Cosmos F*$&ing Loves Science

The fourth episode of the Cosmos reboot aired last night, and as I said on Twitter it was a beautiful demonstration of why I'm finding this show intensely frustrating. There were flashes of brilliance, but also quite a few bits that left me shaking my head. Thus fitting the pattern of the previous episodes-- I didn't comment on last week's, because I was taking a break, but it had the same sorts of issues, too-- so I guess that's just what this show is.

Again, there was some very good stuff-- the opening framing device with William Herschel talking about ghosts was great, and Tyson's tour through the scale of space was excellent. I had a few minor quibbles-- they could've picked some intermediate objects that match famous events on Earth better-- but it was a nice reminder of the power of great visual effects to dramatize points that otherwise would be kind of difficult to get across. The bit where he called out young-Earth creationism for the impoverished scale of its vision was cute, too, though I'm not sure it was all that necessary or useful (in that the people who believe that won't be watching, and wouldn't be convinced), but then the show has clearly established a pattern of throwing red meat to the anti-religious from time to time. There was even a bit that seemed to address one of my earlier complaints, showing an actual image of one of the most distant galaxies ever measured. It was a grainy little spot of pixels, much less awe-inspiring than the CGI effects that bracketed it, but it was real data, and I liked that.

The bulk of the show was about relativity, though, and here it kind of fell short. The visuals continued to be spectacular, but as with the first two episodes, it skimmed over a lot of material in the interest of glitzy animation and cheesy dramatics.

Admittedly, some of this is the sort of stuff that only bothers people who, you know, write books about relativity. The discussion of the origin of relativity was the usual mystical claptrap about Einstein's great personal insight and inspiration, giving the impression that the whole business came out of nowhere. In fact, though, there was a lot of pre-Einstein work on these problems-- the core equations of special relativity are the "Lorentz transformation" (or even "Lorentz-FitzGerald transformation") for a reason: H.A. Lorentz had the math of relativity a decade or so before Einstein. Henri Poincaré very nearly had the whole package, but remained attached to the idea of an aether defining absolute time. There was also absolutely no discussion of the fact that there were good reasons to believe in a constant speed of light, from the experiments of Michelson and Morley. That omission particularly bugs me, as an experimental optics guy, but it's in keeping with Einstein's carefully managed image as a pure theoretician (I think it's Pais who has a long discussion of the evolution of Einstein's own descriptions of how he came up with relativity, getting more abstract over the years).

And that's without even mentioning that the whole notion of relativity really originates with Galileo and his contemporaries noting that the laws of mechanics don't depend on absolute motion. This was arguably implied in the discussion of how there's no truly stationary frame of reference-- Galileo was, after all, introducing the idea in defense of the Copernican theory-- but I think it would've been nice to have an explicit mention.

The actual discussion of relativity was kind of a muddle, though. There were some callbacks to the original Cosmos (sigh) in the use of bikes in a European setting, but despite spending an inordinate amount of time talking about how light moves at the same speed regardless of the speed of the observer, there was basically nothing about the implications for space and time. Instead, there was a jump to the notion of "dark stars," John Michell's classical model of a body so massive that light couldn't escape, and then to the modern notion of black holes. Where the idea of gravity as a bending of spacetime was brought up, without the idea of spacetime or how it follows from the constant speed of light ever being worked through.

Then, we got a CGI trip into a black hole, complete with shaking-ship effects and visual distortions that seemed to indicate massive tidal forces. Only, for a supermassive black hole-- I think they were supposed to be going into the one at the center of the Milky Way-- the tidal forces at the horizon would be pretty minimal. In fact, unless the firewall people are right, the equivalence principle tells us that an infalling observer shouldn't see anything dramatic as they cross the event horizon. But that doesn't allow pointlessly dramatic visuals. And the less said about the trippy end-of-2001 stuff on the interior of the black hole, the better.

So, like I said, frustrating. There was some really nice stuff that hinted at how great this imagery could be at teaching actual science, but in the end, the producers opted to be I Fucking Love Science instead: a few tidbits of real science buried in a lot of splashy graphics that don't actually do much.

