SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

“Cosmos” Reboots

by Donald Prothero, Mar 12 2014

Like many scientists, for over a year I’ve been anxiously awaiting the first episode of the new version of “Cosmos,” starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A reboot of the classic series originally done by Carl Sagan in 1980, this version is co-written and co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan. It is also co-produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth Macfarlane and by Jason Clark (producer of “42”, “Ted”, and the newly released “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”, which premiered the same weekend; he’s married to former actress Kimberly Beck, a high-school classmate of mine).  I figured with these people at the helm, and Tyson as the spokesperson, they would not disappoint. But I was not prepared for how amazing the first episode turned out, even given those high expectations.

It aired on Sunday, March 9, on Fox, which had me a bit concerned, given the political bent of their news network, but this was because Macfarlane has good connections at Fox thanks to “Family Guy”. As the evening started, I was watching my Facebook feed and Twitter to see the reactions from those who saw it in all the time zones before I got my chance in Pacific Daylight Time. I was a bit worried to see a few of my Facebook friends didn’t like the show, but overall it seemed that most of them loved it. Finally, we got the kids to bed and it aired at 9:00 p.m. our time. This is mighty late if they wanted to reach anyone under 12, or for early-to-bed, early-to-rise people like me who get up before 6:00 a.m. It is especially so since we had just gotten the change to Daylight Saving Time that same morning, and most of our biological clocks were out of whack.

But I needn’t have worried. The new “Cosmos” is amazing!!! In many ways, it hews  strongly to the format of the Sagan original. It starts with Tyson on the same cliff in northern California where Sagan began his first episode, and talks about the impact of that amazing series, now almost 35 years ago. It uses a “Spaceship of the Imagination” to zoom through an animated version of the universe, although Tyson’s spaceship is much more high-tech than Sagan’s, and the stunning high-definition CG animation in this series reflects the huge advance in computer animation since 1980. The middle segment talks about an important episode in history and how it reflects on our understanding of the universe. Sagan talked about the Library of Alexandria, and its destruction, clearly a metaphor for how our society only valued science as a tool for mass destruction; he confidently felt that we would be still pushing the limits of space exploration for a long time to come. The new “Cosmos”, however, comes at a time of unprecedented religious and political attacks on science and its values, and at a time when we’ve all but abandoned space except for two Mars rovers and a few probes still passing the outer planets. In contrast to Sagan’s tale of the Alexandrian library, the animated episode in the middle of Tyson’s “Cosmos” is about Giordano Bruno and how the forces of religion and ignorance oppressed him, then tortured him and martyred him. There is also a brief nostalgic mention of the Viking probe that Sagan helped launch back in 1976, now at the outer limits of the solar system and still beaming signals back to us. It even mentions the recording that Sagan put together with a short sound bite from a blues singer on that record….

After the cliff-top opening and the zoom through the universe on the new “Spaceship of the Imagination,” however, Tyson goes further than did Sagan. He goes all the way back in space-time to the Big Bang, and the cruise back through our “cosmic address” more strongly emphasizes the insignificance of earth and humans on the scale of the cosmos, much more so than Sagan did. At the end of the first episode, he gives us an analogy of the 13.8 billion years of cosmic history as Sagan did, squeezed into a single 365-day calendar year. This is the exact same analogy I use at the start of every geology course I teach (although I only squeeze the 4.6 billion years of earth history into 365 days). Both of these analogies and descriptions have a powerful effect of humbling our cosmic arrogance and giving people the sense that scientists have always had: that humans and human history are insignificant when viewed in this perspective. The final few seconds has a powerful, emotionally satisfying ending as Tyson reveals his own connection to Sagan, and how Sagan changed his life, and how scientists pay it forward, and pass on their inspiration and dedication to future scientists.

As a scientist and educator, I loved the approach and found nothing about the first episode that I could nit-pick about. The main drawback of having it on a commercial network, however, is that the frequent cuts to commercials really ruin the episode for many people. (Bizarrely, one of the commercials was for the upcoming movie “Noah”! Someone who bought that ad time really didn’t think about their audience demographics!). Since I rarely watch commercial TV any more,  I’m overly sensitized to how obnoxious and intrusive commercials are. Give me my HBO! But I recognize the reality as well: most households (especially lower-income households) may not be able to get basic cable channels or premium pay channels, and this is a necessary sacrifice to make it available to the widest possible audience on a major network instead. After all, the goal is to reach people who know little about science or the cosmos, as Sagan did so well (even though his show was on PBS, with even less reach). Most of the critical comments I read on my Facebook page before my air-time were about this problem. Or they were from people who expected new, ground-breaking science in the first episode, which is ridiculous: this show is intended for an audience that isn’t science literate or even interested in science, and the producers must keep it simple and flashy to reach them—especially in the first episode, which is really just a teaser and scene-setter, anyway.

