TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 3

TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 3 March 24, 2014

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.

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