Being a bit under the weather, I decided that I’d rewatch the original Cosmos series and alternate episodes with the current series to see how they compare. I knew there would be some differences of things like pacing, special effects, and subject matter, but I was rather surprised at what I noticed.
The first thing I want to point out is that everyone who thinks the idea of reconfigurable touchscreen control panels on a starship originated with Star Trek: The Next Generation is wrong. Sagan has it on his “spaceship of the imagination.” This pre-dates TNG by a good 6 years or so.
Next, I have to say that in terms of actual science delivered, both episodes were about equal (this is despite the fact that the new episodes are shorter). This was driven home to me during the Cosmic Calendar sequence, Sagan doesn’t really go into a lot of detail about what happens during the “year.” You get a brief mention of a few events, and then a discussion about a few more things and then Sagan moves on to the next topic. Tyson goes into greater detail about what happened just after the Big Bang, how the Earth was created, some major change points on what happened both as life evolved, and human society evolved.
Where the original surpasses the new version is in two places: The first is when Carl’s zooming around the solar system in his spaceship (making no mention of the Moon, Mercury, or Venus, for some reason), as he stops by the planets, he makes mention of the space probes that have visited the planet, Tyson never does that. The second is by talking about Eratosthenes and the Library of Alexandria, this gives the episode a center that the new one lacks. Sure, we get the bio of Bruno, but we don’t really spend any time in a city where Bruno lived, talking about how that city played a part in the development of science, or really building off anything that Bruno said.
The new one surpasses the original in that it stays focused on how powerful a tool science is, and it covers things which the original could have mentioned, but didn’t.
The original does take some slight jabs at religion, not quite as sharp as the new one, but if you know a few details, you realize that Sagan’s strongly implying that religion, and specifically Christianity, is responsible for the dark ages. (He mentions Hypatia of Alexandria in passing and calls her a “martyr” as well.)
Another thing you notice (and I’m not holding it against the original) is just how far special effects technology has come in the years since. An awful lot of the effects in the original are blurry, glowing dots, paintings, or created by smearing Vaseline on the camera lens. And, as much as I hate to say it, I prefer the commercial breaks to the continuous nature of the original episode. The commercials give you a chance to allow your brain to do some “background processing” of what you’ve just seen, while it tunes out the various ads. Additionally, we all pretty much know instinctively where ads come in a program, so without having to glance at your watch, you know how far along you are in the episode. With the original, you don’t get that “processing break” and you don’t know how far along you are in the episode, unless you remember what time it was that you started it.
As for presentation style, Sagan’s like Timothy Leary extolling the virtues of LSD, while Tyson’s your buddy who elbows you at a party, hands you a joint, and says, while trying to keep as much of the smoke as possible in his lungs, “You got to hit this, man, its some good shit!” Both are very good at what they do, but have distinctly different styles.
Oh, and in the episode of the original there was no more than 3 minutes of footage of actors reenacting a historical moment. One segment was of Kepler in his study, working on the model of the solar system, and the other was of 18th Century clock makers demonstrating their clocks in the street.
And the first thing I discover about the second episode of the original series is that the Copyright Police have it blocked on YouTube. It is, however, available on DailyMotion.com (which means that while it should be available legally, because of the stupid Copyright Police, I have to watch a copy that someone illegally uploaded to the interwebs)!
BTW, Sagan re-explains the Cosmic Calendar in this episode, and goes into more detail than he did the last time. I don’t know if its because I’m sick, or the slow pace of this episode, but I nearly nodded off during it. There’s about 3 minutes of reenactment footage total, which is related solely to the Japanese crabs. Much of the episode is dedicated to showing how DNA works on a molecular scale (and is notable because it features a few minutes of CGI, which must have been insanely expensive way back when). I also didn’t realize that they hadn’t figured out why the dinosaurs had died out when they filmed the episode and Sagan says, “65 million years ago, for reasons we don’t understand, all the dinosaurs mysteriously disappeared.” Sagan also spends a portion of the episode speculating what life on other planets might be like.
Cosmos: Some of the Things That Molecules Do
Okay, I missed this the first time around, but if you look closely into the fire when NDT is talking about our ancestors, you can see actors dressed as cave people walking in the flames. Interestingly enough, I noticed that large portions of NDT’s dialogue is taken, verbatim, from the original episode. There’s also nods to the original episode by having NDT walking around the British Botanical Gardens, where Sagan walked in the original (though Sagan was inside the greenhouse, while Neil’s outside). The whole business of going to Titan to look for life bothers me, because I frankly can’t imagine multicellular life surviving on such a world, regardless of its biochemistry.
A down check to the episode is the reuse of the short form of the morphing species evolving into one another. Having watched the original episode, its obvious how much information was lost when they made the 40 second version. Over all, though, the new episode works much better than the original. Not only because of the new discoveries made in the years since then, but also in how things are presented. The story of evolution with dogs is better than the one with crabs, and the illustration of how eyes evolved is masterful (and most likely would have been technologically impossible to do on a reasonable budget back in the late 70s/early 80s).
I would like to see a fan edit of the two series, where they chop out the best bits from each one, and splice it into a new episode, so you’d have Sagan and Neil “passing” back and forth to one another on a subject, rather than just playing a recording of Sagan at the end of an episode.
