What Lies Out There in the Infinite “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey?”

There is excitement in the air, and for good reason!  An event that has been in the works for some time is finally coming to fruition.  Fans of previous iterations are flocking to this newest incarnation in droves, but it remains to be seen if this year’s edition can live up to the hype.  All the pieces are in place for it to be successful, but then again, it has barely begun, and everything could change on a dime.  But enough about WrestleMania 30 (even though the new Scooby-Doo! Wrestlemania Mystery movie does look very entertaining, I must say).  What I really want to discuss today is the new incarnation of one of television’s most revered science series, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey.  The original version hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980 and its companion book published the same year opened millions of eyes (mine included, years later) to the wonder of the universe and everything within it.  Can the 2014 version with Neil Degrasse Tyson do the same, or is it as devoid of life as the vast expanse between galaxies?

I tuned in to the first episode of the new Cosmos with my family the night it premiered, and I really liked what I saw.  I had seen a handful of episodes and clips from the original series and was impressed with just how many big scientific concepts and ideas Carl Sagan was able to explain in the most eloquent, memorable ways, and how he was able to effectively convey how they all fit together.  One such feature which made a big impression on me, and an icon of the series as a whole, was the Ship of the Imagination, a sleek, futuristic vessel in which Sagan and the audience could head anywhere in the universe and anytime in history.  On the ship, we could travel to a giant black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, back in time to witness Sir Isaac Newton getting clunked on the head by a falling apple and discovering gravity, or shrinking down to the size of an atom and flitting about the protons, neutrons, and electrons.  The new series has some big shoes to fill in this regard, and with even less time to do it in (the original show’s PBS airings had 60 minutes per episode, but this one has just 44 with commercials).

One thing the new Cosmos has going for it are some very nice visuals which take full advantage of modern technology to bring science to life.   The new Ship of the Imagination swoops, dives, and curves through space and time, flying past incredibly detailed planets, asteroids, comets, stars, and other space phenomena all the while reflecting everything in space off its shiny outer hull.

Neil Tyson gives a tour of an updated version of the Cosmic Calendar, a device from the original series which condenses the whole of the universe’s billions-of-years old history into a single calendar year.  This time, however, the months and days literally come alive with computer animations of each cosmic event mentioned.  Thus, we get some amazing versions of the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, and moons, and even a very cute take on animals climbing out of the water to kickstart evolution.  Cosmos certainly offers a feast for the eyes and a constant reminder that the universe is full of amazing things for us to discover.

This journey of scientific awesomeness is guaranteed  to lead us to some surprising places.  I think the first episode has some very note-worthy destinations .  To start us out, Neil Tyson opens the upper and lower windows on the Ship of the Imagination to offer overhead glimpses of Earth from space as it appeared roughly 100 million years in the past and how it might appear approximately 250 million years in the future.  The differences between both Earths from our own present planet were simply staggering to me.  Prehistoric Earth’s continents were lumped together as a single giant landmass, Pangaea, with endless oceans surrounding it and little to no signs of civilization as we know it.   In fact, instead it had a lot of green stuff; grass, trees, and thick forests.  Future Earth appears to have the same continents we currently have, but cities have grown noticably larger and use a heck of a lot more electricity. On this Earth, North America looks like a blinding-light advertisement for Thomas Edison’s most famous creation.  Not to mention there’s a lot of muddy brown on the continents:  where did all the green go?

These views of Earth in different times raised a few questions in my mind.  How accurate will the placement of the continents in the Cosmos version of future Earth really be in 250 million years?  Continental drift has created radically different Earths in the past 100 million years; who’s to say if it’ll still look like it is now well into the future?  How much electricity is being used by those cities, and if they’re using alternative energy sources to get all their power, which ones and how effective are they in providing the energy modern society needs to survive on a day-to-day basis?  Did the cities/humanity play a role in the sudden disappearance of green from the world map?  I’m also pretty sure the oceans looked a lot less blue in the show’s future model; a very alarming sign to me that trouble is surely on the way if we don’t watch out.

Cosmos also uses portions of each episode to present intriguing philosophical questions which relate to the scientific content, a feature I greatly appreciate as a seeker of knowledge.  For example, the first episode relays the story of Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk with a vision of an infinite universe.  A vision he was ultimately condemned to die for.  I did a little research on Bruno after hearing his story.  As well as being a monk, he was an avid astrologist, and I feel that his story brings up a good point about scientific investigation which is worth some due consideration.  Bruno had little to no way of proving the existence of an infinite expanse of space (aside from Greek writings from 1500 years prior to his time and Biblical accounts which support exactly that conclusion, but apparently no one else besides him bothered to look up those references; it pays to read, kids!), but his vision was later proved to be accurate by scores of scientific studies and other observations.  That’s the beauty of science: an idea deemed ludicrous at one time can later be proven as truth through research and observation, or vice versa, and what remains in the end is factual information.  Science supports the same notion Bruno perceived:   that the universe is endlessly vast, is wonderfully complex, it opens up anew, and offers continual surprises to humanity.   We just have to search for them.

All in all, I’d have to say I really like the new Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey.  It’s a fascinating journey through the width and breadth of outer space and challenges our understanding of our place in the universe and how we choose to view it.  I think it paints an awe-inspiring picture of the world (worlds?) we call home and all the neat stuff we’ve discovered and hope to find out more about.  Definitely must-see TV to me!

What do you think of this new Cosmos?  If you’ve watched it, what did you like/dislike about it?  If you’re a fan of the original series, how do you think it compares to the new version?  Is there anything you’d change about this new show, and if so, why?  Are there any other scientific figures you’d like to see represented here?  Expand your view of the universe, and mine as well, by leaving your thoughts in the comments.

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