Monday, March 10, 2014

New 'COSMOS' Series Is Well Worth A Look!

For years I have been patiently waiting for an update of Carl Sagan's 'COSMOS' series, given the many discoveries in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology that have transpired since 1980. Now that has arrived with a timely and streamlined re-do narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and broadcast on FOX (which I usually never watch) and The National Geographic channel (which re-broadcasts the FOX episodes on Monday night).

The update – at least from the first episode- is well worth watching. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an engaging host who's more than able to fill the shoes left by the original host, Carl Sagan. Having watched the original, the first thing that strikes the viewer in the new series is the vivid use of graphics, including computer SGI visuals (such as in one scene with Tyson near the sea, discussing abiogenesis,  as a fishlike creature ambles out on land).

Some reviewers, e.g. Joanne Ostrow (Denver Post, Mar. 8) have bemoaned the attention to “so much astrophysics” noting:

“Marvel at the stunning visuals, be stirred by the grand concepts, but don’t expect to really comprehend astrophysics. The producers assure us it’s enough to come away feeling a respect for science.”

My quarrel with that view is that first, it's way too myopic. It dumbs down the Americans who would be attracted to watching the series, and second, it is hard to ‘come away with respect for science’ unless one at least has a workable, basic understanding of what the science is about!  This is why, for example, I did extensive past work on  introducing basic and intermediate astronomy concepts to blog readers, e.g.
Also I did a series introducing readers to astrophysics earlier, in 2010, followed up by more advanced astrophysics: e.g.

But ‘Cosmos’ surely won’t veer anywhere near this level of detail, hence the astronomy and astrophysics ought to be understandable to most viewers who've at least had some high school science under their belts, and exposure to a bit of algebra and geometry.

Two aspects in this first episode were particularly useful and captivating: nailing down our own planet’s cosmic ‘address’, i.e. Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo cluster, universe, and the way a ‘cosmic calendar’ is presented to grasp (or try to) the vast stretches of cosmic time. Thus, the Big Bang occurs the first instant of ‘January 1st’,  while humans don’t appear until Dec. 31st and recorded history only occupies the last 14 seconds of ‘December 31st’. Nearly the entire cosmic ‘year’ has elapsed before humans have appeared.

Ostrow is correct that ‘Cosmos’ “is not a documentary so much as a cinematic journey” and this was also appreciated by Sagan in his original series. There simply aren’t the details to qualify as a genuine documentary which should mean even a greater viewership than say, Brian Greene’s PBS series ‘The Elegant Universe’ (in which the equations for cosmic string theory are also featured)

One of my favorites segments, as a confirmed atheist and free thought advocate, featured the graphic animations depicting Giordano Bruno’s vicious treatment at the hands of the Inquisition. Merely because Bruno visualized an infinite cosmos and that the stars were other suns (likely with populated planets too), he was hounded for his views. After continuing to express them and refusing to recant, we see the Inquisitors – depicted as demonic looking perverts - interrogating and torturing Bruno,  then burning him at the stake.   To me, the segment graphically exposed how science and religion differ and why the two can never, ever be 'bedfellows' - but rather eternally at each other's throats.  Thus, the recent memes spewed out that attempt to show how religion helped "advance" science are so much hooey and balderdash. Science helped itself primarily by breaking away from the constraints of thought and inquiry peculiar to religion!

Ostrow warns, also commenting on this:

"Expect pushback from conservative religious quarters- this series unapologetically takes a stand for science versus blind faith"

But why pushback against the TRUTH? My take is there won’t be any such ‘pushback’ because these close-minded dolts won’t bother to watch it in the first place!  They are too sure of their blind faith based on nothing but superstition and old wives tales elaborated by primitive, semi-literate nomads in an ancient book.

I only had a couple of quibbles with this first episode: first the banishing of Pluto to a sub-planet sized,  'asteroid type' rock, which Tyson himself was partly responsible for, see e.g.
 and second,  depicting the big bang as an explosion when it actually wasn’t.  It is more an unfolding in space and time.  The standard analogy, i.e. to a terrestrial explosion - while attention grabbing is inaccurate.  A good article ('Cosmology's 5 Big Things You Need to Know'   will be of help in grasping this, found in the May, 2007 issue of ASTRONOMY magazine. As noted therein, p. 31:
"The universe's beginning wasn't an explosion. It was closer to an unfolding or creation of matter, energy, time and space itself. "
The last is especially important as it is consonant with the expansion of space with time. The lead astronomer of the Wilkinson Microwave Array Project quoted in the piece also adds:
"The Big Bang is not an accurate name for the theory. What this theory describes is the expansion and cooling of the universe. It doesn't describe an explosion at all."
Thus, a better analogy would be depicting a hot, very dense gas inside a confined container or bag, then letting it all out. The dense gas escapes, expands into the larger volume  available and cools as it does so. Of course, this is no where as entertaining or riveting as an explosion!
Never mind, this series re-do is welcome and at least ought to get again get people’s minds expanding outwards beyond their limited terrestrial lives and everyday concerns.

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