This episode attacks astrology, and like the first episode, makes reference to both the Pleiades and June 21st. It then transitions into Kepler making his discoveries about planetary motion. There’s nearly 20 minutes of reenacted scenes, and some of them are fairly elaborate as well. One of which has groups of soldiers driving people from their homes and burning books. There’s also some jabs at religion. Its not quite as sharp as in the first episode of the new series, it does point out that not only was Kepler a deeply religious man (even though he says that, “God is geometry.”), but that he was driven from his home several times by religious nutters of both the Catholic and Protestant persuasion. It also, indirectly, blames the death of his wife and children on religion. (They died of disease brought to their town by soldiers fighting the 30 Years War, which Sagan describes as a “so-called Holy War” that was really an excuse to grab land and wealth under the guise of religion.) He also mentions Kepler having to spend 6 years to free his mother after she was arrested for witchcraft. (Had he not been able to do so, she would have been executed as part of the numerous women killed each year in that part of Europe for witchcraft, Sagan tells us.)
I should also point out that each episode since the first one has seemed to drag a little less than the one before it. And I have a suggestion for a drinking game for the original: Carl seems to rotate through a small number of turtleneck sweaters each episode, so taking a drink each time he changes sweaters would probably get you drunk. (I think I’m going to keep track of them during the next episode to see how many times he changes them.)
Cosmos: When Knowledge Conquered Fear
This one borrows quite a bit from the original’s discussion about our ancient ancestors watching the skies. And as the original made note of Tycho Brahe being a party animal (which annoyed Kepler), this one mentions Hooke liking to partay. Both episodes center on conflict between two important scientists, and both episodes claim that the individuals involved are the ones who “gave birth to modern science,” without making reference to the other figures. There’s lots of little references to the original series that wouldn’t be at all apparent if you hadn’t seen the original recently. And I recommend mainlining the two series like I’ve been doing, because you notice details about how each episode builds off the one before it, and you discover that conventions you didn’t think the original used, it in fact did. This episode had the longest bit of animation so far, just like the original had the longest reenactment so far, but the animation only clocked in at around 13 minutes or so.
The last episode of the new series ended talking about comets, this episode begins with talking about comets and the speculation that one of them blew up over Tunguska in 1908. As he’s dismissing the “exploding UFO” hypothesis, Sagan says, “There’s not even so much as a single transistor to be found on the site.” Of course, given how much electronics has changed in the past 30 years, I have to wonder if we’d be able to identify the electronics of a crashed UFO, since they’d likely be so far advanced than anything we’ve come up with, it might just look to us like a hunk of plastic or something.
Sagan asks if a similar event were to happen today, would we mistake it for a nuke and go to war? We sort of have the answer to that, what with that meteor exploding over Russia last year (granted tensions between the US and Russia are a lot lower than they were back in the ‘80s), and the monitoring equipment designed to detect a nuclear explosion helped us figure out where the meteor came from and exactly how big it was.
Okay, one of the things NDT said at the end of the previous episode was that by predicting the orbit of the comet that bears his name, Edmund Halley stopped us from being afraid of such things. When Sagan starts talking about Halley’s Comet, he has a great laugh at fear mongering comet related items from the 1800s and the 1900s!
Equally interesting is that this is the episode which mentions the monks in the 12th Century observing an asteroid hitting the Moon (about 4 minutes of reenactment). Sagan takes jabs at religion (pointing out that religion dictated the heavens were unchanging) and saying that some of the most important people are those who risked death to tell an important truth. He gives us the name of the crater that this asteroid created on the moon: Giordano Bruno (the guy who got BBQ’d in the first episode of the new series)!
He then blasts Immanuel Velikovsky, religion, and other small minded people before describing the conditions on Venus and saying that unless we curb our emissions, we risk a runaway greenhouse effect that will surely destroy all life on the Earth. He wore 5 different shirts, and wore a gold plated digital watch.
Cosmos: A Sky Full of Ghosts
This episode doesn’t really touch on anything raised in Heaven and Hell, as it talks about the age of the universe and black holes. (It does mention the Pleiades again, though, and talks, in passing, about Michael Faraday.) We get about 5 minutes of animation, along with some reenactors. I can’t recall if later episodes of the original series deal with various cosmological theories, like this episode does, or not. Still, its kind of surprising that there’s no overlap in the two episodes at all.
Something to pay attention to with NDT, in some scenes he’s got bits of gray in his side burns and in the hair above his temples, while in other scenes, its all jet black.
