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Loved your intro, Sy. Great comments, all!
Yeah, the first episode of the new Cosmos started off with a bang – the Big Bang, of course. Never-mind the inaccuracy, like the moon accretion Randy mentioned above, with simulating the Big Bang as an explosion. I’m no physicist or cosmologist, but I keep reading that it wasn’t like an explosion (despite the heat) but an inflation.
I am concerned that Cosmos will be preaching to the choir and that evangelicals will not be drawn to it to begin with. A PhD biochemist ID theory proponent at church Sunday didn’t even know about it. Even when they stick to the data without making metaphysical leaps to atheistic conclusion, I expect Cosmos will still be perceived as promoting an atheist agenda by most Christians who happen upon it.
Science isn't going to win any points by vilifying the church in the first episode on what I overheard our own Tom Burnett say were some dubious historical grounds.
Neither will science win points with the inaccuracies noted above. Nor will science win points by mixing photos of space and simulations without labeling which are real and which are mere simulations (even when based on sound data). If the viewer can’t tell which is which, it seems less real. Hopefully, they will tease-out the realities revealed in Hubble and other photos in future episodes.
On the plus side, I think one of the main points they appeared to be making with the Bruno story, that “your God is too small” [because the church is so locked-in on trying to protect their traditional interpretation], is a valid point. That point turns on its ear the “your God is too small” phrase the way it is typically heard from young earth creationists (YEC) when then accuse evolutionary creationists of the same. But, surely, if God indeed created the “natural” world to purposefully evolve high intelligence and advanced civilization as well as all the beauty, variety, functionality and complexity we seen in nature and do this automatically and inevitably EVEN in a universe where significant random events occur, then, OMG, what an invention!!! It’s not the Christian evolutionist who’s God who is small.
They emphasized the chanciness of our universe and took the position that we probably wouldn’t be here if the K/T impact event 65 million years ago hadn’t killed off all the dinosaurs. That may be consensus but it isn’t the only modern science view on this. Richard Dawkins, no less, as well as other evolutionary biologists including Simon Conway Morris and Kenneth Miller, as well as astronomer, Carl Sagan, hold that high intelligence and an advanced civilization are INEVITABLE. See my general Cosmos post.
Simon Conway Morris argues against the criticality of the K/T event at least on p. 96 of his book, “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe”. Small mammals existed at the time of the K/T event. Relatively present-day ice ages would have favored the mammals. There is also the general evidence of convergence and a high-intelligence niche to fill. Elsewhere he argues that warm-bloodedness is arguably needed for large brains. Thus, the intelligent niche would not have likely filled with reptiles. The K/T impact may have merely accelerated the process.
I would have liked to have seen them explain more of they, “How do they know that?”, questions that arise in the minds of non-scientists, especially, like, “How do they know that the stars are light years away?”, as one of my kids asked. Of course you can Google the answer in a couple seconds these days. But, explaining simple things like that as they go along would go a long way in making the science accessible to non-scientists.
Then there was the not-too-subtle ending to make the point that atheists can be good people too, or you don’t need religion to be a good person – the narrator saw the kind of man he wanted to become in Carl Sagan. Fair enough, I think. I have a couple of atheists working for me who have been great employees. Yet, I’m convinced no-one is good except God alone…and those to whom His goodness is imparted by common grace (of which all can be recipients) and saving grace (available to all though faith).
That being said, and all knit-picking aside, I really look forward to the next one.
The first episode was pretty close to what many of us expected. There were better parts of the original Cosmos that they could have repeated than the purely metaphysical initial quote "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."
The main theme was placing us at our cosmic address and our time in cosmic history. Cosmology is on a much more solid empirical footing now than it was in the late 1970s. At that time, big bang cosmology had just emerged as the dominant picture a little over a decade ago. Now with confirmation from the cosmic microwave background imaging results (COBE and WMAP) and a host of new measurements of the early universe by ground and space telescopes, it is a story that everyone should know. But Sagan had it mostly right 35 years ago, so it is maybe less impressive to hear it again.
As Randy notes, it was computer graphics that were most on display. The huge progress in computer graphics made the spaceship of the imagination much more effective that the original version. I particularly like the idea even though the original implementation was a bit crude. Many people misunderstand the central role that imagination plays in science. The ability to imagine what the universe might be like is an essential first step to comparing what we observe with what we expect. The ability to visualize how things work in one’s imagination is a great joy that comes from understanding science.
It would be interesting to understand why they made so much of the 'Bruno as martyr' animation. I guess they liked the expansive vision of space and time and a repetition of the simplistic story of science rising above resistance from religious superstition. It is really a story about how humans tend to persecute those who persist in holding unapproved viewpoints…lamentable, but maybe not at the center of the story of our place in the universe.
I liked the personal story at the end of the meeting with Carl Sagan that inspired Neil deGrasse Tyson. Testimonials are effective communication and personal investment inspires the next generation. But it also highlights a primary objection many of us had to the original series…that it presents science as a personal and spiritual quest for identity and meaning that is competing for the loyalty of people with the chief competitor being implied to be traditional religious ideas and communities.
I will be very interested to see what they do with the limits we face in understanding and predicting the behavior of complex systems.
