get a Rube-Goldberg view of cartoon machines. It doesn't show how carbon dioxide and water get made into sugars. It doesn't show anything. They could have just as well run a video of falling dominoes and it would have been just as informative. Or maybe one of the Blue Ball Machine animations that were popular a few years back.

Tyson uses the discussion of plants to describe how Darwin noted that an orchid on Madagascar hid its pollen so deep that there must be some hitherto unknown creature capable of pollinating it. The creature was later discovered, a sphinx moth with an extremely long tongue. Tyson cites this as a case of evolution making a successful prediction a hallmark of validity for a scientific theory. Well, maybe, though I think it pales before Darwin's claim that birds evolved from reptiles years before the intermediate fossil, Archaeopteryx, was found.

[One evening around dusk, while my wife was browsing a garden shop, I spotted what looked like a hummingbird hovering around a flower. Except it was odd to see a hummingbird at dusk. A closer look showed it was a sphinx moth with its tongue extended out about 10 centimeters. Not as dramatic as Darwin's pollinator, but highly impressive.]

Like Sagan in the original series, Tyson visits the Ionians, particularly Thales and Democritus, first known person to postulate the existence of atoms. That serves as a springboard to a discussion of atoms and the uniqueness of carbon, and the idea that an atom is mostly empty space.

Well, it's empty space only if you picture electrons as little planets. If you picture electrons as the waves they also are, they completely fill the volume of the atom. C'mon, Neil, you do this for a profession. At least try to get beyond the planetary model.

Once we reach the nucleus of the atom, which Tyson compares to a mote of dust floating in a cathedral, the stage is set for a discussion of nuclear fusion in stars. Tyson paddles a raft half a mile underground in Japan to tell the story of neutrinos. Neutrinos were first postulated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1930 to explain an apparent violation of conservation of energy, which Tyson illustrates by letting a cannonball swing to within an inch of his nose. Neutrinos interact so weakly with matter that they can only be detected with huge targets. Neutrinos from supernova SN 1987 bored through the earth to be detected in Japan three hours before the light arrived on earth, because the neutrinos zipped effortlessly through the star at the speed of light, but the shock wave took three hours to reach the surface of the star.

Some nice moments but overall a pretty confusing episode. The visualizations of atoms are less clear than those in the original series and fail to impart any additional insights in compensation. And the less said about the chlorophyll segment, the better.

Episode 7:  The Clean Room

The episode opens with an discussion of the age of the earth, and a brief mention of Archbishop Ussher and his famous estimate of 4004 B.C. for the formation of the earth. Tyson lets Ussher off easily, noting that everyone at the time accepted the Biblical creation account as authoritative. In fact, Ussher lived during the time of Galileo, and he was being about as good a scientist as he could have been given the limitations of his data and methods. Stephen Jay Gould said that Ussher "represented the best of scholarship in his time" and that "our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past."

Actually, the most interesting part of the Ussher story is not how he deduced a year for creation, but how he deduced a date and time. That part of the calculation was based on the assumption that the creation was at the start of the Jewish calendar, and that the seventh day was a Jewish Sabbath. In effect, Earth came off the assembly line with the odometer set to zero.

Most of the episode deals with the story of Clair Patterson, who devised a way of determining the age of the earth from meteorites. This episode features easily the worst animation yet, with Peterson portrayed as a gawky cartoon teenager and one of his mentors, Harrison Brown, is voiced with a hokey faux southern accent. Since Brown was actually born in Wyoming and spent most of his adult life in Chicago and California, it's not clear how he could have picked up the hillbilly accent. Although the animation is almost as bad as Huckleberry Hound, at least Huckleberry Hound's accent sounded somewhat realistic.

Patterson was set the seemingly simple task of measuring the amount of lead in tiny zircon crystals. But the lead values he found were far too high, over a hundred times the expected value. Finally, by creating an ultra-clean lab, he was able to rid his samples and instruments of lead contamination and derive an accurate value for the age of the meteories and, hence, the earth. His value, 4.55 billion years, has stood up for over 50 years.

Patterson began wondering where all the lead in the environment was coming from.  He discovered that surface ocean water was far richer in lead than deep water. Since it takes only a few hundred years for water from the surface to mix with deep water, such an imbalance can only mean there had been a massive and recent influx of lead, which he concluded was due to leaded gasoline. And that brought him into conflict with the petroleum industry, who had unfortunately also been funding his research. We see them try to buy Patterson out, employing their best nyah-hah-hah Snidely Whiplash tone. The absolute nadir of the animation shows Patterson visualizing all the people and things around him blotched with leprosy-like scars from lead poisoning.