This episode followed the “generic TV” format more than any other, and was at times a bit tedious, while simultaneously making me want to scream not only about the sorry state of our space program, but that there should be an episode like this on the new series, and there hasn’t been. It starts with Carl talking about Mars in myth and legend, moves to science fiction, and Percival Lowell’s observations of the planet. (Trivia: Ophthalmologists who’ve looked at Lowell’s custom eye pieces for his telescope say that it is remarkably similar to equipment they use to examine the blood vessels in the back of the eye, and its most likely that the “canals” Lowell thought he saw, were merely reflections of his own blood vessels.) He then talks about how this inspired Robert Goddard to build his rockets, and then goes to discuss the Viking landers. There’s a digression on the chemistry of life, and could Mars or some other planet be home to non-carbon based life (Carl’s dubious), and I really felt the episode dragged here. Carl did his best to present the material in an engaging manner, but it wasn’t working for me. He talks about what he’d like to see us do next on Mars: Send rovers. They show a giant rover (probably about the size of the Curiosity rover) driving around in the Arizona desert, while Carl waxes about how one day, perhaps, such a rover will drive itself on Mars, while billions of people on Earth sit at home and watch. All I could think was, “We freakin’ did it, Carl! And we can’t even be arsed to do more, even though every time NASA sends a new probe to Mars it breaks all internet traffic records for anything ever uploaded to the net!” (Carl died Dec. 20, ‘96, the first rover on Mars landed on July 4th, ‘97.)
The episode wraps up with Carl talking about terraforming Mars in a manner which would create a planet that looked like the one Percival Lowell thought he was seeing in his telescope all those years ago. Sagan really does his best to get people to think, “Hey, maybe we should take a closer look at Mars.” by talking about the “Pyramids” of Mars, and that the tests on Viking to identify life were inconclusive.
Carl only had two shirt changes, but he did change his coat a couple of times, and while there was about 9 minutes of reenactment footage, most of it, I think had to have been shot at a Victorian festival in the UK (I can’t imagine they could have afforded to build period correct amusement park rides and have hundreds of extras in Victorian costume walking around for the show), or was cribbed from NASA films of tests of Viking prototypes.
Cosmos: Hiding in the Light
This episode deals with the discovery of mass spectrometry. Interestingly enough, in Heaven and Hell, Sagan covered the basics of it in just a few minutes. I wish that in addition to covering the origins of the camera obscura, it they would have included a segment on Indonesian shadow puppets. One thing that’s really become apparent to me is that if the first series had a central theme, it could be summed up as, “Here is where we are in the universe: A small, fragile world.” For this series, it would have to be, “For God’s sake, ask questions!”
I do have to wonder if they’re not building to a point with the series, and the final episode is going to put together pieces from the previous episodes. I also think that at some point during the production, somebody must have said, “We spent a hell of a lot of money on the effects for the spaceship, so we need to use it as often as possible.”
In terms of depth of scientific discussion, the densest of the original series episodes (so far) was A Voice in the Cosmic Fugue, and this episode of the new series matches it. I would say that I would have liked more of this episode to have been mixed in with the episode talking about the eye. About 15 minutes of this episode was animated, and while I don’t think it doesn’t fit within the framework of either series, after having seen the Blues for a Red Planet episode, I’m just so disappointed that the new series hasn’t followed the old one in the depth of detail in saying, “Look, this is our own backyard, we should go there and study it, we’ve so much to learn about it. And what we learn there, will help us to better understand our own world.”
Okay, this one gets the proverbial “A” for effort and “F” for execution. We get about 12 minutes of Dutch life in the 17th Century, with Sagan talking about how their open and accepting society encouraged them to explore the world, and thus enabled them to prosper. There’s mention in passing of what happened to Galileo and Bruno (with a quick comment that the Dutch offered sanctuary to Galileo). We’re introduced to Huygens and told about his love of music and his research into various scientific disciplines, and then we transition into comparing the Voyager probes to the explorations of the Dutch.
What Sagan should have done is given us a comparison of how much more prosperous the Dutch were than the other nations of the era. We have a slight bit of info that the Dutch were better off based on what Sagan tells us, but a number of some kind, say of ships owned by the Dutch, compared to that of the English, or tons of cargo the Dutch handled versus that of the Spanish, would have really helped drive the point home. Also, when discussing Dutch society in comparison to the rest of Europe, instead of just seeing Huygens hangin’ with his homies at a harpsichord recital, while saying that Galileo and Bruno were “tortured” for their beliefs, a shot of either of them being tortured would have made Huygens seem less like the idle rich, and more like someone living on an island of civility in a sea of barbarism.
The worst part of the episode, though, is when Carl goes to JPL. The first pictures from Voyager 2 of Jupiter and its moons are due to arrive that day (Voyager 1 won’t reach Saturn for another year). Its an exciting day. Everybody’s calm, cool, and collected (BTW, IIRC, the “mohawk guy” made famous during the Curiosity landing wasn’t even born yet!), which has to be because that was how the scenes were edited. I say this because we get glimpses of the folks being excited, but we don’t really get to hear from anyone when they’re excited. At one point, Carl spends what seems like an eternity explaining the technical details of how the pictures are sent from Jupiter to the Earth. And I do mean it is technical. There’s talk of which ground station the pictures arrive at, how they’re retransmitted from there to JPL, how the computer processes them (Do love the shots of the giant Memorex discs and tape drives, though.), and that they’re all comprised of tiny little dots of different colors. It took everything I had not to go all Grandpa Simpson and start snoozing loudly.
