TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 3

(I’ve decided to review the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that’s airing on Fox. If you missed it, you can stream full episodes online.)

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 3, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear”

I wrote that last week’s episode felt overstuffed, trying to cover a vast amount of territory in just 45 minutes of TV. This one did much better in that regard. The writing was tightly focused, telling a central story that wove throughout the episode, and using that story to provide branching-off points. This was a nearly flawless example of how science writing should be done.

The central story, told mostly through animation, was about Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton, three 17th-century figures who stood at the dawn of the scientific revolution. If you only know Halley as the namer of a comet, as I did, there’s a wealth of information about all his other significant contributions: mapping the planet’s prevailing winds and magnetic fields, discovering the proper motion of the “fixed” stars, inventing the field of population mechanics, suggesting the transit-of-Venus method for measuring the size of the solar system, and much more. (Note that Halley’s Comet was known long before Halley lived – his accomplishment was to prove that periodic observations throughout history were all of the same comet, and to accurately predict the date and trajectory of its return, with a precision, as Tyson notes, that puts any religious mystic to shame.)

But Halley’s greatest achievement, as the show argues, was as midwife to Newton’s laws. Newton was a stubborn and reclusive man, part scientific genius and part mystic – the story points out that he also engaged in alchemical experiments and Bible-code-type numerology – and it was Halley who goaded and shepherded him into publishing. In a funny-yet-horrifying anecdote, we learn that one of the greatest scientific accomplishments in the history of the human species was nearly derailed by a poorly-selling book about fish, which so drained the Royal Society’s coffers that they were unable to print Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Again, it was Halley who saved the day.

For all the complaints about how Cosmos bruises the feelings of the religious, this episode was remarkably compassionate toward the superstitious impulse. It points out how ancient people depended on the stars, like a natural calendar, to chart and forecast the changing seasons. It’s understandable that they would have concluded the stars were put there for our benefit. And when the fixed patterns of the stars were so vital to our daily lives, it’s likewise understandable that a comet, a newcomer to the heavens, must have seemed like a dire omen. In one of the episode’s best lines, Tyson said, “We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe.”

Nevertheless, there was a clear atheist argument here, one that’s all the stronger for being understated. Ignorance makes us cower in fear before natural phenomena, or treat them as omens from which we uselessly try to foretell the future. Supernatural, God-did-it explanations “close a door” that forestalls further questioning. It’s science alone that draws back the veil of superstitious fear, proving that comets aren’t portents of doom, but rocky snowballs in a million-year orbit; it’s science that dispelled the mysteries of the solar system, showing that the planets orbit as they do not because it pleased the whims of a cosmic watchmaker to set them up that way, but because matter obeys mathematical laws which we can discover.

The visuals, too, nicely complemented the message: Tyson summoning a hologram of the astronomer Jan Oort, or chasing a comet in its long fall toward the sun, or telling a goosebump-raising story about the far-future collision between the Milky Way and neighboring Andromeda, which will – if there’s anyone left to see it – fill the night sky with spectacular stellar fireworks. The well-chosen location shots were nearly as good: Tyson walking the halls of Cambridge, or standing before the Eiffel Tower to explain Halley’s findings about population growth in Paris.

The one omission I was surprised by is that they never actually put Newton’s law of universal gravitation on screen. (It was also a bit odd that Robert Hooke’s face was kept in shadow the whole time, like a medieval dark lord. Even if no portraits of him have survived, an artist’s conception surely wouldn’t have gone amiss.) But these are minor quibbles at most, in an outstanding proof of what popular science communication can and should be.

Image credit: COSMOS photo gallery

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Gideon

    Another comparison that stood out was the comparison of the human race to an abandoned infant. Nobody is around to simply explain everything.

    It’s such a stark difference from the mentality that leads to an actual book entitled He Is There And He Is Not Silent (“He” referring to the author’s concept of god, of course). One of the emotional persuasions of religion is its comforting reassurance that humanity can depend on something else, and that something else just happens to be all-powerful and all-knowing. It was a ballsy choice to straightforwardly embrace an opposite metaphor. “It’s up to us. That’s the way it is.”

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    My wife was a big fan of the original Cosmos, so we couldn’t wait for this reboot. It’s remarkably well-done, and I hope it finds an audience with kids.

    We’re both nonbelievers, but we’ve been giggling at how thick they lay on the anti-religion. It’s really hammering home the notion that science has brought Homo Sap out of ignorance into the promised land of Wisdom, giving us the control over the mindless universe that we’ve always wanted. Not since Unweaving the Rainbow has there been a defense of materialistic naturalism dazzling enough to make you forget its agenda.

    “We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe.”

