TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 5

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 5, “Hiding in the Light”

With computer graphics getting cheaper and better every year, every new TV show and movie has to grapple with the question of how much is too much. That’s no less true for a hard-science series like Cosmos than it is for a sci-fi drama. There’s always the temptation to put more flashy visuals on screen just because you can, and the technology we have now makes it possible to show razzle-dazzle that would have been inconceivable in Carl Sagan’s original series.

But while the wow factor can be crucial to attracting an audience, the question of whether it advances the science is more complex. When done well, it makes it easier for viewers to visualize a difficult concept. But it’s not always necessary, and I think this episode proved that. It had noticeably less in the way of special effects than previous episodes – no showy black-hole spelunking, no Halls of Extinction – and told most of its major stories through animation. Yet it wasn’t any weaker for it. In fact, this was an outstanding episode, tightly written and well-focused.

First up, it was about time that Cosmos acknowledged some non-Westerners, and this episode delivers. On a theme of ancient experiments with light, we’re introduced to the Chinese philosopher Mozi, who taught an advanced utilitarian ethics and was apparently the first person to write down the principles of the camera obscura (but whose teachings were brutally suppressed by the emperor Qin Shi Huang, from whom the word “China” derives). We also meet the Arab philosopher Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen, who pondered the nature of light and vision during Islam’s golden age – which, as Neil deGrasse Tyson rightfully points out, was when Muslims kept the light of science and philosophy alive while Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages.

Even if inadvertent, this was a potent rejoinder to those who assert that science was or could only have been a Christian invention. It showed that the scientific revolution in Europe was built on a foundation of ideas that came from outside the continent, and more importantly, that the seeds of scientific thought – fearless questioning of received wisdom, intellectual openness, curiosity about nature – have existed in many cultures. They’re in no way a uniquely European invention.

Next, we revisit some of the famous names we’ve already met in previous episodes: how Isaac Newton discovered the spectrum of colors by passing light through a prism; or how William Herschel asked what seemed like a common-sense question – do the different colors of light have different temperatures? – and serendipitously discovered infrared radiation while trying to find out. (As I said on Twitter, the difference between us and great scientists may just be that they think to ask questions like this.)

But both Newton and Herschel missed a far more important discovery: neither thought of combining a prism with a telescope. The person who did that was named Joseph Fraunhofer, a German glassmaker with a rags-to-riches life story straight out of a storybook: he began as an orphan apprenticed to a cruel master, was rescued from disaster by a Bavarian prince who became his patron, and ended up launching a technological and scientific revolution and being ennobled by his grateful homeland. (He did die young from toxic fume inhalation, so not quite the classic happily-ever-after.)

Fraunhofer’s great discovery was the observation of absorption lines in the spectrum of the Sun. By building on his discovery, we learned that each element absorbs a different set of wavelengths, producing a characteristic “fingerprint” of dark bands in the spectrum. This work launched the modern field of astrophysics; it was the key to proving that everything in the cosmos, from the Sun to the planets to distant galaxies, is all made of the same basic elements that we find on Earth. (One of my favorite astrophysics facts is that absorption spectra were used to discover helium in the Sun before it was known on Earth). It even provided crucial support for the theory of the Big Bang: the absorption lines in light from distant galaxies are all shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, showing that these galaxies are racing away from us as space expands and carries them along.

The episode wrapped up with a lovely sequence that showed a city skyline and the night sky beyond in different wavelengths of light – infrared, radio, X-rays, gamma rays – to demonstrate how each kind of light reveals something different about our universe. The background music, which jumped around in pitch as we switched views from one wavelength to the next, was a clever, subtle touch. The pacing did feel a little rushed right at the end, although there wasn’t anything that could obviously have been trimmed. This, again, is a case where I think we should blame the relentless push of commercial demands, not the writers of the show doing their best with the time they have.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: March 28
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
About Adam Lee

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.

  • Mimmoth

    Personally I suspect science matured in Europe more due to factors laid out in Guns Germs And Steel–and Christianity just happened to be the religion in the area. Now some people are trying to give it the credit for science in the same way they give it the credit for anything else good–kindness, fairness, democracy, you name it.

  • Ash Bowie

    In terms of narrative and visual craft, I think this episode was the best yet. I actually learned quite a bit, which was a pleasure. I was especially impressed with the subtle way that science was framed as a process requiring freedom of thought and that often bucked tradition. Making out trailblazing pre/scientists as rebels and freethinkers who made their advances in spite of oppressive (often religious) regimes is an ingenious story telling tool. Again, Cosmos illustrated both the mental discipline and the passionate curiosity that drove these people to discover. Exceptional!

  • Steve Bowen

    For anyone interested in Arabic science I highly recommend Jim Al Khalili’s book Pathfinders, The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Jim is Iraqi born and a professor of theoretical physics as well as being an atheist and president of the British Humanist Association so he has a well informed perspective on all the scientific, cultural and theological issues involved. Actually I possess a signed copy of this, one of only two signed books I have (the other is by an Adam someone or other).

  • Ubi Dubium

    I loved his talk about sound that he added. When he said that he was a the Abbey of Benediktbeuern, I started hopping up and down in my seat, because I recognized the name as the abbey where text of Carmina Burana was found. And my chorus is in rehearsals for a performance of Carmina next month, so that piece been on my mind quite a bit. So I was very pleased when the organist started in on the first movement.

    I was hoping that while he was talking about sound that he’d have time to go into the Doppler Effect, and red-shifted spectrums, because this seemed the perfect place to put that in, but maybe he’ll do that in a future episode. (Or maybe having to leave time for commercials means that they have to skip over that. I hope not.)

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I think the assumption that the scientific revolution occured in Europe (aside from its other problems) sidesteps the fascinating question of *why* it happened there. If the groundwork was there in all these other places, why Europe? What was the trigger(s)?

    Mimmoth — I have yet to read Guns, Germs, and Steel; maybe I’ll check it out.

  • Adam Lee

    As I’ve mentioned in other comment threads, I enjoyed Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules – For Now, which is a lengthy exploration of this very question. He takes a Jared Diamond-like stance that geography has a great deal to do with it.

  • Adam Lee

    I loved the sheepish look on Tyson’s face when the real organist walked in and just gave him this flat stare. It’s the little things. :)

  • Jim Baerg

    An interesting point from this:

    “A sidebar thought: Central Europe really is central! Are all the conventional explanations for Europe’s centuries of world domination, from Papal claims of divine favor to Hitler’s racism to arguments that political rivalries fueled an arms race, even to Jared Diamond’s ecological explanations, all overcomplicated? European explorers found lands to explore. Tongan explorers, at the heart of the sea hemisphere, found a few islands. Is it that simple in the end? Raw geography?”

  • Ani J. Sharmin

    I think this episode did a good job of showing how the work of different scientists in different societies at different times adds to the body of knowledge. And so when there are attempts at suppression and censorship, that sets humanity back in a big way. There was also that part about the importance of education and providing opportunities, since anyone can become a scientists and make great discoveries, no matter what their background.

    As you wrote, I also really appreciated the inclusion of scientists not from the West and the challenge to the claim that science requires Christianity.

    It was also really sweet how Tyson was emotional about the topic, since it has affected his own field.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    NdGT: “Red light is warmer than blue light” – WTF?

  • Thedude67111

    Guns Germs And Steel
    great show if you haven’t seen it do so