At one point, Carl talks about Io, and describes how Linda Morabito of the Voyager team discovered the volcanoes on Io. They even briefly allow her to speak, before cutting back to Carl, and later, they have Carl describing what it might be like if the Voyager probes kept logs like sea captains do. How I wish they’d have let Linda talk more. Not only is she a good looking woman (she looks like a brunette version of the gal who played Laurie Forman on That ‘70s Show), but I’ve seen other interviews with her where she talks about her work on Voyager, and she’s got some good stories to tell. We get a brief glimpse of Carl and the other team members looking over some of the images that they’ve only received a short time ago and trying to figure out what it is they’re looking at. That’s science! And its interesting, but we don’t get very much of it in this episode.
Oh Carl only changed his turtleneck twice.
Cosmos: Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still
Okay, so while this episode might have lived up to the theme of “humans exploring the universe” aspect of Cosmos, and it was filled with solid science, I don’t really think that it belonged in this series. There’s some callbacks to the Cosmic Fugue episode, and it had the Cosmic Calendar, but I have to think that if Carl was still with us, he would have handled the episode a lot differently.
I don’t know why we had to have the discussion about the tardigrades just to get us to the neutrinos. Sure, tardigrades have been around for a long time, just like neutrinos, but I think that if Sagan had mentioned them in the episode, he would have talked about the potential of them being nearly indestructible “Ambassadors of Life” which we could potentially use to seed life throughout the cosmos once we’ve genetically engineered them somehow.
Another thing which NDT did, that Sagan wouldn’t have done is say (paraphrased from memory), “Perhaps one of you will figure it out.” when talking about the possibility of being able to use neutrinos to look back before the time of the Big Bang. Sagan would have said, “If we could somehow figure out how to capture and focus neutrinos the same way a telescope focuses light, it would enable us to see what existed before the Big Bang. Was there another universe before this one? Is our universe located inside of a black hole?” What Neil did, and I don’t blame him for coming up with the idea, he didn’t write the episode after all, just had the feel of Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons asking the audience to help him figure out who shot Mr. Burns.
The 4 minutes of animation dedicated to the Greeks and some of their ideas felt out of place in this episode, since much of it was about the importance of free expression. They really should have had one single episode dedicated to what science is, rather than scattering the discussion of it over different episodes. I don’t know if they did it because of the TV trope that says you have to remind people of things every week, if you’re going to build upon it, or if they did it because they thought the individual parts worked better separately. Really, now that I think about it, if they had done an episode sort of like they did with the segment about Mao Tze in the previous episode, where they hint that the suppression of ideas by the Qin dynasty led to a stagnant a
A great title, if nothing else. Carl, in his Chevy Citation, visits his old neighborhood in Brooklyn and talks about what inspired him to become an astronomer. He then goes and visits a classroom at his old elementary and hands out pictures taken by Voyager to the kids. I would love to know what happened to those kids. All of them would be in their 40s by now. Did any of them become scientists? Do they remember seeing Carl?
He then heads out into the night, speculates on what hunter gatherers must have thought when they looked up at the night’s sky. Next he goes to Greece, makes some thinly veiled jabs at religion, and brings up Democritus, who was one of the Greeks discussed in the previous episode of the new series. Carl even talks about Democritus’ fondness for parties.
He then alternates between bashing religion, Plato, Pythagoras, along with slavery. We go back to the classroom, where he describes how, in about 10 years we’ll use an orbiting telescope to discover planets around other stars, and that when they’re the same as he was then, we may have discovered as many as a few hundred planets outside our solar system. Carl was 45 when that was made, I was roughly the same age as those kids were when Cosmos aired, and I’m 45. The current number of exoplanets discovered is nearly 2,000!
There was only about 2 minutes of historical reenactments in this episode, and most of it was recycled from other episodes. Carl changed his shirts about 3 times.
Cosmos: The Clean Room
I feel compelled to point out that the animated portion which opens the show and is set in 1966, features cars that wouldn’t be built for another 3 years. Oops. This is the episode where we’re going to try and figure out the age of the Earth. I’m not sure if modeling Patterson’s behavior after the “crazy who really knows how dangerous this thing is, but no one believes us” stereotype seen in so many bad horror movies is particularly respectful to his work.
Clearly this episode needs the previous episode’s discussion about atoms to make sense. Its still not a “Cosmos” episode, IMHO. I know Carl did a lot of environmental research, so certainly this episode reflects his philosophy towards such subjects, but many of the episodes of the original series had Carl saying, “It is time for us to move out into the cosmos, to take our place among the stars in the heavens.” Those original episodes generally always looked up. Neither this episode, nor the previous new Cosmos episode do that.
Oh, and there was about 15 minutes worth of animation in this episode.
Okay, this episode in just its opening minutes is far more “poetic” than anything in the new Cosmos. The way Sagan talks about the Earth making 4.5 billion trips around the sun, and that we are all space travelers, but only recently have a few of us been able to do it deliberately are the kinds of things that have been missing from the new Cosmos. I also can’t help but notice that when he talks about the possibilty of a star 75 lightyears away from us having blown up a week ago Tuesday, and us not knowing about it for 75 years, we’re still over 30 years away from finding out that if it happened or not.
We shift to Italy and Carl talks about Einstein and light. Carl’s holding an old German book, which he says inspired Einstein, that particular copy was held by NDT on an episode of the new Cosmos, so, apparently, that battered book from the 1800s was not only Carl Sagan’s personal copy, it originally belonged to Albert Einstein!!!!! That merits a “Whoa!” moment, and I wish that NDT had been clearer about that in the episode where he talked about it.