    And what fonder wish could FOX, Samsung, and Chrysler have than to make us think our existence has no more significance than as consumers of their high-tech wares?

  • Mimmoth

    It doesn’t look anti-religion to me–just good compassionate common sense. If that’s an agenda, I guess it’s one I share.

  • John

    Nice review. A couple points: Regarding the decision to keep Robert Hooke’s face in shadow, I think this was a nice editorial touch. NGT is a big fan of Newton, and if Newton didn’t want Hooke’s face to be known to history, then NGT and the producers of Cosmos were happy to oblige. Also, Hooke committed scientific fraud (according to the show), which is a major sin among professional scientists.

    Second, I agree that the show seems sympathetic to the superstitious, but only those who had no way to know better. I think the conclusion is obvious: we know a lot more now than we did in the middle ages, so there is no excuse for being superstitious anymore.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Searching for Robert Hooke brings up multiple portraits, so I don’t know why they didn’t show one.

  • GCT

    As if there’s something wrong with being anti-religion?

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    Well, it’s a pop science TV show. For me, the most important by-product of scientific inquiry is the knowledge we have gained about our universe. To hear people around here tell it, the most important thing is that science makes it impossible to believe in God.

  • GCT

    False dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. It’s important to learn what we learn from science, but it’s also important to combat religious ignorance and harm. And, yes, it’s an atheist blog, so there will be some time spent on pointing out why religion is bad and why science helps us to leave religion behind. That’s hardly surprising.

    The fact that a pop science TV show is not completely handling religion with kid gloves is rather surprising given the religious privilege that holds sway in our culture (and over you as becomes more and more clear the more I converse with you).

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    I’m sure you think it’s really giving science the credit it deserves to turn it into a Manga superhero who vanquishes Religion with his sciencey superpowers. I prefer reality to cartoon history.

  • Pattrsn

    You seem quite fond of cartoonish arguments though

  • GCT

    Now you’re just being outlandish, silly, and frankly kinda asshole-ish. I won’t apologize for challenging religion’s unmerited place in our society, nor will I think there’s something wrong with being anti-religion. I don’t worship science, if that’s what you’re getting at. Also, if you don’t think science and religion are at odds, then you’ve got your head stuck in the sand. Both claim to have a method for discerning truth. One of those methods works, the other leads to harm.

    Lastly, what reality do you think you’re using with your cartoonish straw men? What reality do you think you’re observing when you uphold religious privilege – a privilege based on nothing more than lies and cultural pressure?

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    You just love to beat the drum on “upholding religious privilege,” don’t you? It’s a convenient way to make it sound like anyone who doesn’t think the way you do is helping the oppressors.

    Not that you’re above cheap insults, obviously.

  • Pattrsn

    I would have preferred if they’d gone into Newton’s laws of motion a bit, especially in comparison to Aristotelean laws. I think people would be amazed at the things we take or granted that a short time ago would have been completely ignorant of.

  • Pattrsn

    Or he’s just pointing out the absurdity of excusing religious beliefs or practices from scrutiny or criticism even if they do harm because err well you know religion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I don’t think refuting religion is the primary purpose of science, but it’s an unavoidable (and beneficial!) side effect. Science proceeds by debunking incorrect ideas, which can’t help but include religious beliefs when they make false factual claims about the way the world works.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Another comparison that stood out was the comparison of the human race to an abandoned infant. Nobody is around to simply explain everything.

    I didn’t even notice that! But you’re absolutely right; that, too, was a subtle but pointed argument for atheism.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    NGT is a big fan of Newton, and if Newton didn’t want Hooke’s face to be known to history, then NGT and the producers of Cosmos were happy to oblige.

    It didn’t occur to me that this was a deliberate decision by the producers, but you may well be right about that.

  • GCT

    When you perpetuate the idea that religion is not to be questioned, that it’s somehow a good thing for society, that we aren’t allowed to speak out against it then you are helping the oppressors. And, I find it mildly amusing for you to complain about cheap insults, considering you’ve been insulting towards everyone here as well as me personally. But, false cries of persecution are par for the course when it comes to religious privilege.

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    Like I said before, both my wife and I are nonbelievers. We don’t have any problem with debunking incorrect ideas. But we notice that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on those. Don’t a lot of self-proclaimed “skeptics” declare that vaccination causes autism, 9/11 was an inside job, human-assisted climate change is a hippie hoax, Obama was born in Africa, and that the moon landing was staged?

  • Pattrsn

    You’re saying that religion isn’t the only source of crap dangerous beliefs? Shocked I am shocked!
    Well I’ll never say a bad thing about religion ever again.

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    But but but I thought only religion poisons everything!