(There's also the persistent problem of who exactly their audience is. Some of the simplifications are arguably lies-to-children, and the cartoon Herschel sequences could be pretty kid-friendly (SteelyKid has only watched the first episode-- I thought about showing her the second yesterday, but we opted for playing Pokemon instead). But it's on at 9pm on a school night, and the persistent Carl Sagan callbacks-- in addition to the bikes in Italy, we got the bus in Ithaca story again-- only really make sense to a much older audience. )

The hope here is that the trippy visuals will inspire some people to go beyond the Keanu "Whoa." and dig into the real science via the tidbits of information scattered through the rest. But I can't help thinking that given this platform and this technology they could've done a whole lot more to convey real, solid science. And the fact that they chose not to leaves me kind of disappointed.

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When I was a kid, my favorite show on TV was "NOVA" and I made sure to always watch. When I tried watching it later in my life, it mostly (except for the Brian Greene episodes) seemed to be lacking in detail and have excessive graphics sequences that added nothing. I have not watched it lately. I wonder how much of my appreciation of NOVA as a kid was due to the "gee whiz" gloss over things appealing to my immature mind, or if it really was better in the early 80's than it became.
As a physics teacher, I appreciate the Cosmos reboot as a way to interest children in science, since that is what the original series was for me. I hate that it is on so late on a school night. I think it is good enough for the purpose I want it to have.

In 2014, I'm not really sure that it being on so late at night is much of a barrier to children watching it. So far, I've watched half the episodes live, and the other half on Hulu... whenever. And we have DVRs. And probably some other options I'm forgetting. But maybe I'm overestimating the degree to which people have access to alternative TV watching methods.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 31 Mar 2014 #permalink

At least it's not "What the *Bleep* Do We Know?" :(

By Matthew Fulghum (not verified) on 31 Mar 2014 #permalink

While the show does often go for flashy stuff, I'm glad to see that it avoids some of the sensational, low-hanging fruit that science specials often focus on; i.e. 101 Ways a Black Hole Can Kill You.

In terms of the historical narrative, I find it understandable that they skip some of the details because it might muddy-up the narrative. Granted, I would have more of a problem with the skipping of the details if it meant that the only people that got face-time were Newton and Einstein, but I think the show has done a pretty good job of focusing on lesser-known scientists that most people haven't heard of. To me, that conveys a sense that science can be done by regular people, not just by these monolithic giants that have achieved genius status in our minds.

NOVA these days is all over the place: there are episodes that are a lot like the 1980s episodes, lower-key with matter-of-fact narration, and others that revolve more around the personality of a plucky host.

My daughter really, really liked NOVA's "Making Stuff..." sub-series about the frontiers of engineering hosted by David Pogue, I think in part because of its use of humor, something that's completely lacking in the "Cosmos" reboot even though Tyson is clearly capable of it. She's interested enough in "Cosmos" to keep watching, but not enough to re-watch episodes over and over like she did with those.

I think my own reaction to "Cosmos" is pretty close to Chad's. I had the same frustrations about the relativity episode that he did. But I'll also note that some of these problems were problems with the original Carl Sagan series as well. Sagan definitely overplayed the notion of a black hole as a potential gateway to the universe, just like Tyson did. Still, given the state of the science in 1979-1980 that was a little more excusable. And I remember the original series' discussion of relativity having a bit more meat in it.

By Matthew McIrvin (not verified) on 07 Apr 2014 #permalink

...I think my larger complaint about the reboot is that the visual effects often don't try hard to be terribly accurate. I'm bugged every time they show that image of a DNA molecule, because there's a suggestion of molecular structure in the thing, but it's not the actual molecular structure! It's just a network of random lights forming spindly double helices and ladder-rungs. The real structure is much *fatter*, and it has functional implications.

I think the moment that bothered me the most in the relativity episode was the visual effect of the woman riding her motorbike at relativistic speeds. If you do that thought experiment in the spirit of Gamow and Sagan, there are trippy visuals that you can deduce, and the original series made a game attempt at showing them ("Einstein's Universe" did better as I recall). But in the reboot, they didn't even bother trying; they just had her zooming through what looked like an effect left over from Star Trek: Voyager. It wouldn't look anything like that.

By Matthew McIrvin (not verified) on 07 Apr 2014 #permalink

I remember the original having a sequence on the need for a constant speed of light using a near-collision between a car and a bike, and showing that if light traveled at different speeds depending on the source, an observer watching would see the car arrive and swerve before they saw the bike even get there. I expected that kind of thing from the new show, and was disappointed that we just got generic "zoomy" effects.