I hate to say it, but this kind of seemed like a “filler” episode. There was talk about space exploration, multiverses, but there was a repeat of the whole sequence of evolution, with just added discussions about traveling to the stars thrown in. I think they should have fleshed parts of it out better, while ditching other parts of it.
We got three shirt changes from Carl.
Cosmos: Sisters of the Sun
Like the original series episode of the same number, this one talks about constellations, but whereas the original talked about them changing over time, this one focused on the Pleiades. We then shift to the discovery of stars being composed primarily of hydrogen and helium. Followed by “disaster porn” of the sun going nova and wiping out the Earth.
This takes us to various stars and how they’re going to die. Its too bad that the series is already in the can and just waiting to be aired, because the recent discovery of the sun’s sibling star would fit right in with this episode.
Its strange, because while this episode made some nods to earlier episodes (mentioning the “backbone of night” and a world orbiting a star that sits above the galactic plain), it didn’t say much about the possibility of, or even the need, for us to get off this rock. One throwaway line about how Neil hopes life will have figured out to leave the solar system, but nothing with the beauty of “There will come a last perfect day on Earth.”
I think the main thing they wanted to do with this episode was to give credit to the women profiled at the beginning, and everything else was just sort of padding. (BTW, there was roughly 10 minutes of animation in this episode.) Not a bad episode, and certainly better than the original one I just watched, but another one lacking in the spirit of the original.
This is the famous “apple pie” episode which starts out with Carl in the dining hall at Cambridge and using an apple pie to explain atoms, when he then moves on to how elements are created by fusion inside stars. Once again, he brings up the Pleiades, and he also comments on how there are probably siblings to our sun out there, but we don’t know where they are. (If you could have held on for just 18 more years, Carl, you’d have found out. :()
We also get essentially a repeat of the life and death of stars that we got in the new Cosmos episode Sisters of the Sun. And this is where we hit another moment that shows why a hybridization of the two series would be good. Carl starts out on a beach explaining the ways in which stars die. They then cut to an airbrushed painting of what’s going to happen when our sun dies and kills the Earth. After that, we hop on to the spaceship of the imagination, fly to someplace in the cosmos to watch a star die, accompanied by effects which consist primarily of bright white light and some very obvious paintings.
Parts of this were told better by NDT in the Sisters of the Sun episode, and the visualizations were vastly better. (BTW, I’m fairly certain that almost all the shots of Carl in the spaceship are recycled from the first two episodes, and they just change the lighting effects and what’s on the viewscreen, and that this has been the case since the third episode.) If we could have had Carl giving some details, Neil others, and the visuals from the new episode, it would have been stunning.
Oh, and while I don’t agree with those who hate the music in the new version I do admit that there are times in the new version where they haven’t gotten things quite right. On this episode, though, I have to admit that the music they chose for one segment really jerked me out of my seat. Carl’s climbing into a cave in the Arizona desert and the music playing is One of These Days by Pink Floyd. (For those of you not familiar with the song, its mostly instrumental, with the only lyrics being spoken once, by a demonic sounding voice which says, “One of these days I’m going to cut you into little pieces.” I guess that works as part of a discussion about cosmic rays, but probably wouldn’t be my first choice of background music.)
For those of you drinking along at home, we got 4 shirt changes, including one with a tie! (That’s worth an extra drink!)
Cosmos: The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth
You can almost hear Neil saying, as this episode opens, “We spent a lot of money on this Cosmic Calendar graphic, so we’re going to use it now, even though its not really necessary.” We then go from the birth of trees, to continental drift, to climate change, with some dinosaur extinctions thrown in for good measure in roughly 5 minutes, with 4 of that being animated. I didn’t quite get the transition as to how we went from talking about the Permian period to the extinction which marked its end, as it seemed like we went from, “Things are going great!” to “And now they’re all dead.” Its not a completely confusing moment, but its as if Neil missed a word or two in what he was saying as he shifts the topic from one subject to another.
One thing that irritates me about this episode is that we fly all the way out to Jupiter, take just a quick gander at the Great Red Spot, and then fly off again. Overall, I think its a good science episode, though I wish they would have talked about how NASA made some of the discoveries which enabled us to understand how the world has changed over time.
For years scientists have believed that many types of dinosaurs died out after the great extinction at the end of the Jurassic Period, but recently discovered fossils show that at least one dinosaur managed to survive the catastrophic event. Aptly dubbed the tongue-twisting Leinkupal laticuada, which means “vanishing family,” this new species of dinosaur is thought to have possibly been the last of its kind, surviving even as the rest of its dinosaur-kind was wiped out. Even more interesting, scientists found the fossils where no other dinosaur of this kind has ever been found before.
There’s some imagery for you, a lone dinosaur, wandering around the Dawn of the Cretaceous, too stupid to realize that its the last of its kind and that the mammals running about at its feet will soon come to dominate the planet.
Carl, standing in a white light, compares the birth of a baby to the birth of the universe, and hints a bit towards Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the beginnings of consciousness and mythology at the same time. There’s a confusing moving grid that’s supposed to represent the beginnings of the universe, then we move to computer models showing galaxies forming and changing over millions of years. Hard to believe that they were done on computers which were less powerful than the smartphones we all have in our pockets.