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    When you perpetuate the idea that religion is not to be questioned, that it’s somehow a good thing for society, that we aren’t allowed to speak out against it then you are helping the oppressors.

    Did I ever say religion is not to be questioned? Did I ever say it’s a good thing for society? Did I ever say you’re not allowed to speak out against it?

    For someone who’s non-religious, you seem to be hearing a lot of voices. And the persecution complex you’ve got sounds mighty religious too.

  • Pattrsn

    I see the source of your self inflicted confusion. The person saying that means that religion has a negative effect on everything, they aren’t saying that only religion has a negative effect on things. It’s like saying that rain makes things wet, it doesn’t mean that rain is the only thing that makes things wet.

  • Pattrsn

    Did I ever say you’re not allowed to speak out against it?

    He might be referring to the fact that you seem to get very upset when people do criticize religion, to the point where you attribute bizarre, conspiracy level motives if someone champions scientific methodology over adherence to religious dogma.

    Not since Unweaving the Rainbow has there been a defense of materialistic naturalism dazzling enough to make you forget its agenda.

    The agenda, apparently, of Cosmos’ promotion of science is to get people to buy cars and stereos.

  • https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SteveFarrell Shem the Penman

    He might be referring to the fact that you seem to get very upset when people do criticize religion, to the point where you attribute bizarre, conspiracy level motives if someone champions scientific methodology over adherence to religious dogma.

    Except I’ve never done this. Hyperbole is tiresome no matter who is dishing it out.

    Over and out.

  • Pattrsn

    Hyperbole is tiresome no matter who is dishing it out.

    You mean like

    Not since Unweaving the Rainbow has there been a defense of materialistic naturalism dazzling enough to make you forget its agenda.

    And

    You just love to beat the drum on “upholding religious privilege,” don’t you?

    And

    But but but I thought only religion poisons everything!

    Actually that last one was a strawman, bit hyperbolic but strawmanning usually is.

  • http://teethofthebuzzsaw.blogspot.com/ Leo Buzalsky

    If it’s “common” sense, then why do so few people have it?

  • johzek

    Of course science has shown that comets are not portents of doom in the superstitious sense of being bad omens, but as with any large celestial body whose orbit takes it near the Earth a collision could spell actual doom.

  • hypatiab7

    It’s bred out of them when they’re children. “Don’t as questions. Just accept what we tell you to believe. No doubts allowed. That’s the road to hell and damnation!” And, this is constantly being done to children. It’s child abuse in the name of religion.

  • GCT

    We don’t have any problem with debunking incorrect ideas. But we notice that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on those.

    You’re contradicting yourself. You claim to not have a problem debunking bad ideas and then come up with an excuse to not do so.

    Additionally, cancer doesn’t have a monopoly on killing people, so does that mean we shouldn’t seek to find cures for it?

  • GCT

    Did I ever say religion is not to be questioned? Did I ever say it’s a good thing for society? Did I ever say you’re not allowed to speak out against it?

    You’ve made it rather clear where you stand on the issue without explicitly saying exactly those phrases. So what? It doesn’t make your support of brutal religious privilege any more palatable.

  • hypatiab7

    You sound more like a Christian troll than a non-believer.

  • hypatiab7

    Ah, so you’re still around trolling under a new nym. You always give yourself away by how you try to turn around what people who disagree with you say. You did this to me a couple years ago and many others since then.

  • hypatiab7

    Who cares about the ads? I’m concerned with the show, and the show is marvelous. It’s teaching and, at the same time,
    ripping creationist arguments to shreds. If the ads sell some cars, maybe the sponsors will support more shows like “Cosmos”.

  • hypatiab7

    That’s his m.o. He twists what others say and comes across like a terrible snob.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Or perhaps it was an argument for directed panspermia?

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Actually, I’ve never been a big fan of common sense, considering how many scientific advances (at the time, at least) were counterintuitive.

  • Pattrsn

    Seems to have left in a huff, does he usually do that too?

  • hypatiab7

    He’ll be back – maybe with the same nym, maybe with a new one.

  • hypatiab7

    The man was a fraud. Who cares what he looked like.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Adam brought up the question, and so I researched.

  • Huckster Sam

    Those are artist impressions and word of mouth portraits. No authenticated contemporary works exist of Robert Hooke.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Ah, I see. Well that’s probably why they didn’t put it in then.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    I really enjoyed this episode as well and learned a lot. Regarding the controversy about the series being anti-religion, I think that Tyson and Cosmos do a good job of both showing that there have been great contributions made to science by religious people but also not shying away from discussing the scientific discoveries and historical events that have contradicted certain points of doctrine. (But perhaps I *would* think that, given that I was already excited for the series?)


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