As persecuted geniuses go, Patterson didn't fare too badly. Yes, he took a lot of heat, something inevitable in any controversy. He lost his petroleum industry funding, of course, but managed to secure enough government funding to maintain an active research program. And while it may have taken "over 20 years" to eliminate leaded gasoline entirely, the main battle was over in less than a decade. Patterson began sounding the alarm in the 1960's, and by the 1970's laws mandating the phaseout of leaded gasoline had been passed. (Perhaps equally important, the need for fuel economy and improvements in engine technology rendered leaded gasoline far less useful.)

In transitioning to the environmental half of the episode, Tyson makes a detour to ancient Rome and discusses their use of lead, noting mental and physical ailments due to the use of lead in cooking utensils, as an impurity in grape juice boiled in lead vessels to concentrate sugar, and of course, water pipes. Eventually Rome fell to the Visgoths, whose mental vigor remained intact because they used PVC pipes. Actually, lead pipes were used in plumbing into the 20th Century, and were usually relatively safe because of a coating of calcium carbonate that lines the pipes if the water is hard.

Although there are a lot of interesting details about determining the age of the earth left out, the purpose of the last half of the episode is to examine what may be the first large-scale, well funded attempt to use science against itself, by hiring scientists to discredit research that might potentially harm corporate interests. The defense of leaded gasoline as harmless was a forerunner of the corporate scientific counterattacks on the dangers of smoking, the dangers of fluorocarbons, and the risks of climate change from carbon dioxide emissions. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that while science is often wrong, people who try to use science in defense of their own economic interests are always wrong.

Episode 8:  Sisters of the Sun

The title is a double entendre, because it refers both to other stars as sisters of the sun, and to the role of women in discovering the nature of the stars. The three heroines are Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne (later Payne-Gaposchkin). Cannon and Leavitt catalogued the types of stars. The system was doubly stacked against them, because not only were they women at a time when women were strongly discouraged from advanced studies of any kind, but they were also deaf, something I hadn't known. Payne proved that the stars were mostly hydrogen and helium. This is one of the best episodes. The role of women in making fundamental discoveries about the universe deserves to be better known, and the animations are not bad.

<shameless self-promotion> The 1998 textbook, Earth Science, by myself, Joe Moran and James S. Monroe contains a box (Perspective 21.2, p. 526) that states "women have probably made more fundamental discoveries in astronomy than any other science." The text goes on to mention the work of Cannon, Leavitt and Payne as well as several other women astronomers. </shameless self-promotion>

The second half of the episode is a reprise of the original series' Episode 9, "Lives of the Stars," one of the very best episodes of the original series. Fortunately, this version omits the cringingly silly apple-pie beginning of that episode. It presents updated discussions of white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes, including the concept of a hypernova, something not known in 1980. The episode even goes on to quote segments of the earlier one almost verbatim, permissible since Sagan was at his expository best and some of the quotes are so poetic and powerful they can scarcely be improved. The episode even ends the same way, with a visualization of the Milky Way Galaxy rising out of the sea on some hypothetical distant planet. The new version is clearly state of the art for 2014, but I still like the original a bit more.

Episode 9: The Lost Worlds of Earth

An excursion through geologic time, showing that the Earth has not always been the same planet. The episode begins in the Carboniferous, about 300 million years ago, when insects reached all-time record sizes, which Tyson attributes to high oxygen. Insects lack lungs and take in oxygen through tubes opening through their skins. Only in a very high oxygen atmosphere can they take in enough oxygen to sustain such large bodies. But Tyson states that oxygen was perhaps twice as high as at present, and that creates a huge problem - combustion. A 40% oxygen atmosphere would allow explosive combustion. Even the 30% mentioned in other sources is pushing it.

In addition to big bugs, the Carboniferous produced the first forests, which were partly responsible for the high oxygen content. The trees of these forests were buried to form coal. Trees were made possible by the appearance of lignin, the binding agent in wood. Since none of the microbes around were yet capable of metabolizing lignin, the trees did not decay. Well, maybe, but the microbes were perfectly capable of metabolizing cellulose, the long polymers that give wood its grain.