Next we start talking about the Doppler shift, which makes me wonder who selected the music for this series. Because while most of it has been either “space music” or classical, we now get blues as we watch a train illustrate how the Doppler shift works. Whomever picked out the music, had excellent taste. We then get about 9 minutes of reenacting how observations were done at Mt. Wilson in the 1920s, and after that, Carl appears at a desk to talk about dimensions. Based on this footage, he must have been an amazing teacher in the classroom, because he explains it well, using just simple props.
We get discussions about the shape of the universe, and Carl weaves in Hindu mythology, which as he points out, “most likely purely by coincidence, is the only religion on Earth to accurately give the age of the cosmos.” He takes another subtle jab at religion by pointing out that Hinduism says that the gods may be “nothing more than the dreams of Men.” He also doesn’t mock the idea that our universe might be an electron in some other larger universe. Or that our universe might be located inside a black hole (which I thought was a fairly recent concept, but obviously not).
There were three shirt changes in this episode, though unlike the others, when he changed shirt colors/styles, he tended to stay in that, and didn’t switch back.
Cosmos: The Electric Boy
This is the story of Michael J. Fawaday, millionaiwe. He owned a mansion and a yacht. Sorry, couldn’t resist after the bit about Faraday’s speech impediment. (I noticed that his impediment went away once he grew up. I wonder if that’s because that’s what really happen, or if they decided not to do it because it would be too distracting.) Oh, am I alone in expecting the creepy twins from The Shining to show up when the young James Clerk Maxwell was riding his tricycle in the house?
This was very much an “activist” episode. There are a couple of things that they say about Faraday that stick out:
1.) Devout Protestant
2.) Born into poverty
3.) Never sought to profit off his ideas, even though he could have
I know that some folks like to claim that the new series has been jabbing at religious folks to subtly tell them they need to give up religion, but this episode certainly felt like it was trying to shame those who could do more to help the impoverished. Its also a bit of a callback to the “Hiding in the Light” episode where NDT asks how many other geniuses are being held back by poverty. (According to Steven Soter, that line was written by Carl’s widow, Ann.)
Why this sticks out to me, is because “The Edge of Forever” episode had Carl walking around in India. He was there in the ‘70s, when India was known as the land of crushing poverty, and that episode didn’t make mention of poverty. Heck, I can’t even remember such a comment in the original series at all.
Its a fairly solid episode, out of a total of 43 minutes, about 20 of them were animated. Again, it doesn’t make me want to put the “Cosmos” label on it, because there wasn’t nearly the level of “this is how the universe works” information in it, like there was in most episodes of the original. There was a bit, but not as much as I would have liked to have seen.
The episode opens with Carl explaining how just being able to play 20 questions can reveal a lot of information. The idea is to communicate just how much information can be transmitted in a few bits of data. We then go all Star Trek IV and act like aliens who visit the Earth and ignore the species which had achieved so much —the wheel, New York, wars and so on— and pay attention to the whales. I do find it interesting that some of the estimates as to how much information contained in certain whale songs is equal to that of The Iliad or The Odyssey. Suck it, Iceland and Japan!
He talks about how we should perhaps attempt to communicate with creatures like whales and dolphins so that if we one day encounter aliens we know how to communicate with a different species. We then shift to a discussion about the encoding power of DNA, and how much information the human brain can store, and how the development of the human brain models that of the development of cities. (We even get some shots of the WTC towers.) There’s then some discussion of what alien intelligences might be like, but nothing terribly sophisticated, and even some of the shabbier episodes of Star Trek did a better job of conveying how difficult it might be for us to communicate with non-humans.
This episode sorta just ends, with no real seeming point to parts of it. The discussions about our brains were interesting, but probably could have been handled in shorter segments. Sagan and Ann Druyan did do a lot of work on trying to figure out how to communicate with aliens, because the two of them met on the Voyager project, and it was they who came up with the idea for the Golden Record that the Voyager probes are carrying. (If you haven’t heard Ann Druyan tell the story, its well-worth a listen. Amazingly romantic as well.) I would have much preferred they dumped a good portion of the brain/DNA/whales discussion and just gone with how they came up with the Golden Record instead.
And, I must confess that I missed how many times Carl changed his shirt.
Cosmos: The Immortals
This episode is reflective of its original series companion, in that both of them deal with the ability of humans to store knowledge through writing. Its also another episode which makes me wish the whole series wasn’t in the can, since recent discoveries push the origins of the Flood story back even farther than the date given by NDT. (FYI, while lots of ancient societies had similar tales, the Egyptians, who relied on the annual flooding of the Nile did not have a comparable tale.) The tale about Inanna was interesting, though the recounting about Gilgamesh is somewhat misleading since his story disappeared from history for millennia, rather than being something which was told from time immemorial to the present day like The Iliad and The Odyssey.
