(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 6, “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still”
After the last two strong episodes, there was bound to be a clunker sooner or later, and I’m sorry to say this was it. Although it elaborated on a theme of the microscopic, atomic and sub-atomic worlds, it lacked a central narrative thread to tie together all the different stories it presented.
It started out promisingly enough, with Tyson taking his miniaturized spaceship of the imagination into a dewdrop to show us the miniature ecosystems at the smallest end of the scale. This was fine; there was a Blakeian quality to it, and the swarming abundance of life at the microscopic level has always been a good way to bring in the cool factor.
But then he got even smaller, venturing into a chloroplast in a moss cell to explain photosynthesis, and here’s where I have to lodge my biggest objection to the new Cosmos so far. Rather than the molecular visuals we’ve seen in previous episodes, this episode inexplicably depicted photosynthesis as an assembly line in a tiny mechanical factory, where whirling chrome parts assemble and disassemble molecules and pump out energy.
When done well, CGI visuals can enhance understanding, making it easier to picture things outside our everyday experience. This was a case where the visuals actively interfere with understanding. What’s even more inexplicable, for a series that’s taken so many well-deserved jabs at creationism, is how this scene unnecessarily reinforces intelligent-design arguments by wrongly depicting the interior of the cell as clean, precise and mechanical, like a machine built by humans. If you want to visualize what really goes on inside a cell, you’d be much better off viewing the new video by XVIVO showing how messy, jittery and chaotic molecular processes are.
There was a brief animated scene of Thales and Democritus, two ancient Greek philosophers of the atomist school. I think Cosmos has generally found a good balance between science and historical segments, but this is one episode where more history would have been well worth it. The show could have dwelled on how uncannily the ancient Greek atomists anticipated modern scientific discoveries, right down to Epicurus’ notion of “random swerves” which echoes the most startling aspects of quantum mechanics.
We heard about how physical objects don’t truly touch – the electron clouds of atoms repel each other – although this seems to me like a pointless quibble over the definition of “touch”. It did provide a good bridge to the concept that the hearts of stars are places where atoms do touch, in the fusion of hydrogen into helium and other heavy elements. However, the connection to neutrino astronomy was more tenuous, and I don’t think someone new to the concept would have understood what neutrinos were from the show’s brief explanation.
I’m not saying I didn’t like any of this. I enjoyed the scene which compared the relative sizes of an atom and its nucleus to a mote of dust in a cathedral, or Tyson floating on a rubber raft inside the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detector. Still, these occasional flashes of brilliance were all the more frustrating in an episode with so many missteps and so much unfulfilled potential.
This could have been better, if it had been organized more tightly around that central concept of worlds nested within worlds. By all means, start out with the descent into the dew, and show the riotous diversity of microscopic life that fills even a drop of water. It could have shown that even here there are hierarches of scale, contrasting larger eukaryotic organisms like paramecia with the much smaller prokaryotic bacteria. By shrinking down even further, we could see that there are still smaller lifeforms, like the viruses that prey on larger cells with the sinister precision of molecular clockwork. As the show’s viewpoint travels deeper still, we’d see the proteins and nucleic acids that make up life at the very bottom, and below even those, the atoms that the ancient Greeks once imagined. Then we could have gone even deeper than what the Greeks proposed, showing that atoms aren’t indivisible, that they’re made of smaller particles like protons and neutrons. Then it could have wrapped up with the segment on neutrinos, showing how the very smallest particles link back to, and carry crucial clues about, the structure of the cosmos on the very largest scales of time and space.
Image credit: COSMOS photo gallery
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