Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cosmos (2014), Episode 1

NASA Image Library
I wanted to write a quick note after seeing the first episode of the new FOX TV documentary TV series Cosmos, which just aired.  It is not so much a review but rather some comments coupled with a strong suggestion to anyone interested in science, especially kids, to watch the show.  

I appreciate and greatly respect what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for scientific education, policy, and public opinion, and I was excited to hear that he was hosting a re-make of Carl Sagan's classic TV series Cosmos. What seems, at first glance, to be puzzling is that the whole project was spurred on by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame. That may seem surprising to some, but despite Family Guy's rampant fart jokes and sometimes-in-bad-taste insults, there is a lot of intelligent humor in there, so it doesn't really surprise me that MacFarlane wanted to produce a science documentary. 

I have to be upfront and admit that I'm not always the biggest fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. From what I've heard/read/seen of him, we differ in opinion a bit in terms of the relative priorities that should be placed on space research and exploration. He's an astrophysicist, and thus obviously he clearly feels that the best way we can stimulate major advances in science and technology is through space research and space exploration, including manned space flight. I'm a biologist, and I think the most important scientific advances of the 21st century will be and should be in health and health technology, and my opinion is that we should focus much of our monetary and manpower resources on more local concerns.

NASA Image Library
However, as I said, it is a difference of opinion. There's no "bad" field of scientific research as long as the research is done well. In a perfect world, we would be able to fund as much research as we had manpower to do it. That would be a prerequisite for our society to live up to its full potential. But, we can't and don't fund research the way we should, and that's just one reason why we need to attract the most talented and brightest people in our society to be scientists. We need curious and driven people who will work long hours for little pay, who can come up with clever ways to improvise experiments with less money than they need, and who can clearly explain to people why the research they are doing is important. The high visibility that Cosmos has gotten so far in the media is great. Hopefully kids will watch it and be inspired by the wonders of the universe and further their interest in science.

NASA Image Library
I have to say that, so far, Tyson and MacFarlane's remake of Cosmos has not disappointed me. I was worried that it might get too preachy or too pendantic, but it was well-written and well-hosted. The special effects were also pretty entertaining. I personally always enjoy watching physics and space documentaries, in part because there's something amazingly humbling yet also comforting about how small you feel when thinking about the universe. I really liked the clever bit they did with the "cosmic calendar" to illustrate the relative short length of time that life on earth has existed and the even shorter length of time that humans have existed. I think that would be a great exercise for high school science teachers to use.  I think there's a feature of that on the Cosmos app.

I'm eagerly awaiting the second episode and would recommend everyone catch up on the first episode online or on demand. With so many anti-scientific opinions, pseudoscience, and misinformation floating around in the media, the time is ripe for a Cosmos reboot. Despite what some people will tell you, the world is not 4,000 years old. Those people are not scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a scientist, so watch Cosmos and he'll set you straight.

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