About the only negative reviews I’ve been able to find since the first episode aired are from the religious folk who don’t like the implications and tone of the series and how it offends their theistic fantasies. This is indeed an important difference between this version and Sagan’s version of “Cosmos”: the approach to religion. The Sagan quotes about “we are all stardust” and “the cosmos is all there ever was, there is, and there ever will be” are repeated, which certainly don’t sit well with religious folks. And the humbling effect of “the cosmic zoom” and the cosmic calendar analogy, and how they make humans look insignificant, are still there as well. But their choice of Bruno’s martyrdom says loud and clear their message about how religion and other received dogmas should never interfere with science and the progress of human knowledge, while Sagan tiptoed around that issue. Even the deliberate choice of the style in which the Bruno story was animated, with its low-budget, harsh, simplistic animation  (in contrast to the amazing CG animation of the universe) sends an even more subtle message. Clearly, the producers and Tyson are not going to kowtow to bigots who want the harsh reality of our cosmic insignificance hidden from their faithful flocks. Given the current hostile climate where religion and politics have made horrific inroads not only into our science literacy, but especially into the public attitude toward science and scientists, this is no time to tone it down and let them claim victory over scientific reality.

Indeed, that is the real message of “Cosmos”: science is fun, inspiring—but also humbling and life-changing. As Sagan’s original captured the wonder of the universe without sugarcoating the real implications, so Tyson’s version is equally strong in that regard. As we watch science in most media reduced to stereotypes of evil mad scientists, and outside forces attacking science education, and the general culture idolizing celebrities and athletes rather than scholars, and pseudoscience running rampant through basic cable channels that used to dedicated to documentaries and education, we need “Cosmos” now, more than ever. We need shows that inspire people (especially kids) to be fascinated by science, and thinking about careers about science, so that Tyson can “pay it forward” to them and pass Sagan’s mantle on to another generation. Almost 99% of TV now is mind-numbingly bad or outright false and misleading. We need at least one hour a week where people can get scientific reality with a big dose of fun. Fortunately, with “Cosmos”, and with Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” due in another month, we are getting the first big media push back against pseudoscience and ignorance in a long time. That, along with Bill Nye’s victory over Ken Ham and his creationist claptrap, gives me some hope that the media can be used for good, rather than for spreading ignorance and pseudoscience. It’s about time!


29 Responses to ““Cosmos” Reboots”

  1. beanfeast says:

    Doesn’t the program mention Voyager, not Viking? Viking was Mars lander.

  2. John says:

    First, let me say that I loved the first episode overall and I think at the very least the series will probably prove to be a worthy successor to the original in spirit, and that is really what it’s all about.
    You said, “As a scientist and educator, I loved the approach and found nothing about the first episode that I could nit-pick about. ”
    I’m surprised. As a science educator, I had a problem with the way that some of the graphics were used for dramatic effect (I smell FOX Network executives meddling) that resulted in the promotion of misconceptions that were not addressed by Tyson who is usually a stickler for scientific accuracy. The particle densities of the asteroid and kuiper belts were ridiculous. The Big Bang was shown as an explosion *in* space rather than an explosion *of* space. Neil said in a CNN interview that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice science (implied scientific accuracy) for entertainment sake, because science *is* entertaining. I agree with him. Why not show the true density of the asteroid and kuiper belts and point out *why* it’s not so dense? That exposition could be very entertaining. Also entertaining would be an explanation of just how bad “Big Bang” is as a term to describe the first moments of the universe’s existence. I get that it’s not even an hour long show, and you have to sacrifice *something*, but that something shouldn’t be the truth.

    • I know what you’re saying, but think of the audience–scientifically illiterate Americans with at best a 5th grade education in science. If they didn’t exaggerate the density of the objects in the asteroids and Kuiper belts, no non-scientist would ever “get” that they ARE relatively dense, especially as this is animated. And yes, the Big Bang is not quite right, but how would YOU render it visually, exploding all around you simultaneously? I’m sure in the future episodes when he goes into greater depth, he’ll be explaining the ideas further. This is just a teaser, a short intro just to get the viewer interested, and coming back for more…

    • Lorne says:

      I was also a bit miffed by the portrayal of the asteroid belt but how else are you going to show it? Say here’s the asteroid belt and show one rock?
      The Kuiper belt was wrong for a different reason though. The objects in there were just shown too large from the exterior solar system shot. He did explain though that in the kuiper belt the objects are each as far from each other as the Earth is from Saturn. He should have done the same for the asteroid belt.

