‘Cosmos’ Reboot Starts With a (Big) Bang

by Nancy Atkinson on March 10, 2014

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson contemplates the Big Bang. Image courtesy of Fox.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson contemplates the Big Bang. Image courtesy of Fox.

With much anticipation from the astronomy and science community, the opening episode of the new and updated version of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series premiered to the masses on television in North America last night. This reboot – this time hosted by astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson — did a wonderful job of paying homage to Sagan while showcasing the grandeur of space, as well as portraying the infinitesimally small amount of time that humanity has existed. Like its original counterpart, the first episode of the series takes viewers on a quick tour of the Solar System and Universe, showing our cosmic “address” as it were, going back to the Big Bang, but also touching on multiverses and a potentially infinite Universe.

As de Grasse Tyson said at the beginning, “from the infinitesimal to the infinite; from the dawn of time to the distant future.”

There were also – seemingly – an infinite number of commercial interruptions. You can watch the episode in its entirety below, without commercials, thankfully. Watching it on television last night was disappointing because of those commercial interruptions – sometimes only a couple of minutes apart — making one wish for the PBS-commercial-free version of the original Cosmos with Sagan.

And I wasn’t the only one feeling those sentiments:

(Yes, I watched the show while keeping an eye on what the Twitterverse had to say about it.)

But airing the series on the Fox Network and its affiliated channels (I watched it on the National Geographic Channel) was a calculated move by the series’ producer Seth MacFarlane to showcase the series and the science to a population that may not otherwise be exposed to science at this “popular” level. And clearly, science and the scientific method gets top billing in this series:

“This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a general set of rules: test ideas by experiment and observation … follow the evidence where it leads and question everything,” said Tyson.

This planetary nebula's simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective: our view from Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Credit: NASA/Hubble Heritage Team

This planetary nebula’s simple, graceful appearance is thought to be due to perspective: our view from Earth looking straight into what is actually a barrel-shaped cloud of gas shrugged off by a dying central star. Hot blue gas near the energizing central star gives way to progressively cooler green and yellow gas at greater distances with the coolest red gas along the outer boundary. Credit: NASA/Hubble Heritage Team

With a combination of real images from telescopes and spacecraft, computer generated imagery and surprisingly watchable animations, most intriguing for me was the “cosmic calendar.” Those who have seen Sagan’s original series will remember his version of the cosmic calendar as a way to conceptualize the age of the Universe, compressing 13.9 billion years down to one year. Tyson’s flashier calendar also showed how January 1 would mark the Big Bang and December 31 would be the present – making each day represent about 40 million years. At this rate, humanity’s entire recorded history only occupies just the last 14 seconds of the year.

But as Tyson noted, science has provided unmatched discoveries during that short span of time: “The scientific method is so powerful that in a mere four centuries, it has taken us from Galileo’s’ first look through the telescope to knowing our place in the Universe.”

Giordano Bruno in Cosmos. Image courtesy of Fox.

Giordano Bruno in Cosmos. Image courtesy of Fox.

When I heard there were going to be animated sequences of historical events (the original series used actor portrayals) I was disappointed, but the animations in this series premiere surprised me by being quite engaging.

They told the story of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian monk turned astronomer. He had theorized that other planets existed with other lifeforms like ours. In his 1584 book “On the Infinite Universe and Worlds,” Bruno wrote : “… there is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this one on which we live and grow. This space we declare to be infinite… In it are an infinity of worlds of the same kind as our own.”

This was controversial for his time, but even in a church-dominated society, it wasn’t grounds for being declared a heretic. But later Bruno followed his argument to its logical conclusion: if there are an infinity of worlds, and if some worlds have sentient beings created by God, then wouldn’t these planets also need to be saved by God? The notion other Jesuses was not viewed well, and the church convicted him of heresy, and burned him at the stake.

Phil Plait talked more about this today in his review of “Cosmos” and I agree with him that this wasn’t really about showing religion in a bad light, but about making “a bigger point about suppression of thought and the grandeur of freedom of exploration of ideas.”

Other fun moments were when a CGI (but quite realistic) dinosaur fish named a Tiktaalik crawled out of the sea right next to Tyson, depicting the evolution of life on Earth. Most endearing was perhaps Tyson’s claim that “we are ALL descended from astronomers;” how our ancestors depended on the stars to know the change of seasons.

While this series premier was a quick overview, one surprise is that it showed just one theory – and the oldest and perhaps outdated — of how our Moon was formed, by a conglomeration of the same debris that make up Earth. These days it seems the theory of a Mars-sized planetary collision is the most accepted theory.

The show began and ended with the voice and words of Carl Sagan, and Tyson shared his story about his own personal interactions with Sagan. This was a very authentic part of the show, and allowed the torch to be passed from Sagan to Tyson.

And then there was Tyson using Sagan’s famous “we are made star stuff” quote:

“They get so hot that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen with breathe, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood,” Tyson said. “You, me, everyone: We are made of star stuff.”

This series premiere was a rousing tribute to science and I am definitely looking forward to more. Here’s hoping this series does what MacFarlane had in mind: get the general public to start talking about science again.

If you are feeling the need for more “Cosmos” you can watch the original series at Hulu Plus, and at the Carl Sagan website, learn more about the legend.

There is “The Seth MacFarlane collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan archive, 1860-2004” at the Library of Congress. MacFarlene supported this new Carl Sagan archive.

See more at the Cosmos Online website (there’s even an app for it.)

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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