TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 11

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 11, “The Immortals”

As the new Cosmos approaches its final episode, it’s about time that the series started looking back on the ground it’s covered and drawing some larger lessons. This episode accomplished that, and while it treads into more speculative territory than earlier outings, I think that’s appropriate.

But first, there was a scene about someone I’d never heard of: Enheduanna, a Sumerian high priestess who holds the honor of being the most ancient author whose name we know. (The most ancient person whose name we know is probably the Egyptian ruler Iry-Hor, but Enheduanna is the oldest who speaks to us in her own words.) It even quoted a line from one of her poems, giving those ancient cuneiform texts new life in a medium their creator could never have imagined.

The invention of writing allowed human beings to transcend death, to transmit messages across the generations to those not yet born. This point led into the oldest story known to humanity, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which includes the figure of Utnapishtim, a legendary mariner who was ordered by the gods to build a wooden ark which carried two of every animal so that life would survive a global flood. Utnapishtim is unquestionably the source of the much later story of Noah, which Tyson emphasized, much to my glee and creationists’ likely chagrin.

There’s a connection here that I was very pleased to see made: Life transmits itself the same way as writing. The genetic code of DNA is an immortal message, which propagates through time along a chain of transient physical vessels, just as our stories are copied and reprinted by scribes and publishers. The story of life is a continuous thread spooling back to its origin, though that origin is still a mystery to us.

And it’s reasonable to wonder whether that thread is part of a larger tapestry: whether life might exist on other planets, or even whether it could spread from one planet to another by panspermia. With a sample size of one, there’s no real way to answer this question yet, although the episode did spend a fair amount of time on the possibility. It also presented an intriguing if speculative idea: that life could have survived the giant impacts that repeatedly sterilized and melted Earth early in its history by microbes hitching a ride into space on impact ejecta, falling back and germinating once the planet had cooled again.

And if life exists elsewhere, could we ever communicate with it? We’ve been listening for extraterrestrial transmissions with no success, but I was delighted to see this episode venture a speculation that I’ve made before: maybe the reason we haven’t detected alien signals is that there’s something better than radio waves which all advanced civilizations use to communicate, and which we don’t even know to look for yet.

The other, more pessimistic possibility is that we haven’t heard from aliens because, on the timescale of the universe, technologically advanced civilizations don’t last long. And it has to be said that human history offers little evidence to contradict this.

Some cultures collapse because of catastrophes that are impossible to predict, like the Toba event in Indonesia about 75,000 years ago: a supervolcano eruption which was so enormous it plunged the entire planet into a volcanic winter, and which may be the cause of a bottleneck in human population found in genetic studies. Others are destroyed in war, as was the case when European colonizers decimated the native people of the Americas; although, as Tyson notes, their genocidal victory was due less to their superior weapons and more to the diseases they carried, to which indigenous Americans had no resistance.

But many cultures contain the seeds of their own downfall. Mesopotamian civilizations like Enheduanna’s constructed ingenious irrigation systems, but climactic shifts and the slow accumulation of salt in the soil eventually doomed them. This story of a culture poisoning itself with its own waste products, of course, is an irresistible analogy to the widespread climate change we’re now causing.

The Mesopotamians didn’t realize what they were doing, but as Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out two episodes ago and reiterated this time, we don’t have that excuse. If we had the collective will, we could avert almost any peril that might threaten us. The greatest danger we face isn’t from natural events, but from malignant ideologies that turn us against ourselves or cause us to avert our eyes from disaster barreling down. (My wife pointed out that they showed a snippet of Adolf Hitler at the same time Tyson was talking about climate-change denial, which may have been deliberate.)

Appealing to fear is one way of motivating people, by pointing out a danger and urging them to take some action to avert it. When the danger is real, this is legitimate and valid. But there’s another way to motivate people, and that’s by appealing to hope: painting a picture of what we could achieve if we overcome the challenges we face, inspiring people so that they want to make that vision reality.

To that end, the end of this episode introduced a second Cosmic Calendar, showing the next fourteen billion years and what may lie ahead. This was some of the most unbridled speculation of the series, but it was glorious: the reversal of global warming, the settlement of Mars, and humanity’s departure from the solar system as we set out to colonize other worlds. (It even showed the space arks!)

The best compliment I can give this episode is that it captured that spirit of wonder that Carl Sagan was best known for. It was a forceful reminder that in spite of the greed, ignorance and bigotry that keep us earthbound, we’re capable of wondrous things. That is and should be the most potent argument that we can make. Ever since Sumerian writers inscribed their vision on clay tablets, humanity has dreamed of reaching the stars; but it’s only by following the light of reason that we’ll ever reach them.

