I will be watching the “Cosmos” TV series and providing recaps and responses as we go. I’ll evaluate the ideas presented for accuracy and give critical responses where I see necessary. Future “Recaps” will likely be shorter, with more length dedicated to the response.*
Episode I: Recap
The episode started off with the above quote from Sagan. Then, we took a trip in a spaceship with the “imagination” to see what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, followed by a picture of what it might look like in the future (apparently like the Borg invasion in “Star Trek: First Contact,” so watch out!).
Then, we got a pretty sweet CG-heavy tour of the solar system via fake spaceship that looks like Eve from Wall-E. I mean it, it was awesome! I was reminded of the majesty of a Ben Bova novel (if you haven’t read him, I would recommend it, but be aware of some rather simplistic discussion of religion). Finally, we zoomed in on Voyager I which had sound travelling from it in vacuum. I’m pretty sure that can’t happen, but I could easily be mistaken about that, so I’d be happy to be corrected.
An unimanginably awesome picture of the Milky Way through infrared really put us in perspective: there are seemingly infinite stars to be seen merely in our galaxy, which is one of an untold panoply of galaxies. As we zoomed out through the gigantic extremes of the universe (the Supercluster), we find that that supercluster is but one among untold billions of galaxies and the observable universe.
But what is meant by “observable universe”? The universe is actually so huge that we can’t actually observe the entire thing because there is more beyond what we can see. But “many… suspect” that our universe is but one in an extremely huge number of actual individual universes (here shown as little bubbles spreading out continually over the screen).
Let’s also not forget the church is a big destroyer and persecutor of science. Galileo proves that science and religion are forever enemies, right? Galileo’s story is preceded by Giordano Bruno, who is portrayed as a kind of anime graphic novel hero maverick because he went along with Copernicus. I’ll just narrate along. He “dared to read the books banned by the church… and that was his undoing.” No really, that’s what they said about him. Interestingly, they also say that Bruno reasoned that because God was infinite, creation couldn’t be anything less. But the evil church threw him out into the cold and he had to sleep on the ground and freeze at night! Then, he had a vision of science dreamland wherein he broke the universe with his finger and lifted the veil of knowledge that the idiots surrounding him had put in place. He floated around the universe and was the first person to figure out that there was vacuum and also the first person to fly in space and land on the moon and sun. (Again, I’m not making this up: this is what he does in the animated sequence in the dream.)
If Bruno was right, according to “Cosmos,” then not only is church authority overthrown, but the Bible can be brought into question *cue religious people gasping in shock.* Bruno was condemned by the church and burned at the stake but magically had powers to float throughout the universe so that’s pretty cool: throw off the chains of church oppression and what you’ll get is genius and the ability to fly in space.
The episode then walked through the history of the universe by paralleling a single year. The Big Bang: we are all made of “star stuff” which was produced through various processes during and after the Big Bang. Earth formed through a number of collisions with various asteroids and the like. The origin of life “evolved” through biochemical evolution. These “pioneering microbes” invented sex, so that’s pretty cool. December 30th (in the cosmic year) brought about the desolation of the dinosaurs with an asteroid. Humans only evolved “the last hour of the last day of the cosmic year.”
I love space. I love astronomy–my wife can attest to this as I randomly bought an astronomy textbook to read when I was in college. Yeah… I’m a nerd. I don’t claim to have science training or be a scientist, but there is something I can spot: unfounded metaphysical statements. That’s something I honestly expect to see quite a bit of when it comes to this TV series. It actually began with one from Carl Sagan: “The cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be.” Is that a scientific fact about the cosmos? Could you demonstrate that one for me? No. In short, the show begins with an ungrounded metaphysical statement.
Another issue I have is the personification and reification of science. “Science” does x; “Science” gives us y. I’m not at all convinced that “science” is a clearly dilineated entity such that we may speak of it as though it were a reified, ontologically extant entity. What does it mean to say that “science” does something? Don’t we mean that scientists are really the ones who do this? And are not scientists just as much people as anyone else?
The episode’s portrayal of history was very unbalanced. They depicted Giordano Bruno as a kind of hero against the church full of blundering idiots. When he was finally excommunicated, the quotes they put into the church’s mouth were interesting because they portrayed some of the actual issues happening, such as a strict adherence to Aristotelian science. At the time academia really was fully behind Aristotle, and it helped that the church had bought into his cosmology as well. However, for every minimal effort they made at showing some of the historical background, there was some significant effort made to show that the stupid church and its evil Inquisition had a “sole purpose to… torment anyone” who disagreed with the views of the Church. Bruno thought God was infinite so the universe could be infinite as well. Interesting thoughts, but these are juxtaposed against a depiction of everyone else as a bunch of religious idiots who couldn’t transcend space like Bruno could.
Moreover, what banned books that Bruno read are they referencing? Copernicus’ works weren’t put on the list of banned books until 1616 (thanks to Tim McGrew for this information). Just for reference, Bruno died in 1600. I’m curious as to what this depiction was supposed to suggest. I think they mentioned someone else earlier but the ties to Copernicus were evident throughout this section, and given that it was really the rejection of Aristotelianism which was condemning, there was some historical accuracy to be desired here.
Tim McGrew also points out a number of other historical errors, such as the notion that Bruno was burned at the stake for his astronomical views; the notion that everyone at the time thought the Earth was the center of the universe; the notion that being the “center” of the universe meant Earth had a privileged place; and several more major difficulties. I highly recommend surveying them.
The depiction of the multiverse with little-to-no qualification was alarming, for there is much debate over whether there even is such a multiverse, and if there is, to what extent it may be called a multiverse. The portrayal within this episode was essentially a fictitious account being passed off without qualification as something a lot of people believe. The wording used was that “many… suspect” there is such a universe. Well yes, that may be true, but to what extent can we test for these other universes? What models predict them and why? I am uninterested in how many people hold to a belief; I am interested in whether that belief is true.
The survey of the history of the universe was interesting, but there were some major glosses. As an apologist, let me admit my bias here: I would have loved to see some discussion of the fine-tuning involved for life. But that aside, I have to say that the brief snippet used to explore the origin of life: “biochemical evolution” was astonishingly insufficient. I’m sure we’ll get into that in the next episode, but the origin of life is one of the great unsolved mysteries within science and to just hand wave and say “biochemical evolution” is, well, notable to say the least.
Overall, I have to say I was unimpressed by this episode. The historical difficulties were great, but the metaphysical claims throughout passed off as scientific fact were more disturbing.
Cosmos, Giordano Bruno, and Getting it Right– A brief but incisive critique of a number of major historical errors made throughout the first episode.
Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson: Same Old Product, Bright New Packaging- In this post, Casey Luskin takes on the notion that science and religion are at war alongside some other errors in the episode.
Is there any science in the new “Cosmos” series, or is it all naturalistic religion?– Wintery Knight takes on the episode for making a bunch of claims without evidence.
*I may miss an episode or two if I have to work.
The image with the text “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is from Fox and belongs to them. It came from promotional material and I use it under fair use and make no claims to ownership.
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