Cosmos Recap: Let's Get Small
Sorry, nerds, despite the title, this week’s episode of Cosmos, “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still,” is not Neil deGrasse Tyson porn. Or maybe the whole series is. We won’t question what goes on between you and your television. That title summarizes what feels like half of Tyson’s lines this week: It’s all atoms and subatomic particles, so we keep looking at things on an ever-tinier scale.
One of the show’s trademark dandelion seeds floats down right as the episode opens — is “find the dandelion seed” a visual running gag that I’m just now noticing? There was one in Episode 5, too, so I’m guessing they’re like Hitchcock’s self-cameos or the Pizza Planet truck in Pixar movies, a little Easter Egg to look for. I’ve cleared out my DVR, and darned if I’m going to go through all the full episodes online, but I’ll keep an eye out from here on in.
This particular seed lands in a pool of water, and so it’s time for Neil to introduce his “unseen worlds” theme by easing us slowly back to elementary school science, talking about the two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in each molecule of the stuff. We get a nice CGI animation of water molecules in the sun, and the added energy makes the little boogers move faster — “that’s all temperature is” — and the water molecules get excited and fling themselves up into the air, doing the whole “evaporation” thing. And then it’s on to more CGI adventures inside a dewdrop, at a merely microscopic scale, where we see an epic battle between a paramecium and another single-celled critter, and then we meet a herd of tardigrades, extreme-survival micro-animals which are kind of cute in a horrifying little way. (Were we surprised to learn that there’s an outfit that makes tardigrade plushies? We were not.)
And hey, deeper still, into the structure of a plant’s chloroplast, the teensy part of a plant cell that converts sunlight into energy. Biological purists may groan that the action of photosynthesis is represented in CGI as a kind of steampunk assembly line, but we’ve seen worse. Tyson tantalizes bright kids with the promise that if we could just replicate the process of photosynthesis, then “every other source of energy we depend on today … would become obsolete.” You know that line’s going to get mentioned at a lot of breakfast tables and in classrooms Monday.
Next, on to some thoughts about flowers and how Darwin predicted that the comet orchid of Madagascar must be pollinated by a then yet-to-be discovered moth with an insanely long proboscis. And then fifty years later, exactly such a moth was discovered — and Neil Tyson reminds us that good theories make reliable predictions. Incidentally, the creationists at the Discovery Institute post a weekly Cosmos-watching supplement explaining that Neil deGrasse Tyson is withholding the real truth from you — none of this could have happened without a designer. They are quite certain intelligent design makes scientific predictions, too, like how Earth is fine-tuned for life.
Back in real science, Tyson then gives a mini-lecture on the evolutionary reason that smells trigger memories — a savannah-dweller that instantly links the scent of a predator with a sense of menace has a reproductive advantage over one that doesn’t. But does Tyson mention Proust and the seven volume novel that we have a little cookie to blame for? He does not.
After the commercial, Tyson gives us another animated segment — a visit to ancient Greek islands, around 500 BC, and a radical thinker named Thales, who decided that maybe natural phenomena like thunder and lighting were just natural, not the result of angry (or happy) gods. We expect emails of protest from the Hellenic Creationist League have already been sent. From Thales, we move on to Democritus of Athens, who liked to party and theorize about atoms. And then we get some more CGI atoms, and we learn that crystalline atoms are kind of boring, while carbon atoms are awesome, because they bond with anything — as John Stewart says, carbon is “the molecular slut of the tale of elements.” And with all that variety, you get all sorts of funky cool complexity, and life.
Another commercial break, and it’s time for a lesson on nuclear structure, with the reassuring thought that no two solid objects actually touch, because electrons get in the way. We perceive touch, of course, but that’s just our brains failing to work on an atomic level and perceive that it’s our “invisible electron fields overlapping and repelling each other (even so, sometimes the honesty’s too much). Zap — we’re off to a cathedral, to illustrate how, if an atom were the size of the cathedral, its nucleus would be the size of a mote of dust. Also, the rose window makes a handy visual aid for illustrating the orbits of electrons. And then we’re off to see a place where nuclei actually do touch — the Sun, where hydrogen is fused into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees. Do you get the feeling that this episode jumps around a bit? We certainly do. But it’s all thematically connected, so we aren’t too whiplashed. Zap again, and we get to other types of stars, like big hot stars that go supernova, which leads us to the next commercial and then we zap to a CGI version of Japan’s Super-Kamiokande observatory, a half-mile underground, which was designed to detect neutrinos, weird little particles released in the fusion reactions inside stars. Fun fact: when a supernova exploded in 1987, the neutrinos released were detected three hours before the light from the exploding star was visible. but wait, Neil, you said nothing could move faster than light, and by golly, those neutrinos didn’t either — unimpeded by bothersome interactions with matter, they just escaped the collapsing core of the star — at light speed — three hours before the shockwave reached its surface and tore it apart. That pretty much qualifies for our “oh, wow” moment of the week.
The episode closes with a neat discussion of how the photons from the core of the sun take ten million years to reach the surface — and then, just 8 minutes to reach Earth, which is also kind of wow, and then we go back to the problem of looking back in time — the farthest that microwave telescopes can “see” is to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, which the show represents as a glowing red wall that hasn’t become stars or galaxies yet. And then, just to blow our minds a little more, Tyson holds up a glowing ping-pong sized ball and asks us to imagine all the matter and energy of the observable universe squeezed into that little sucker — the size of the universe “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.” (This is where creationists start accusing science of involving faith, since obviously such a thing makes far less intuitive sense than a talking snake.) And once you imagine all that densely-packed mass, Tyson says, keep in mind that while it was too gravitationally dense for light to escape it, neutrinos would have zipped right out of it. Damn, neutrinos. And then we get the “Study science!” pitch: knowing this stuff is where we’ve gotten since Thales and Democritus. Who’ll be the next person to discover something great — maybe you? And cheesy as it is, it works. Again, I have to imagine a lot of kids are going to be asking their parents and science teachers for explanations after they watch this. And some of us will just be looking for dandelion fluff in next week’s episode.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey airs on Fox 9:00 Sundays Eastern/Pacific, 8:00 Central/Mountain. Reruns Monday on National Geographic Channel 10:00 Eastern. Episode 6 “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still,” online at CosmosOnTV.com