TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 4

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 4, “A Sky Full of Ghosts”

Any science show faced with time constraints has to strike a balance between breadth and depth. The process of science is always laborious and not always interesting; but if you don’t show it at all, it leaves the impression that the results just dropped out of the sky like a religious revelation. The second episode of Cosmos felt overstuffed with detail; the third was just right. This one, in true Goldilocks fashion, felt a little sparse.

It started out promisingly, with Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining cosmic distance scales and how, when we look out into the universe, we’re looking backwards in time. Starting from the moon, about one light-second away, to the sun (eight light-minutes), the farther planets (a few light-hours) and the nearest stars (a few light-years), all the way out to astronomical objects millions of light-years away. The glimpses of what the Earth looked like when some of that ancient light set out was a nice touch.

Along the way, Tyson takes another well-deserved poke at creationism, pointing out that the assumption of a 6,000-year old universe would “extinguish most of the light” we can see in the cosmos. He illustrated this by showing a widescreen view of the Milky Way, and then dimming out everything except a small sphere that would be the extent of our view. (He didn’t mention that you could, of course, get around this problem by postulating a trickster god who deceptively filled the sky with ghost images of things that never happened.)

This was good as far as it goes, but I would have appreciated an explanation of how we know how far away astronomical objects are. This would have been an ideal place to discuss the cosmic distance ladder: how we can directly measure the distance to nearer stars using parallax, like the way your finger seems to move back and forth in front of your face as you look at it with first one eye and then the other; how from there we can work our way up to the “standard candles”, objects of known intrinsic brightness whose distance can therefore be calculated by measuring their apparent brightness; and how we can leap from there to the measurement of cosmic redshifts.

This episode’s historic figures were William Herschel, who deepened our understanding of gravity by observing the dance of binary stars orbiting each other, his friend John Michell, who remarkably predicted the existence of “dark stars” (what we now call black holes) long before Einstein, and his son John Herschel, one of the inventors of photography. However, a mention that his sister Caroline Herschel was a notable astronomer in her own right wouldn’t have gone amiss here. I recognize that there are historical reasons why famous scientists were mostly white men, but a series like this should try to counteract that bias whenever possible.

I did like the scene in New York City which illustrated what would happen if the strength of gravity were changed, and how at hundreds of thousands of g, the gravity crushes even fire hydrants into puddles. Another potent visual was the binary system Cygnus X-1: in visible light, it looks like a star whipping around an invisible companion, but in X-ray light, the companion shows up as a blazingly bright accretion disc, the radiation created by heated gas swirling in a vortex as it’s sucked out of this universe.

By contrast, the dramatic dive into a black hole added little or nothing scientifically. As Tyson said, everything from that point onward was pure speculation, but quite a bit of screen time was spent flying through psychedelic depictions of other universes, to no real benefit. (People on Twitter were upset that Tyson didn’t mention “spaghettification“, the phenomenon he’s famous for popularizing.) It ended up with a good point – the hypothesis that black holes give rise to baby universes, and that our own universe may have been born from a black hole in another cosmos – but it took longer than it should have to get there.

Other posts in this series:

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

  • intergalacticman2012 .

    What I’m most disappointed in is the lack of actual scientific images. Instead of an image of Saturn, we get what looks like a Flash animation Saturn. Instead of analogies that bring the fruit of science within the reach of laypeople, we’re getting uninspired “take our word for it” revelations, which, ironically, is the argument used by the very brainwashed religious the show appears to be trying to reach. It’s dumbdowned to a condescending level. Basically, instead of science, we’re getting what may as well be sci-fi special FX. Oh and an anus full of Samsung commercials. Thank you.

  • Pofarmer

    I agree that too much time was spent on the black hole animation to get to the point that our Universe could have indeed sprung from a black hole. Overall though, I have to assume that this show is aimed mostly at teens, and my two teen boys really enjoy it. Stuff that I periodically have them try to read they say is too hard, so I think that while the show might be able to go deeper for the more mature, informed viewer, I have a feeling it might be hitting pretty good for it’s intended audience.

  • Ash Bowie

    The black hole segment did go on a bit too long, but I think I see the point of it. They want viewers to be excited about scientific discovery and to grasp that the universe that science describes is not dry or boring but is in fact majestic and astounding. I imagine they are thinking that younger viewers would rush to Wikipedia to learn more (I bet the page count on black holes goes way up tonight). The writers are clearly trying to balance factual education with firing up the imagination…maybe they could have balanced it a bit more on the factual side tonight, but overall the show was fantastic.