  3. Trimegistus says:

    His history was as dodgy as the astronomy SFX. Giordano Bruno wasn’t so much a martyr for science as he was a martyr for his own personal mystic brand of Catholicism. Recycling tired old 19th-century Protestant anti-Catholic tropes is unworthy.

    • Stephen says:

      This post on the Discover Magazine blog lays it out really well:

      They could have used Bruno as a martyr to contrarianism (i.e., to promote the liberal Enlightenment idea that it’s very dangerous to treat ideas as “heresy” and criminal in themselves). Or they could’ve mentioned Thomas Digges (who *really* got post-Copernican theory right) as a hero of science communication. But conflating the two doesn’t do either one justice.

      • tmac57 says:

        “They could have used Bruno as a martyr to contrarianism (i.e., to promote the liberal Enlightenment idea that it’s very dangerous to treat ideas as “heresy” and criminal in themselves).”
        That’s exactly what they did.
        I DVR’d the show,so I just went back and watched the segment again in light of the criticisms.
        Tyson admits that his was a lucky guess,and that Bruno was not a scientist. They whole segment was showing how the dogmatic view of the powers that reigned (which happened to be the church) made independent thinking a crime and threat you your livelihood and life. It wasn’t even anti-religious,since Bruno was a deeply religious man who wanted to expand the idea of the glory of his god,not denounce it.

    • David Hewitt says:

      I thought that he spent far too much time on Bruno, and I loathe the cartoon format. Most annoying.

  4. IF you want to see it without commercials, the complete episode is on line at:

  5. Mark Scurry says:

    Great to read the encouraging reviews so far. Unfortunately, we’re a week behind – it’s not airing here until this Sunday night on Pay TV (on Nat Geo), so I’m counting down the days! Sounds like Neil Tyson is an excellent host and they’ve done a great job with it.

    Glad to see you mentioned Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” as well Don, I loved that book and can’t wait to see how it translates to television.

    Bring on Sunday!

  6. Skepnostic says:

    There were two disappointing aspects of this article.

    1. The almost celebratory misanthropic over-reach of the “Copernican Principle”. Yes, the universe is mindbogglingly enormous and we, by comparison are minuscule. Yes, the earth and humanity are not the centre of the universe. Yes – we get it. But if Keppler has shown us anything, it is that our solar system is anything by ‘usual’ from what we have seen so far.

    Our planet is quite unique – so far it seems – in it’s perfect mix of position in the solar system and galaxy, it’s mass and it’s mix of elements. Earth is – according to our limited observation of other solar systems so far – anything but humdrum and common. Just the opposite, it seems. So instead of drudgingly plugging the “we are nothing special in the universe”, why not celebrate the amazing life-giving qualities and and apparent unique properties of our planet that has lead to the absolutely amazing evolution of sentient life? We shouldn’t sell ourselves short in some misplaced knee-jerk reaction to perceived religious-based exceptionalism.

    2. The “nah-nah” nose-thumbing attitude to religionists in the article was just unnecessary and again seemed just reactionary. Be a skeptic because we want to follow the evidence wherever it might lead us – not just to spite our acquaintances who happen to be religious in outlook. It will be a great shame if NDT uses the forum of the new “Cosmos” just to bag the religious as he has been known to do before.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      I must say, I’ve always thought Neil Degrasse Tyson was anything but harsh about religion. I’ve only heard him say it shouldn’t be taught in science classes which is hardly controversial for a scientist and educator. I can think of plenty of others who are far more vocal than he is on the topic.

      • tmac57 says:

        Mark,you are correct in my opinion. I have heard Tyson interviewed many times,and sometimes in depth,and he usually has almost nothing to say about religion unless it tries to subvert science in some intrusive way (in science education or in the law). He is very careful not to “bag on” religion or believers in any personal way.He is not interested in changing people over to a secular view,he only wants to educate people in what science has to say about our world and universe.

  7. Dragonfly says:

    I didn’t get to see Sagan’s original series because I was too young. Perhaps I will look it up and watch it.

    I really liked the first episode of the new series. The animation was beautiful.

    I watched it on hulu. I don’t recall the commercials being too intrusive. I wonder how hulu’s commercial break lengths compare to Fox’s.

  8. Robo Sapien says:

    I condemn Tyson’s complete failure to even mention Flying Spaghetti Monster theory. Clearly the universe exploded into existence from a single meatball!

    • Tom says:

      Of his five complaints, I thought 1,2,3, and 5 were pretty trivial. I tend to agree with 4, however. Way too much time was devoted to Bruno.