Tyson describes the world of the Permian, ruled by trilobites, by showing the present day Guadalupe Mountains, the world's largest fossil reef, then animating the sea as it might have looked in the Permian. The beautiful animations of non-human scenes only makes the poor animation of the historical stories the more striking. Tyson discusses the Permian mass extinction, the worst in earth history, by noting that the Siberian lava flows erupted over vast coal fields. Carbon dioxide liberated by burning coal warmed the climate while aerosols and smoke cooled it. Decaying organic matter was consumed by microbes that released toxic hydrogen sulfide. Abundant black shale after the event points to widespread anoxic water in the oceans. This scenario is widely accepted but by no means universally.

After the Permian came the Triassic Period. We see the famous Palisades on the Hudson River opposite New York City,  and a sketch of a small proto-mammal that was preserved in the Newark Basin, who survived the Permian mass extinction and the next one at the end of the Triassic, and what did happen anyway? We never find out because Tyson jumps directly to the mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. (The mass extinction at the end of the Triassic killed off most large amphibians and many non-dinosaur reptiles, leaving dinosaurs free to occupy the world. The mammals would have to wait their turn.)

The Triassic serves as a springboard to discussing continental drift, since it was the period when the continents began to break apart. Alfred Wegener actually first published his ideas in 1912, two years before World War I, and did not come up with idea while recovering in the hospital. Also he was a meteorologist, not a geologist. In fact, his doctorate was in astronomy, because meteorology was not yet a fully defined field. And while Wegener did mention the occurrence of land plants and animals on separate continents, there is no mention of the Permian ice age, which was one of Wegener's key pieces of evidence. This connection is discussed in almost every geology text. And Wegener did not simply walk off into the wilderness in Greenland. He and another explorer set out for the coast since their campsite had insufficient food to feed the entire party for the winter. Wegener died first and his grave was later found by searchers, but his partner vanished.

The story jumps ahead to the 1950's, and the work of Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp. If Bruce Heezen came from Iowa, why did he talk like Archie Bunker in the animation? And although Tharp produced famously detailed maps of the sea floor and noted the existence of a rift valley on the axis of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, that was not by any means the "smoking gun" for continental drift. Nor is it true that a map of earthquake epicenters precisely matched the rift valley. There was at best a broad smear running along the ridge - the kind of precision to plot earthquakes precisely on the ridge crest would not exist until the Worldwide Standardized Seismic Network was set up over a decade later. Again, the story of how continental drift was confirmed and why it became known as plate tectonics instead is in many geology textbooks. Tyson is too wedded to persecuted genius and heroic women models.

The verdict is clear. Between Bruno in the first episode and this, the historical research in this incarnation of Cosmos was often simply shoddy.

Tyson mentions some recent effects of plate tectonics, including the damming and flooding of the Mediterranean Basin. He starts in a lush green field and says it was a desert once and half a mile below sea level. Well, it may have been in a desert, but the former desert flooded by the Atlantic is still half a mile below sea level. (I was on a field trip recently and told students a now-flooded quarry used to be 100 feet deep. To which a student very perceptively replied it was still 100 feet deep, it was just full of water.) And the infilling took much longer than the year Tyson claims simply because a lot of water had to evaporate to produce the thick salt layers on the floor of the Mediterranean. The salt layers were what clinched the case for the Mediterranean being dry in the first place. Sloppy, sloppy.

Another recent effect of plate tectonics was creation of the Isthmus of Panama and the interruption of free flow between the Pacific and the Atlantic, possibly contributing to the onset of the ice ages. Tyson describes the Milankovitch Cycles, tiny changes in the shape of earth's orbit due to the influence of Venus and Jupiter, and mentions that humans entered the Americas during one interglacial episode. He states that we have about 50,000 years to go before the next ice age is due, a figure open to a lot of debate. He also describes how river deltas became sites of early agriculture once sea level stopped rising after the melting of the glaciers. This was a connection not really appreciated in Sagan's day. Interglacials are usually a lot shorter, and some researchers think we would already be cooling if it had not been for the release of methane and changes in land cover due to agriculture.

Episode 10: The Electric Boy

A straightforward retelling of the life and career of Michael Faraday, who had virtually no formal schooling. He educated himself while working at a bookbindery, reading during his off hours. He became an assistant to the famous chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, and eventually demonstrated the connection between electricity and magnetism. He showed how simple electric motors and generators could be created, but the actual work of developing them into viable energy sources was done by many others. That's an omission necessary for simplicity. Episodes of the series Connections trace their efforts well.