  • Bdole

    He didn’t mention that you could, of course, get around this problem by postulating a trickster god who deceptively filled the sky with ghost images of things that never happened.)

    I was watching with a non-committal creationist who suggested just this. I responded with “Oh, you mean last tuesdayism?”

    I was not crazy about the black hole trip, either.

  • Marco

    I didn’t like episode 4 at all. Too difficult for your average viewer, too long, too many videogame like effects, too much religious non sense. Too much of this i met carl sagan in the past stuff. I enjoyed epis 2 and 3, but i found 1 and 4 are really poor. The host should also get out of the viewers vay, he is glorifying himself way too much. And there are too many history of science stereotypes told.

  • Dave Ross

    I have to say, and I am not alone, the reboot has been consistently
    disappointing in the history department. At the risk of revealing, or discovering, my own latent racism, did my
    lying eyes actually see in Ep. 4 a suggestion that John Michell was
    Negro? The actor’s face was not shown, ala the perplexing treatment given to
    Hooke, but I certainly got the impression of an elderly black gentleman.
    As with Hooke there are apparently no portraits of Michell so both were deliberately left obscure. But apparently we have enough, in that contemporary comment on Michell’s “black complexion”, to interpolate his race?! I
    had been reading C. S. Lewis’s “The Discarded Image”, a book ostensibly on medieval cosmology, and remembered a late
    section in the book on the “humours”. A black complexion in that era means a melancholy
    personality (a black mood, eg.) and has nothing to do with skin color! Good heavens,has it come
    to this!

  • Adam Lee

    At the risk of revealing, or discovering, my own latent racism…

    Advice to all commenters: When your sentence starts this way, it’s probably a good idea to not finish typing it. This has been today’s edition of “Free Advice for Racist Idiots”.

  • Azkyroth

    I don’t see why this would have been such a terrible surprise. There have been recently-African-descended humans living and working in Europe, as ethnic minorities, since at least Roman times, so one of them being a famous European scientist would perhaps have been remarkable, but hardly inconceivable. I’m sure there are more who racist Western society doesn’t advertise and who I haven’t yet made an active effort to educate myself about, and more still whose achievements were ignored or credited to their distantly-African-descended colleagues.

  • David J. Ross

    Azkyroth, thank you for the perspective you brought in reply
    to my post. Even if I have something questioning the suggestion made visually explicit in the show, all your observations would still stand. As I indicated, it does sort of alarm me that I would notice this and wonder about it at all, and I allow that it may say something troubling about myself as much as the producers of the show. I think it’s another case of being divided by a common language, an aspect of forgotten or ‘discarded’ usage. Complexion once meant the mixture or complex of humours that produced a certain temperament. If I am wrong I will be glad for having learned something, and that will be all the more splendid for the fact that the same Rev. John Michell is listed as rector of Thornhill in Yorkshire at the time of some of his important work. One could be of black complexion, a scientist of considerable faculty, and be ordained and appointed in the Church of England in the 18th century! I have not read much at all about Michell but in scanning about (See, the ploy worked!) I have not seen a whisper to disabuse me of the suspicion that his image has been manipulated to serve the ideological purposes of the show. As you might say, “And this surprises?” I am even in total sympathy with at least part of that ideology- that the increase of understanding about our world should be celebrated and contributions can be made by anyone with an open and disciplined mind. To me it’s just disappointing because I can’t see where historical manipulation is needed or useful. The most recent revelation for me, along the lines of what you suggest about untrumpeted pioneers would be the story of Benjamin Banneker, astronomer, inventor and abolitionist. Again, thanks…

  • CharlesInSoCal

    “This would have been an ideal place to discuss the cosmic distance ladder: ”
    I was not familiar with the “cosmic distance ladder”. Very interesting – thanks for mentioning it.

  • yunged .

    Mate…what are you doing?
    You have just watched a program filled with the wonders of science, yet you have decided to write a paragraph about how they MIGHT have portrayed a man as being black when in fact he MIGHT not actually have been. my way of dealing with both of those mights is to say who could possibly give a shit??
    It’s true that pythagoras might not even have been a man, all his ideas might have been created by a group of men within a group bearing that name but i take no less joy when discussing those idea!, i also assume you would feel less angered by the show representing a man who might not have been a man at all than a misrepresentation of a white man (this fact alone should suggest to you your racism isn’t quite as latent as you had hoped)

    I don’t give out advice a lot but for god sake man get some perspective on what’s important