We shift to a discussion of panspermia and NDT describes how Martian rocks made their way to Earth. We also get a recounting of experiments on the ISS where microbes were exposed to outer space and survived with no ill-effects. (I would like to point out that the image of the ISS features a shuttle docked to it.) NDT uses a dandelion seed to illustrate microorganisms traveling through space, which is a clear callback to the original series. As he goes into detail about comets and panspermia, I couldn’t help but notice that the music in the background was Ravel’s Bolero, which according to some folks is the perfect song to have sex to. (I’m kind of partial to rain on a tin roof accompanied by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but that’s just me.)
At the Church Family of Shakers in upstate New York, near New Lebanon, Nicholas Bennet wrote in May 1816 that “all was froze” and the hills were “barren like winter.” Temperatures went below freezing almost every day in May. The ground froze solid on June 9. On June 12, the Shakers had to replant crops destroyed by the cold. On July 7 it was so cold that everything had stopped growing. The Berkshire Hills had frost again on August 23, as did much of the upper northeast (MA, NH, VT, ME, upstate New York).
How disruptive to our society would this be if something similar happened? Sure, we’d survive, but at what cost? How many of us would starve or freeze to death? Estimates of the economic costs of a “minor” disaster like Fukushima are as high as $500 billion. If an asteroid pastes an entire city, what kind of economic damage (in addition to the obvious environmental and human costs) is that going to do?
The episode ends on a hopeful note that humanity will somehow get its shit together and begin migrating to the stars in 40,000 or so years. Overall, I think that this episode could have used a few more drafts to make its point in a tighter fashion. The “humanity magically stops being stupid” part kind of grated on my nerves, since that’s unlikely to happen as easily as the episode seems to say.
This episode takes its title from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series with its Encyclopaedia Galactica. How quaint the idea of an encyclopedia of any sort seems in the age of the internet. The opening moments of this episode deal with the Fermi Paradox and why aliens don’t seem to have paid us a visit. We then get a reenactment of the supposed abduction of Betty and Barney Hill. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that you can hear the sound of the wiper blades after they’ve stopped working. :p
We next shift to Napoleonic France and the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone and comparing this to communicating with an alien species. Carl then demonstrates the Drake Equation to attempt to illustrate how many alien species may be out there.
As he mentioned, almost in passing, about what kind of signal could be used to establish communications between one alien species and another, and the beginnings of the SETI project, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are we transmitting the kind of signal that we’re looking for? I don’t think that we are. At least not on a routine basis. If all of us are looking for a signal, but nobody’s sending such a signal, then we’ll never find one. Additionally, maybe nobody’s willing to send a signal, unless they hear from us first.
We only got 2 shirt changes from Carl, but there was about 10 minute of reenactment in this episode.
Cosmos: The World Set Free
This is the “Global Warming” episode, in which NDT lays out only a small percentage of the reasons why we know that global warming is, in fact, real, and man made. However, he (or rather, the series writers, since NDT has said that he didn’t have anything to do with the writing of the show), misses something when talking about the formation of Venus.
Ultraviolet rays from the sun sapped Venus’ atmosphere of water during the planet’s evolution, keeping it in a “prolonged molten state” for longer than Earth’s molten state, a team of Japanese scientists has found.
Venus’ vastly different environment came because it formed closer to the sun than Earth did, the researchers said.
Which contradicts, to some degree, what NDT says about the formation of Venus closer to the Sun than the Earth not being a factor in its failure to sustain life.
We then get a look back at the origins of solar power, and commentary about how it can supply all our needs. And while its true that we should look to solar and wind, Jevon’s Paradox pretty much says that we’re always going to need more energy.
In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈdʒɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons effect) is the proposition that as technology progresses, the increase in efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal-use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.
This episode obliquely implies that solving our energy issue is no more difficult than going to the Moon was in the ‘60s. The issues aren’t really comparable, however. When Kennedy gave his famous speech the Saturn V was already in development (Werner von Braun and his team having started drawing up plans for the rocket in 1957), and even if the Apollo program had been allowed to continue, we would have only been firing off a handful of rockets every year, not building large solar arrays, and wiring up electric car chargers all over the place.
To be sure, we can wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, but to do it in the time frame in which we need to do it, is going to take more than an Apollo style program. A better way to think of it is that it will be comparable to rolling the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, and the Apollo Program into one big mass. Given that we live in a society where politicians object to providing basic health care to combat veterans, I am not optimistic that we’ll be willing to devote ourselves to the solution anytime soon. I think that there’s a greater likelihood of my hitting the lottery and being able to enact my Bond villain plan of dumping carbon particles onto the Greenland ice sheet, to accelerate the melting process.
There was about 5 minutes of animation in this episode.
We open with a three masted sailing ship visiting a primitive society in Alaska in the 18th Century, which serves as a metaphor for how we might encounter an alien species. We then shift to Carl walking along the beach, talking about the world of the ‘80s and if we would survive. We then hop into the spaceship of the imagination and go searching for intelligent life. We find a planet, they blow themselves up, Carl decides to go back to Earth, and we blow ourselves up. Carl then begins to walk around, talking about the dangers of nuclear war.
We then revisit the Library of Alexandria and laments that Eratosthenes’ world view didn’t come to dominate Greek thought. He also regrets that the scientists who used the library never got involved in politics. After talking about the brutal murder of Hypatia, we get a recap of the birth of the universe.