Seeing the opening episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos brought back many memories of the opening episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The setting was a spaceship for exploring the cosmos, with Carl at the controls. The intention was to have an animation that could zoom in on planets, fly around them, steer through the Milky Way, and on to distant galaxies. Today this is everyday stuff (as witnessed by the new Cosmos), but in 1980 that was cutting-edge technology. The investment approached a million dollars for a subcontractor who did not, in the end, produce, and as deadlines approached, it was necessary to have a different transition from one scene to another. Substituted were all-too-schmaltzy close-ups of Carl at the controls. Carl was fully aware that the scene breaks make him look goofy, and he tried (without complete success) to have the sequence revised.
Carl had insisted on having final authority over the spoken script, which had brought about a clash with his executive producer, Adrian Malone, who had produced several blockbuster series including Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and who was accustomed to pushing people around. By the time they had come back to the opening sequence, Sagan and Malone were no longer on speaking terms, and they communicated only through intermediaries. “You may have control over the text,” Malone reportedly said, “but I have control over the images.” When I mentioned this to one of the producers, Geoff Haines Stiles, he replied, “But you should have seen it before we cut it!”
Carl’s dramatic lines that opened his Cosmos were repeated in Cosmos II: “The universe is all there is, or was, or ever will be.” When I told Haines Stiles that many people took that as a statement of atheism, he responded with surprise. “Really?” he said. “We just put that in because it sounded poetic!”
Over the years I used several episodes of Cosmos I in my Natural Sciences course at Harvard. Students reported feeling an anti-religious spin to the way Sagan told his story. This aspect of Sagan’s Cosmos was a principal reason that Bob Herrmann, the then-executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation, envisioned a TV series that would address scientific issues in an accurate and more sympathetic way than Carl had done. We started out with considerable naiveté, supposing that if we could get loans to make a blockbuster series, TV channels would pay to show it. Quite the reverse! We would have to pay the television stations to show it, and pay even more for the publicity to bring an audience. In any event, we worked long and hard with Haines Stiles in planning a six-part series, generating many wonderful visual ideas that, for lack of funding, never came to be.
Neil Tyson, following in Carl’s footsteps, zooms out beyond the solar system in a much better staged and more abstract spacecraft. Like Carl, he includes a sequence on Giordano Bruno, “martyr for science.” If memory serves, Neil’s is longer, better researched, and more graphically memorable since it is done with animations. The details are true, but the thrust is false. It is as if Bruno were a young Carl Sagan, foresightedly declaring an inhabited universe on distant planets around sun-like stars, but for such heresy Bruno was condemned to incineration. The problem is that while such a futuristic vision irritated the churchmen, it would hardly have been enough to have him burned at the stake. Bruno was full of theologically offensive ideas, including the notion that he was a better magician than Jesus and could do greater tricks, that Moses had contrived his laws by magical arts, that the Trinity was an impossibility, that the cross was stolen from the ancients and it was only a pretension that it had been used to crucify Jesus, that the world was eternal and hence not created by God, and so on. These, not multiple inhabited worlds, were the unrepentant Bruno’s downfall.
We can all lament Bruno’s cruel treatment, a tragedy for him and ultimately for the Church as well. But it’s not at all clear what his serious heresies have to do with our place in the universe, and therefore why so much time needed to be given to Bruno. It was certainly a distortion of the historical record and seems to be part of a deliberate anti-Christian story line. Perhaps they thought that they had given “balanced treatment” since they gave Copernicus, a churchman, a couple of sentences in the lead-in. But Tyson’s statement that Copernicus was a priest is, in fact, incorrect. Copernicus was a canon of the Frombork Cathedral, that is, he was essentially a member of the board of directors having taken minor orders, but he was never a priest. That idea was invented by Galileo as part of his own defense of heliocentric ideas.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an articulate spokesman for astronomy, and his Cosmos has many attractive visuals. A particularly moving scene came near the end of episode one where he showed Carl Sagan’s appointment book at the place where Carl had invited Neil, a young high school student, to spend a day seeing the astronomy facilities at Cornell. It connected the two Cosmos series together in a beautiful way. But the take-home message seems to be the same: we are mere specks in time and space on this pale blue dot, and not that the human brain, in the only known creature that can contemplate the sky with awe and wonder, is the most complicated thing we know about in the entire universe. Nevertheless, I still consider both Carl and Neil to be among my friends.
Owen GingerichHarvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
I am very much looking forward to the rest of the series and am so thankful to be one of many who believe that science and God are not mutually exclusive.
I was too young to watch the original Cosmos, but I remember watching something similar to this on the Discovery Channel when I was about 13 years old. I also clearly remember walking away from it thinking that Christians are narrow-minded fools and there's no place for God in the universe. The first episode of the new series alluded to this notion many times, particularly with how Bruno's story was portrayed. One thing that stood out to me in the narration of Bruno's story was that Bruno "was not wise" when he returned to Rome. I can see a lot of people agreeing with that statement and eventually coming to a similar conclusion about Jesus' return to Jerusalem. However, instead of being a downfall, I see it as an opportunity for us to start a dialogue about what true wisdom is, the difference between religion and faith, and the wonder of our omnipotent and gracious God.