Tyson’s Cosmos gets its sea legs

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Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson stands under Darwin’s Tree of Life in the second episode of Cosmos.

Last week, after watching the premiere of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos, I tried to write a review. Carl Sagan’s original series is a beautiful work. Problematic at times and dated, but with an indelible, gently convincing beauty. The new Cosmos, it appeared, was also problematic, and it seemed very much a product of our own era, with content time reduced and the flow of the material interrupted by commercial breaks, and a frantic need to throw up whiz-bang imagery creating a kind of busy emptiness. But I was really worried about the gracelessness of the script and the lack of poetry. Be that as it may,  I thought, the new Cosmos is important, the biggest science outreach effort of its day, and I don’t want to tear it down hastily, especially on the basis of just one episode. A reboot is a hard thing to do. There was promise in that episode. I decided to wait until seeing this week’s episode, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do” to see if Tyson, MacFarlane and Druyan wold deliver.  

Deliver they did. The second episode of Cosmos was a tour de force, a scientific broadside against the purveyors of lingering superstition and psuedo-science, who have made such scary in-roads in the United States since the original series aired in the 1980s. On Sunday night, Tyson calmly laid out the story of the evolution of life on earth, with a depth admirable for the show’s compressed running time. He was in full teacher mode, conscious of how every sentence built his narrative. I wonder if some viewers found it slow. But evolution is really slow, and science can’t easily twist itself to fit modern attention spans, which is one of the primary challenges facing science communicators today. I hope instead that viewers got lost in the beauty and intricacy of the story Tyson was telling.

This episode had all the sharp focus the first episode was missing. Tyson started like Darwin did in Origin of the Species, by discussing domestication. Which of course is a great educational approach; start with what people already know. And most people are aware of the (relatively) recent domestication of dogs and the subsequent (and staggering) diversification of dog breeds by selective breeding. My ten-year-old daughter Zora, who is obsessed with dogs, was glued to this part, and the new piece of knowledge for her was the clever visualization of how (and even why, physiologically) wolves may have taken their first step down the path of domestication.

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I particularly liked the animated section on polar bears, which laid out, in sharp black and white (okay, brown and white) how natural selection operates. The Halls of Extinction were a nicely-realized edifice of the imagination (I couldn’t help think about the Museum of Natural History, that Tyson works at) with the wing reserved for the anthropocene extinction we are currently driving pointed out but not yet identified by name. We’ll get to that, Tyson offers.

A day later, at the dinner table, Zora said “Cosmos is good!” While I started to weigh her judgement with the knowledge that anything with dogs in it will pass muster, she added, “I really liked how each idea led to the next one.” That was high compliment and a good sign that Tyson’s Cosmos might reach her generation like Sagan’s reached mine.

Honestly, everything in this episode came together so well that the one glaring misstep seemed all the louder in comparison; the odd detour to Titan to examine how life might evolve with a different biochemistry altogether, and then the quick trip back to primordial earth to pick up the evolution story. This odd sequencing made no obvious sense, and the replay of the lovely ‘evolving’ line animation from the original Cosmos seemed out of place. That animation may have worked well when Tyson was still under the Tree of Life. But here it seemed tacked on.

I think, after two episodes, I have decided that directly using Sagan’s voice from the original Cosmos is ultimately disruptive and jarring. Let Neil quote Sagan if he wants. While he doesn’t command the poetry of Sagan, he has a sharp mind and a great ability to communicate science in his own muscular way, and he showed himself a powerful voice for science in this episode.

Finally, I could not help but watch this episode in the context of the recent, badly-botched debate between Ken Ham and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye over evolution and young earth creationism (my thoughts on that here).This is the story Nye should have told and the way he should have told it: calmly, confidently, clearly and with compelling evidence. I suspect he was watching. I hope he had his Field Notes journal in front of him. Instead of punching holes in a fringe theory that seems to draw structural strength the more it resembles swiss cheese (rather like the strange case of the anti-vaccine people), instead tell the positive story of evolution as illuminated by science, and suggest, as Tyson did with last week’s Bruno story and alluded to this week with his quote on the spiritual experience of contemplating science, that evolution is a theory magnificent and graceful enough that it’s worthy of an infinite creator.

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