Other posts in this series:

Anti-Vaccination Fever Rages On
I Get Religious Mail: If Wishes Were Airplanes
Atlas Shrugged: Good Men Are Hard to Find
Weekend Coffee: February 22
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.

  • pRinzler

    This episode was great in a different way than some of the other episodes were great.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    I liked the part where Tyson is standing on Mars, holds out the rock, and the Viking lander grabs it with its robotic arm. And of course the bit with Carl and the Viking spacecraft.

  • Alex SL

    Sadly there is a this moment no reason to believe that it is technically possible to terraform Mars, to survive interstellar space travel, or even to maintain a complex industrial civilisation capable of space flight without having cheap fossil fuels available. Indeed the Fermi Paradox seems like a good piece of evidence for the impossibility of these ideas.

    The obvious reply is always that we don’t know what future technologies will make possible, but the thing is, scientific progress is only to a small part the invention of fantastic new things; for the most part, it is the narrowing down of possible solutions as most of them are understood to be impossible to achieve. We cannot fly by flapping wings because no human is strong enough for that, and we cannot send people to the moon by shooting people out of Vernes’ cannon because they wouldn’t survive it. Similarly, it may just turn out to be impossible to survive the trip to another star or to generate meaningful amounts of fusion power outside of one.

    What we do know is this: We can live on this planet. We should make it our priority to keep it that way. Everything else is at this stage just as much of an escapist fantasty as the Christian’s rapture.

  • Elizabeth

    (My wife pointed out that they showed a snippet of Adolf Hitler at the
    same time Tyson was talking about climate-change denial, which may have
    been deliberate.)

    Also Stalin.

    As much as I hate Godwinning, I have to admit that Ann Druyan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane and Brandon Braga said in this episode, “James Inhofe is literally Hitler. And Pat Sajak is Stalin.”


    I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, climate change deniers are terrible people, but I really don’t like Nazi comparisons of any kind.

  • BoGardiner

    Good review, thanks. I was startled with the way Tyson introduced the panspermia segment. He went well beyond the speculation I’m used to hearing to say it was “a good bet.” I’ve no idea to what extent that reflects a consensus view. From the transcript:

    “It’s a good bet that our microbial ancestors spent some time in space.

    Why do we think so? The Earth is four-and-a-half- billion-years old. For the first half of its lifetime, large asteroids were bombarding the planet every few million years. The most violent impacts vaporized the oceans and even melted the surface rock. Each such collision would have completely sterilized the planet for thousands of years. But we know from fossils in the rocks that bacteria were evolving on Earth during this formative period.

    So how could life have survived such a lethal series of blows? Whenever one of those big asteroids hit the Earth, the explosion would blast out a crater, launching millions of boulders into space. Many of those rocks carried living bacteria inside. Some of the bugs would have survived in space, while all those left behind on Earth would have been fried.

    A few thousand years after each impact, the Earth would have cooled down enough for water to condense into oceans. The planet would again be habitable. Meanwhile, most of the rocks launched into space would have been orbiting the Sun. Some of them would encounter the Earth again, reenter the atmosphere as meteorites, and deliver their precious cargo of life to re-seed the planet like Noah’s ark.

    When the solar system was young, Venus was probably more like Earth, with oceans and maybe even life. Venus, Earth, and Mars were all exchanging rocks with each other, due to asteroid impacts.

    Does life on Earth carry any traces of interplanetary voyages made in the distant past? Why is it that some microbes can survive the intense radiation and vacuum of space? These conditions don’t naturally exist on Earth.”

    He went on to say that seeding among planets could even be interstellar, because of interstellar planets in formation that could be struck with microbe-carrying comets and asteroids.

  • PaulMBoston

    Well said.

  • rl

    I don’t think it was about comparing specific people or ideologies to Nazis or fascism, rather showing how easy it is for people to be lead to do terrible things by terrible people.

  • Agni Ashwin

    Enheduanna was Akkadian, not Sumerian, though she did live in the region of Sumeria conquered by her father and she did write in the cuneiform script developed by the Sumerians.

  • Tova Rischi

    I had a really bad taste left in my mouth after this one. Again, it felt weak during a biological segment, to the point that I felt like it was just outright pushing woo. I can’t say I’ve ever met a biologist who thought panspermia was so much as plausible, let alone likely. A lot of nonsense has hinged itself on this theory to boot… I was taken aback at the implications that extremophiles, which are strongly adapted to their environment, were somehow adapted to outerspace specifically, or that surviving for a year is the same as surviving the probability game of thousands and thousands of years of natural interplanetary travel… And it was almost heartbreaking the way they flashed nanobes like they were fossilized bacteria…

    Maybe it’s just what years of PZ have done and I’ve got an unfairly pessimistic idea of the durability of life and how far fetched the idea may have been. But, at least during that segment I was able to tune NDGT out and listen to Ravel…