Vague ramblings

Cosmos: from Sagan to Tyson, children playing on the seashore

Posted in Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 March, 2014

If you haven’t yet started watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new imagining of Carl Sagan’s 1970s documentary series Cosmos, then you are missing a marvellous thing. Seriously – get on it right now.

It is no surprise that Tyson follows Sagan in starting out on a seashore – the very same shore, in fact. The allusion to Newton is impossible to escape and patently deliberate:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sagan’s original is not hard to find. It is more explicitly didactic than the new version, perhaps because it came from a less entitled time, when people didn’t mind having things explained to them as if they were grown-up and able to pay attention. Tyson doesn’t dodge his task, but adopts a more modern approach familiar to any writer’s group: show, don’t tell.

He shows with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th Century monk who asked a simple question: If God is infinite, how can his universe be so puny as to have Earth at its centre? He was burned at the stake, of course. But when small-minded fundamentalists claim to have all the answers, it is as well to remind them that a monk illustrated how stupid – and disrespectful to their God – their assertions are.

Tracey at Fairborne

Latter day Newtons, circa 1973

Then there was evolution. Nothing was dodged here and the idiotic falsehood that the eye could not possibly have evolved by accident was laid bare: we are shown – literally shown – how step by patient step, the eyesight of life improved. From just enough to help microscopic organisms avoid too much light, to the beautiful irony of an organ adapted perfectly for aquatic life being not quite so marvellous on land.

No quarter was given and the frothing outrage of creationists on the social networks was a joy to behold – while also being rather sad, as their child-like certainties provoked childish temper tantrums. It was done with a nod and wink, with clarity and with the best of modern TV technology brought to bear, including animation presumably directed by Seth MacFarlane. And it was unmerciful. It was brutal.

It was factual.

And then came the flourish, the pointing out of the one thing that sets science apart from pretty well every other philosophy. “How did life begin?” asked Tyson: “We don’t know – yet.” I have lost count of the times followers of woo – from odd religions to homeopaths to mediums – have grumbled: “Well, science doesn’t have all the answers,” as if this in some way is a criticism, rather than the highest possible praise that it is.  Incidentally, science is working on the whole ‘how did life begin” thing.

Tyson’s frequent allusions to Sagan are unobtrusive, but welcome to those of us who remember the original: they stem from a deep-rooted admiration and respect for the man, touchingly demonstrated in a moving tribute at the end of the first episode.

This is science education of the highest order, not once shouting “Yah! Boo” at the ignoramuses and charlatans peddling lies about everything from climate science to vaccinations nor even the Creationists to whom reason is a mortal foe.

Instead it explains things in a way accessible to anyone interested enough to watch. If you doubt that, read of the impact it made on one six year old.

Enjoy the show – then go back and watch Carl’s original. ‘cos, why wouldn’t you want to watch the greatest science communicator of the last century, after watching once of the finest of the present?

Then, maybe, go play on a beach for a while.


One Response

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  1. Litchik said, on 1 April, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    Gorgeously written and perfectly argued. Sending it on a Laureate you know.

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