Faraday eventually came to eclipse Davy, who sidelined him by setting him an impossible task: deduce the secrets of Bavarian optical glass (see episode 4). As Tyson notes, Faraday failed to realize that glass-making was as much craft as science. But a chunk of the botched glass, kept as a souvenir, turned out to be useful later in showing that light was connected to electromagnetism. It's all kind of mysterious in the program, but a magnetic field can affect the ability of materials to propagate light, and the effect is different in different directions, so applying a strong magnetic field to the glass affected the polarization direction of the light. The magnetic field didn't affect the light per se, but the electrons in the material the light was passing through. And Faraday's failed glass was the first material he found where the effect was large enough to be easily visible.

Faraday was finally able to take over the lab upon Davy's death, an example of the adage that sometimes "science advances, one funeral at a time."

Late in life, Faraday was troubled by memory loss and depression but continued his research. He envisioned what we now call fields emanating from electrical and magnetic sources. He pictured such a field emanating from the earth to explain the action of the compass, though William Gilbert had pioneered the concept in 1600. Most scientists of the time thought Faraday had gone off the rails, since the concept of "action at a distance" was still held in disrepute. Faraday's lack of mathematical training caused him problems. It was another hero, James Clerk Maxwell, who showed mathematically that Faraday was right.

Scientists remained wedded to the notion that light had to propagate through something - they called it the "ether" - right up until the dawn of the 20th Century, when Michelson and Morley performed their critical experiment that showed the ether need not exist, one of the critical milestones on the way to relativity.

Maxwell could merit an episode in his own right. He produced four equations that describe electrical and magnetic fields. They involve two quantities, called divergence and curl. Think of divergence as the radial effect and curl as the sideways effect.

If you could ride along a light wave, you'd see bands of electric and magnetic field with no apparent physical source, something we don't see in normal life. This paradox led Einstein to conclude that the rules for light were different from everything else, another step on the way to relativity.

So how do electrical and magnetic fields interact with matter? By exchanging particles - photons. Quantum mechanics a quarter century after Michelson and Morley finally put the last piece of the puzzle into place.

The animations are not bad and the music, especially at the end where Tyson describes how profoundly Faraday shaped our world, is above average. The only quibble is that the cosmic connection is pretty weakly developed and really only presented at the beginning and end. One could forgive a viewer halfway through for asking what the connection to the cosmos was. But altogether an excellent episode.

Episode 11: The Immortals

More than any episode so far, the beginning of this episode reflects the spirit of the original series. He starts with the story of Princess Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess about 4300 years ago who became the first known person to sign her name to a literary work. Considering the dim antiquity and quasi-legendary nature of that epoch, the animations are appropriate and not bad. Then Tyson really drops a bomb on creationists. Not only does he continue to treat evolution as a fact, he describes the Epic of Gilgamesh matter-of-factly as the original source for the Biblical account of Noah.

The title seems to refer to the way information transmission can confer a kind of immortality. Tyson moves on to the way DNA transmits biological information for billions of years. Then he speculates on the possibility of life traveling from planet to planet, including the arrival of the Nakhla meteorite in 1911, which was eventually shown to have originated on Mars. Tyson notes that organisms could not survive cosmic radiation for the billions of years it might take to travel between stars, and speculates that comets might be one way to transfer life from star to star.

How exactly that would work isn't made clear. Presumably planetary ejecta that somehow ended up in the Oort Cloud might be captured by a close encounter with another star.

Tyson goes on to speculate about the lifespans of intelligent civilizations, describing disasters like asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, or self-destruction, and speculates that planets around red dwarf stars, which have lifetimes in the trillions of years, might harbor the longest lived civilizations. An animation of a rotating galaxy to Ravel's Bolero is, so far, the only classical music used in the series so far, apart from the reprise of the 40 second evolution video in Episode 2..

A generally appealing episode with a nice opening but very weak focus.

Episode 12; The World Set Free

The episode begins with a description of Venus as perhaps originally an earth-like world, but one that died from a natural runaway greenhouse effect. The visual simulations are great. Tyson points out that earth has as much carbon dioxide as Venus, but ours is locked up in the form of limestone.

