23 February 2014
The first episode of the new COSMOS airs on March 9th (worldwide on Fox, and National Geographic Channel in many countries). Neil de Grasse Tyson (Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York) has been thought of by many of my fellow science geeks to be THE person to do a much-needed update of Carl Sagan’s epic tour of the Universe, and that means filling some big shoes. Sagan died in 1996, but he was perhaps the most famous American scientist of his time, and his PBS series COSMOS is the most watched PBS series ever. It’s still discovered anew every year by thousands of younger students who were not even alive when he died in 1996, but it is now seriously dated and new discoveries have rewritten the science text books since 1980.
The new Cosmos could not come at a more needed time. Let’s face it, we live in a country where the only people who understand the metric system are scientists and drug dealers, and 25% of the population believes the Sun revolves around the Earth! I won’t go so far as to say that the new version of Cosmos will turn around the seemingly precipitous decline in science literacy, but it sure can’t hurt, and Tyson will have the opportunity to share this amazing new knowledge with millions world-wide who know either nothing, or very little of these discoveries.
Thanks to Fox, I’ve seen a sneak preview of episode one, and I can tell you Tyson does indeed bring his own style to the new version. He actually begins the episode on the same cliffs overlooking the sea that Sagan did, and even shows his name in Sagan’s appointment diary, a day that Tyson remembers with reverence. I’ve said here many times that scientific method has taken us from living in log cabins to exploring the stars in just 4 centuries and Tyson makes a point of explaining what science is right off the bat.
The new series uses modern digital effects to make an updated version of Sagan’s “spaceship” (used as a mind vehicle to travel to the stars), but most of episode one is built around shrinking all of the 13,700 million years since the big bang into ONE calendar year of time. This means each month covers about 1,400 million years and each day 38 million years. It’s a superb way of helping people to get their head around the concept of deep time and how we humans are such a tiny blip in it (appearing only in the last hour of the last day of the year on New Year’s Eve).
Tyson illustrates the history of our universe using this calendar, and picks the day when our ancestors first crawled from the sea, then exploring how the mammals (that would eventually evolve into us) survived and thrived, after the giant asteroid doomed the dinosaurs. There is ample coverage in part one of scientists who were imprisoned by the church for their belief in a solar centric universe, and I was reminded of the efforts of Virginia’s Attorney General to prosecute Penn. State Climatologist Dr. Michael Mann, the creator of the most famous scientific graph of the last 25 years and perhaps the last 50.
I guess some things never change.
One other thing caught my attention, and it illustrates the times we live in so very well. In the first episode, Tyson covers The big bang, biological evolution,and the greenhouse effect (all long accepted, and well understood scientific discoveries). Based on their statements, I wonder how many members of the U.S. Congress from Georgia, Oklahoma, or Texas would publicly admit to them. Things have indeed changed a lot since Cosmos premiered in 1980!
If the rest of the episodes are as good as the first one, then it will inspire countless students to want to learn more, and I suspect many of them will end up as future researchers. Some will probably make new world-changing discoveries, and perhaps a few will run for congress! I hope and highly recommend that science teachers around the world use these episodes as a way to inspire and educate!