We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year carbon

Me and my close personal friend, Neil deGrasse Tyson. [Credit: Patrick Queen/photographic fakery]
Me and my close personal friend, Neil deGrasse Tyson. [Credit: Patrick Queen/photographic fakery]

Along with many others, I watched the new Cosmos premiere last night, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, many of my friends and colleagues discussed the show on Twitter as it was on, a kind of virtual watching party. Given the outsize importance Carl Sagan’s original series had on many of my generation and the one before, I think many of us were really excited, curious, and apprehensive all at once.

I hope many of you will watch it for yourself if you weren’t able to last night. (At least some will be able to watch it on Hulu. There will be 13 episodes in all, just like the series from 1980.) However, since I’m an opinionated son-of-a-rogue-planet, here are a few highlights and critiques:

  • I don’t think I knew that US President Barack Obama was going to introduce the broadcast, but I was very pleased to see him do so. He’s on the record for supporting public science education, and recognizes this series as a potentially significant cultural event.
  • As with the original series, Tyson’s metaphor for exploration is the spaceship of imagination, rendered in a very shiny manner in CGI. Some people don’t like that metaphor, but I do, probably because of my love for science fiction.
  • The show included a whirlwind tour of the Universe, starting with the Solar System. I particularly loved the Venus, Mars (in black and white, made to look like old film footage!), and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. Like John Timmer wrote in his review, that alone was stunning enough almost to make its own program.
  • However, even while Tyson was talking about how sparse the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt are, the screen showed densely packed asteroids and icy rocks, more like Empire Strikes Back than reality. I suspect this will be a common problem with the series: choosing to go with flashy science-fiction imagery over more accurate depictions.
  • The artistic team has done a really good job of integrating astronomical images with special effects, making even the fanciful stuff look very realistic. That’s both good — it should really stimulate the imaginations of viewers! — and bad (see the previous point). But on the balance I think it’s positive, if the goal here is to inspire people to look into science more, as opposed to being sufficient in itself. Those of us with a science background know that Cosmos can only scratch the surface of what’s possible.
  • The Big Bang was, as usual, depicted as an explosion, when the reality is much…more complicated. I’m not sure how I would do it myself, though (given sufficient budget, natch).
  • I liked the depiction of a rogue planet — one not orbiting any star — and the visual of the Milky Way from the outside. The CGI Tiktaalik (the legged fish related to the ancestors of all terrestrial vertebrates) was also a moment where I broke into a big smile.
  • I fear the program is going to have the problems the original had with history of science. For some reason, the show decided to focus on Giordano Bruno, the mystical theologian. Bruno postulated the existence of multitudes of suns and planets, inhabited by life forms, which (in a certain light) sounds remarkably modern. However, the depiction of Bruno in the show is greatly misleading. He was hardly scientific thinker even by the standards of his day, so his eventual execution for heresy to my mind has little to inform us today about the separation of church and state, or any other clashes in the “culture wars”. In other words, Tyson’s series may be heading the same way as Sagan’s, presenting neat little lessons from the history of science that aren’t very accurate.
  • Tyson used his favorite metaphor for cosmology: representing cosmic history as dates in a single year, with January 1 marking the Big Bang. I love this metaphor, and it looks great on the screen, even though it’s familiar to me from his earlier TV series Origins, as well as the exhibit at the Hayden Planetarium.
  • He also stated the famous phrase “we are starstuff”, made famous by Sagan in the original series. Out of curiosity, several of us discussed and investigated who might have used that metaphor first. As it turns out, it’s complicated. (Tip o’ the pendulum to Meg Rosenburg for finding the most thorough investigation into the question.)

Finally, Tyson paid direct homage to Carl Sagan, whom he visited as a teenager. He nearly choked up a little during this story, and inspired similar strong emotions in many of us watching. I think that’s an important point: part of the value of science communication lies in inspiration. Shareef Jackson echoed that theme in his own review, and based on the number of anecdotes shared among my friends and colleagues, he’s not alone by a long shot. Let’s face it: for a number of reasons, none of which reflect well on American education or culture, black kids from the Bronx don’t become astrophysicists in large numbers. Though haters will hate, Tyson is an inspirational figure. [Update: DNLee collected many tweets from African-Americans in response to Cosmos.]

I will try to watch the remainder of the series, though I doubt I’ll write a long review like this for the rest of the episodes. I hope you’ll join me, and share your thoughts.


7 responses to “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year carbon”

  1. It’s good that Obama took a role, although I wish he was more supportive of space exploration aside from that – his administration keeps putting up budgets for NASA that cut into Planetary Science Research.

    1. Good point! If you haven’t done so, write to the President and other elected representatives and urge them to support planetary science: http://planetary.org/get-involved/be-a-space-advocate/

  2. I enjoyed this post! I’m glad the shows reception has been positive so far and I hope astronomy becomes more immersed with popular culture.

    One critique I must mention is that the show did mention that Bruno was not a scientist at the end of the clip (they even said he had no evidence for his ideas). They might have been trying to show how the catholic church stood in the way of science for a time, as opposed to picking a hero for astronomy. This could have been emphasized better though if my guess is right.

    1. Yeah, they did say he wasn’t a scientist, and that kind of undermined the whole purpose of using him in the first place. My primary point is that he’s a really odd example of what (I think) they were trying to say. The real Bruno was a more complex figure than the show painted, and his primary heresies in the eyes of the Church were denial of the Trinity and the Virgin birth, not belief in the existence of other worlds. To reiterate what I said above, I’m not sure what his example is supposed to mean to us today, and why he’s supposed to be relevant in a show specifically about science.

      1. Fair point! Although the show is also about inspiring awe and wander, so maybe they wanted to pick a hero who was awestruck at the idea of other worlds. I know this is an idea both Sagan and Tyson are very passionate about.

        The show has so received so much criticism over this I guess they should have made their intentions more clear!

  3. I thought it was nt very god at all…..Neil is no Carl Sagan

  4. I don’t expect Congress to be very involved in the world of science. After all, there are many in Congress (both Houses), that still believe that the Earth is about 6,000 years old – give or take a few hundred years. Why? Because it says so in the Bible, and they are waiting for the Rapture!?!?

    But, what these people in Congress are really saying is, they want the Bible Belt vote. They rely on that vote to hang on to the very “cushy” job they have as Congressmen.

    Truth/science has no place in their world of corruption. They have “sold-out” to the corporations, and do their bidding for them – even if it causes the dumbing- down of the entire nation.

    I didn’t see the episode where Obama gives his endorsement of the Cosmos series, but, I will see it on Hulu Plus). So you see, Obama isn’t all bad – as some might think.

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