Although the discussion of how the earth sequesters carbon dioxide is well done, Tyson mentions that Venus lost its oceans but fails to explain why. The reason is that Venus was too close to the Sun for its climate control processes to keep the planet cool. As it warmed, its probable early oceans evaporated and sent water vapor into the upper atmosphere. Once exposed to solar ultraviolet radiation, the water broke down into oxygen and hydrogen, and the hydrogen leaked out into space. In perhaps 100 million years, Venus lost its water and with it, its ability to lock up carbon dioxide. Its carbon dioxide leaked into the atmosphere, giving Venus the furnace-like conditions it has today. As Tyson notes, nobody was burning fossil fuels on Venus. Nature did this all by itself.

But a discussion of water is critical to this episode, because Tyson commits the fatal mistake of failing to mention that 90 per cent of the earth's natural greenhouse effect is due to water vapor. And however persuasively he presents the case for human caused climate change, denialists will point to that omission as fatally discrediting his case. Yes, water complicates things, but he needed to deal with the question why carbon dioxide is so critical when the effect of water is so much greater.

Tyson deals with climate change denialism pretty much the way he deals with creationism, as a pesky bug to be casually swatted aside rather than a serious adversary. He deals with questions like how we know volcanoes aren't the principal source of carbon dioxide, or how we know variations in the sun aren't to blame, or why humans are the cause of global warming without really mentioning the climate change nontroversy at all.

Episode 13; Unafraid of the Dark

Cosmos returns where it began with Carl Sagan, the Library of Alexandria. Tyson, like Sagan, walks through the virtual library. He explains that only a few favored scholars had access to the library so that, when the mob finally came to destroy it, there were too few to defend it. He muses what might happen the next time the mob comes but, perhaps wisely, refrains from speculating who they might be. He does point out that the average viewer has at his fingertips vastly more knowledge than anyone ever did at the Library of Alexandria. Sagan could not have said that because the Internet was undreamed of in his day.

Tyson then spends much of the episode on where science might go in the future by exploring the mysteries of "dark matter" and "dark energy," pointing out that those are "code words for our ignorance." They're dark only because they don't emit detectable radiation, so we have to infer their existence by other means. We are introduced to Fritz Zwicky, who first raised the possibility of large amounts of unseen mass in the 1930's. Zwicky may have generated skepticism with some of his ideas, but he was hardly a persecuted genius. Genius, yes, persecuted, hardly.

Tyson also reduces scientific inquiry to five rules:

"Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves, and others."


Sadly, something of a disappointment. Something that calls itself "Cosmos" needs to aspire to the quality of the original, and by opting for poor quality animations instead of re-enactments (most of which would have been simple to stage) and insipid music instead of serious classical and modern music, Cosmos 2 threw in the towel before it even got going.

Imagine if George Lucas had given us Star Wars in all its glory, and then done The Empire Strikes Back with Clone Wars animation. It's like that.

Only a few of the latest episodes had visuals as striking as the original series. I used "Harmony of the Worlds" (Episode 3 of the original series) regularly in my classes. I must have seen it 30 or 40 times, and I still find it powerful and moving. The sequence where Sagan discusses Kepler's legacy by interweaving video of Kepler's life with scenes from the Apollo missions is simply awesome. There is nothing in Cosmos 2 that even comes close.

Cosmos 2 has some good moments. like the story of Halley (Episode 3), Joseph Fraunhofer (Episode 4), the Herschels (Episode 5), Clair Patterson, the age of the earth and lead pollution (Episode 7), Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne (Episode 8) and Michael Faraday (Episode 10) stand out. Unfortunately, Tyson missed a grand opportunity by failing to tell the story of how Henrietta Leavitt discovered the Cepheid variable yardstick to the cosmos. These would all have been far more effective with real people instead of crude animations, and none of them really involved much more than people in period costumes talking to each other.

Against those good points there are some serious flaws. The superficial, stereotypical history in Episode 1, and the poorly researched story of continental drift in Episode 9 are just inexcusable. The visualizations of atoms pull off the remarkable feat of being more inaccurate and less informative than either the simple planetary model of atoms or a serious attempt to present atomic orbitals accurately. And who on earth had the idea for that ridiculous machinery animation in Episode 6?

And ultimately, many of the episodes are weakly organized. The more historical episodes hold together best by virtue of their being fairly linear stories. But Episode 6 ("Deeper and Deeper") visits matter on progressively smaller scales but really doesn't transition from level to level very effectively. Episode 9 ("The Lost Worlds of Earth") gives us snippets of geologic history but doesn't connect them to any unifying theme. And perhaps worst of all, there's very little attempt to explain how we know most of the facts shown in the series.

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Created 21 April 2014;  Last Update 24 May, 2020

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