Then we move on to a discussion of humanity trying to sort out the universe, while various clips from previous episodes play. “What dream of the mind’s eye will remake the world?” he asks at one point. Then we get a poetic attempt to say that we owe it to the cosmos to try and to survive.
There was a total of 4 minutes of new reenactment in this episode (I’m not counting the clips from previous episodes), and Carl seemed to wear the same shirt the entire episode, but he did change coats twice.
Cosmos: Unafraid of the Dark
We open with an animated sequence about the Library of Alexandria that morphs into Neil DeGrasse Tyson walking around a CGI version of the library. This is a recap, in some cases verbatim, of what Sagan said in the last episode of the original series. NDT also points out that if it weren’t for the Library of Alexandria, we might not have some of the books of the Bible that we currently have. Of course, as NDT points out, this pales in comparison to the web.
We then hop into the Spaceship of the Imagination to speculate about alien societies. This leads us to studies about cosmic rays. Then to Dark Matter, and funky Fritz Zwicky’s cosmological theories, before following Voyager out of the solar system.
And we get a recap of evolution of life on Earth, before moving a billion years into the future. Then we get Sagan’s “pale blue dot” commentary. We wrap up with a recap of what science is, before the empty spaceship of the imagination flies off into space, with an empty chair that can either be seen as a tribute to Sagan or an invitation for the viewer to assume the captain’s chair in order to explore the universe.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I wish that they had done the “pale blue dot” sequence in the opening episode, rather than the final episode of the series, as I think it would have set the tone for the series better. There was about 4 minutes of new animation for this episode, plus some recycling of animation used in previous episodes.
This being the end of the two series, my next post will be my thoughts about both of them.
Okay, the original still holds up, though the pacing of some of the episodes could be improved by some editing work. There are a few things that the original had going for it that nuCosmos lacked. One is that the original had a greater tendency to look outward to the cosmos and show how our knowledge of things out there impacted our world. Think of it as a sort of anti-astrology, where it shows that the stars do impact our lives, just not in the ways that astrologers claim. While nuCosmos did this in some of the episodes, there were a number of other episodes which lacked the outward looking nature of the original (the episode about lead, for example). Another is that nuCosmos didn’t seem to talk about any space missions past Voyager, while the original not only mentioned Viking and Voyager, but Sagan discussed future missions to Mars and other planets, while describing how difficult it was to design such missions. They even showed prototypes of Mars rovers that NASA was working on in the ‘70s. There was nothing comparable in nuCosmos at all. Nor did nuCosmos make the kind of nod to contemporary scientists that the original did. Sagan spent one episode talking about his friend who worked at trying to devise ways to find life on Mars, and another about his friend who tried to figure out how life first appeared on Earth.
NuCosmos also lacked a lot of the poetry of the original. The original series was written by Sagan, Steven Soter, and Ann Druyan, while nuCosmos was written by Soter and Druyan, with NDT saying he didn’t feel qualified to write for television. Clearly, the poetry in the original series came from Sagan, and not to besmirch Soter or Druyan, as they did a fine job, but even they would admit that they were no Carl Sagan. Its sort of like many of Paul McCartney’s songs after John Lennon was murdered: They were good, but without John to call him up and slap him around, even Paul admitted that his stuff wasn’t as good as it used to be. I wish NDT had taken a hand in co-writing the episodes, because I’ve read some of his books, and even if he can’t match the poetry of Sagan (which he can’t), he can “thump out a pretty good bass line” which was lacking in nuCosmos.
Finally, and I don’t remember if it was in this interview with Seth MacFarlane or if it was in this one with Steven Soter, but in one of them, they mentioned that Sagan’s goal with the original series was to spend a lot of money, in order to have it stick in people’s minds. And boy, did they spend the money!
England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Egypt, Britain, and India were all places that they visited during the making of the series. And they had some fairly lavish reenactments in those places as well. None of which could have been cheap. The “to make an apple pie from scratch” segment had to have cost a fortune to do, since they shot it at freakin’ Cambridge in the UK and had the kitchen staff make it using an old gas fired oven. In reality, we didn’t need to see the pie making process for the segment, so they could have gotten away with using a frozen pie, and shooting it all in a studio.
NDT did some traveling for nuCosmos, but not to the extent that Sagan did, and there were no where near the level of reenactments in the new series as the old. Overall, I think that the two series compliment one another, but I wish that there had been a little less hero worship of Sagan in the nuCosmos, since I’m sure that even Sagan would agree, the science matters more than the people who produce it. Props do need to be given to the nuCosmos series for focusing on women (I can’t recall a single female scientist mentioned in the original), and it did hammer home more on the core concepts of how science is done, than the original did. I hope that it did well enough in the ratings for us to see more shows like it, because we certainly could use them!
Thank you for posting these. I haven’t had time to watch the new Cosmos but did listen to a podcast about it the other day wherein Ann Druyan explained how the series came to be and how they produced it. I’ll make time ager my family and I get settled in Colorado.
As for presentation style, Sagan’s like Timothy Leary extolling the virtues of LSD, while Tyson’s your buddy who elbows you at a party, hands you a joint, and says, while trying to keep as much of the smoke as possible in his lungs, “You got to hit this, man, its some good shit!” Both are very good at what they do, but have distinctly different styles.