Cosmos Recap: Neil DeGrasse Tyson Beats Up On God Some More
This week’s episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey departs a bit from the format of the first two episodes. Instead of presenting a number of thematically related science vignettes, the entire episode is devoted to a single story, of the friendship between Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton, and the scientific revolution that resulted from it. And darned if Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t just trolling the creationists some more in this episode, because he’s gone and titled the whole thing “When Knowledge Conquered Fear.” Now, sure, the specific example this episode focuses on is comets, whose irregular arrival in the orderly heavens were, in virtually all ancient cultures, seen as dreaded portents of doom. Oh, but we all know that’s just a subset of “religion = fear and science = knowledge,” and so Tyson’s framing the episode in those terms is pretty much a provocation. Good on him.
And let’s also address this before we get into our recap:
Danny Faulkner of Answers In Genesis and the Creation Museum appeared on The Janet Mefferd Show yesterday to criticize Cosmos for not providing airtime for Creationism adherents. When Mefferd asked if Cosmos will “ever give a Creationist any time,” Faulkner responded by lamenting that “Creationists aren’t even on the radar screen for them, they wouldn’t even consider us plausible at all.”
Mefferd agreed that the show isn’t being very fair and balanced: “Boy, but when you have so many scientists who simply do not accept Darwinian evolution it seems to me that that might be something to throw in there, you know, the old, ‘some scientists say this, others disagree and think this,’ but that’s not even allowed.”
Do we really need to go into why creationism is not science, because it is incapable of making testable predictions? No, we don’t think we do. So we will instead just present the only valid reply and move on:
We start off with Neil grabbing a baby who’s been staring up at the stars, to make the point that early humans were “like an abandoned baby on a doorstep, with no note telling us who we are” (having seen every single minute of Roots in 1977, I pretty much expected him to then raise the baby up to the sky and name it, but no). Happily, we have a knack for pattern recognition, so we were really good at recognizing not just which plants are edible, but also at seeing the connections between the stars and the seasons. Comets mess with this predictability, so they must clearly be bringers of bad news — a “dis aster, as in the Greek words for ‘bad star.'” The problem with pattern recognition, says Neil, is that we start seeing patterns that aren’t significant, too:
We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others, to discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich or find a divine warning in a comet
And then we’re off to the outer edge of the solar system, to imagine the Oort Cloud, and to meet Jan Oort, who hypothesized its existence in the 1950s, because he had science. Also, people are probably terrible, because most of us know the names of mass murderers, but not Jan Oort. America, YA BURNT!
Back to comets and their weird long orbits around the sun, which provides an excuse to roll out the CGI effects of the comet shedding dust and water vapor as it warms, and it’s very pretty. As we get back to Earth, we return to the superstition and fear surrounding comets — and just as we go to commercial, we finally get to Halley and Newton, whose collaboration, we’re told, would “ultimately set us free from our confinement on this tiny world.”
We get a reminder that even as late as 1664, a comet could be seen not as a mere dirty snowball, but as a sign of doom — in this case predicting the plague and the London fire, and then it’s time for a short animated biography of Edmond Halley, who wasn’t scared of no dumb comet. He grows up and maps the stars of the southern hemisphere, makes a big splash at the Royal Society, “motto, Nullius in verba” — don’t take anyone’s word for it, more or less. And there he impresses genius Robert Hooke, whose face we can’t see because there are no contemporary portraits (Hooke also “experimented with cannabis” — this is Fox, all right). Anyway, Halley, Hooke, and architect Christopher Wren make a coffeehouse bet about planetary motion, and whether there’s a mathematical formula to describe it. Hooke brags he’s been working on the math, but never delivers it. Time for a visit to present-day Cambridge and a bunch of gossip about this Newton guy, and another commercial.
Cue Newton bio, and blah blah blah living for science, plus his diversions into Bible codes and alchemy, and a feud he’d had with Hooke. Halley meets Newton, and Newton says, oh yeah, I calculated that five years ago, mang. But he can’t find the papers, so he promises to send it to Halley — and then we switch from animation to live action shot of Tyson holding the actual letter from Newton, and chills. Halley promises Newton that if he writes all that up in a book, the Royal Society will definitely publish it. Here we learn of the vagaries of funding for science — Newton’s masterwork, the Principia Mathematica, almost didn’t get published, because the Royal Society had blown most of its budget on The History Of Fish. Tyson has a copy of that, too.
Halley pays for Newton’s printing costs himself, and all is well — mostly; there’s one more feud with Hooke — and then the world is revolutionized. turned into tidy equations that predict gravity’s effect on both apples and planets — the show’s only reference to that old Newton story. And why should we care today? The upshot is that the apparently God-designed order of the universe can be explained without a “master clockmaker.” But to attribute everything to God, says Tyson, almost with a sharp elbow to the viewer’s ribs, is “the closing of a door, and doesn’t lead to other questions.” Ironic enough, for such a devout Christian, that Newton’s formulas made it possible to understand the mechanics of the universe without a Creator. Also, Newtonian mechanics made space travel possible, so we get lots of pretty rocket shots.
And then back to Halley, who used Newton’s formulas and a lot of research into every known observation of comets. The irony, notes Tyson, is that Halley didn’t discover “his” comet — instead, he recognized the patterns of its previous appearances, and successfully predicted its next arrival, in 1758. And he did a lot of other cool stuff, too, like mapping Earth’s magnetic field, inventing a diving bell, and making weather maps. But mostly, we know him for that cool comet. Somehow, with all the comet trivia Tyson stuffs in, he neglects to include my own favorite, the fact that Samuel Clemens’ life was bracketed by its appearances in 1835 and 1910. And then, Tyson closes with another CGI spectacular, an imagining of the eventual collision, in a few billion years, of our Milky Way galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy, just one more gravitational dance governed by good old Newtonian mechanics. It’s awfully pretty, and made me want to go play with my copy of the computer game Universe Sandbox, where you can do the same trick on your computer.
And then next week, we get the speed of light, and Einstein, and that’s where my brain starts hurting. In a good way.
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 3 online at CosmosOnTV.com