      • I agree that four of those comments are indeed trivial. Remember, this is intended for average Americans with at best a 5th-grade level of science literacy. Packing the asteroids or Kuiper belt a bit too densely is essential if they are to understand that these areas are relatively dense in objects; at true scale, that visual point would be lost on this audience, no matter what the narrator says. Sure, the multiverse is speculative, but they identify it as such, and they are trying to stretch and challenge the audience’s ignorant preconceptions–the multiverse does that in spades. Sure, we all know there’s no sound in space–but this audience has been conditioned by Star Wars and generations of sci-fi movies to think otherwise–if you showed explosions in total silence, they would be terribly confused and miss the point of what you’re showing. And the fifth point: it’s just an ANALOGY!!!! He’s trying to convey the hugeness of astronomical/geological time scales compared to our own inflated sense of human importance. You can do it lots of ways, but after 40 years of teaching, I’ve found this analogy works the best. I seriously doubt that most people will be confused as this reviewer thinks.
        As far as Bruno goes, sure, they could have focused on Galileo (who I’m sure will get lots of time in future episodes, since he was so important to much of astronomy), but I think Bruno works fine because he was martyred for challenging the Church dogma, even if (as the show freely admits) he was no scientist. Nothing packs the emotional punch of dying for your beliefs, and Galileo’s house arrest or Copernicus refusing to publish until he was dying doesn’t make the intolerance of the Church nearly so shocking as burning at the stake.

      • MikeB says:

        I appreciate the responses.

  9. Roberto Yunus says:

    There was an Oklahoma TV station which aired a news segment over the part where Tyson mentioned evolution.

  10. Loren Petrich says:

    I’m hoping that its discussion of evolution will avoid the Heike-crab silliness of the original Cosmos. That seems a bit too much like pareidolia to me.

    I’d like some comparative anatomy. That seems like a good way to introduce evolution, because some aspects of it are very accessible to non-professionals.

  11. Jim Howard says:

    About one third of the show was devoted to a really cheap look cartoon complete with Evil Pope. I’m waiting for the show about the big bang theory which includes Nice Pope embracing that theory.

    The cartoon was crap. It gratuitously insulted people of faith. For what purpose? Certainly NOT to make the case for science.

    The holocaust was designed and administered by scientists. The holocaust occurred in the lifetime of many living people, not hundreds of years ago when Evil Pope lived.

    Does the evil done by Nazi and Soviet scientists discredit Dr Tyson by association?

    The show was a big disappointment.

    • tmac57 says:

      The segment about Bruno was about the dangers of dogma,not about religion specifically. Your examples of the Nazis and Soviets also shows how their dogmatic world view distorted reality,and the resulting horrific damage that can do.

      • tmac57 says:

        By the way,the Bruno segment ran just a bit over 10 minutes not counting the commercial break. Still too much for some,I am sure.

  12. As PZ points out on his blog, they toned down the Bruno story and left out even more gory details that would have pointed out the extreme cruelty of religious fanatics:
    As the parade moved on, Bruno became animated and excited. He reacted to the mocking crowds, responding to their yells with quotes from his books and the sayings of the ancients. His comforters, the Brotherhood of St. John, tried to quiet the exchange, to protect Bruno from yet further pain and indignity, but he ignored them. And so after a few minutes the procession was halted by the Servants of Justice. A jailer was brought forward and another two held Bruno’s head rigid. A long metal spike was thrust through Bruno’s left cheek, pinning his tongue and emerging through the right cheek. Then another spike was rammed vertically through his lips. Together, the spikes formed a cross. Great sprays of blood erupted onto his gown and splashed the faces of the brotherhood close by. Bruno spoke no more. … as the fire began to grip, the Brothers of Pity of St. John the Beheaded tried one last time to save the man’s soul. Risking the flames, one of them leaned into the fire with a crucifix, but Bruno merely turned his head away. Seconds later, the fire caught his robe and seared his body, and above the hissing and crackling of the flames could be heard the man’s muffled agony.

  13. Mark Scurry says:

    Finally watched it last night.

    Agree that the ads were a little annoying, but if it was recorded (as mine was), it’s easy enough to flick through those. Overall I thought it was great, can’t really see what was there to complain about. I liked Tyson as a presenter and he seemed a pretty good choice.

    Although I’ve seen similar “Geological Time” calendars before and in books, they never cease to amaze me. When he said plants appeared on December 28th it illustrates how very, very recent we are.

    I love that with the advances of the last 30 years there will be information available not possible in the original. You’d have to wonder what Carl Sagan would have thought of Tiktaalik or Ambulocetus or the host of bird / dinosaur transitions seemingly pouring out of China now.

    Roll on next week!