You Need To Start Watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
You owe it to your brain. Because of science.
If you’re a human being currently residing on Planet Earth, it’s time for you to take some responsibility over that glorious mind of yours and discover Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Based on a classic show from the ‘80s, Cosmos is a science documentary series hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — a mix between Lando Calrissian and Albert Einstein. Comedy heavyweight Seth MacFarlane is the executive producer, but don’t freak out, there’s no dick jokes/misogyny. MacFarlane decided to invest his Family Guy and Ted fortune on the show after meeting Tyson a luncheon in Hollywood aimed at linking writers and directors with scientists. In an interview with the New York Times, MacFarlane said he noticed “a pattern in our culture of lethargy … We’re obsessed with angels and vampires and whatnot when there are many more exciting and very real and much more spectacular things to be excited about, that are right in our own planetary backyard”.
The new version of Cosmos is a continuation of a journey that began in the 1980s with a scientist named Carl Sagan. His 13-part series was called Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, and is credited as a defining moment in science-themed programming.
Sagan broke all the nerdy stereotypes and avoided the snares of technical jargon that plagued a majority of the dull programming about science; you’ll know how bad it can be if you remember any video screened during a high school science class, or if you’ve watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Sagan used the best digital effects available to him at the time to visualise the wonders of the universe and get viewers as close as possible to the action.
In 2014, Tyson picks up where Sagan left off. Cosmos is eight episodes deep so far, and Tyson has located Earth’s cosmic address in the expanse of the universe, introduced legendary scientists who changed history, and annoyed a few religious institutions with cold hard facts. Some of the information may be known to you, some of it may be new, but one thing is undeniable: it all looks incredible.
The best part about Cosmos is how beautifully layered it is with different ideas. It’s not just about science; it shows the power of humanity when operating at the maximum capacity for good. Toward the end of the first episode there is a moment that made me cry hard, a first for a science show. Tyson holds up a copy of Sagan’s diary to the camera and opens to a date in 1975, where Tyson’s name is written.
As a 17-year-old living in the Bronx, Tyson explains, he dreamed of being a scientist and wrote to Sagan. Promptly, Sagan invited Tyson to visit his lab in upstate New York where they spent a day together. During Tyson’s visit it was snowing heavily, and Sagan said that if the bus couldn’t get through the bad weather, he could accommodate the teenager at the family home. Clearly moved, Tyson looks into the camera: “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become”. In this moment, Cosmos evolves into a rare two-hander: educational and emotional.
Throughout Cosmos so far there have been many stories of generosity and collaboration that have inspired discovery and innovation. Even though the show comes across as an atheist wonderland, Tyson has the decency to acknowledge that faith is the by-product of a fascination in the wonders of the universe. There are elements of our existence that are nothing short of divine and people can’t be blamed for thinking there was a guy in robes living in the clouds. (The religious institutions that burned people at the stake for suggesting scientific ideas, on the other hand, deserve all the blame that gets flung at them.)
Tyson encourages curiosity through the series, challenging the viewer to ask questions and contest preconceived notions. In one episode he travels to England to visit one of the oldest and most prestigious scientific organisations, The Royal Society of London. From within the walls of the Royal Society, Tyson discusses the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia, the first major work to describe the laws of physics in mathematical terms, which immediately contested the prevailing notion that God had planned out the heavens. Tyson explains the motto of the Royal Society, “nullius in verba” — which is Latin for “take nobody’s word for it”. Challenge authority; it’s all very punk rock. I adore the notion that somebody watching may cure a disease, develop the bionic eye or finally deliver on the hover-board promised by Back to the Future Part II.
Legacy plays a big part of the show, from Sagan, to Tyson, to you. Added bonus: even when Tyson’s slowed down to sound stoned, he’s still dropping truth bombs.
I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to our culture lately, but it seems we broke something. The Australian Academy of Science recently did a science literacy survey that showed most people drew a blank on how long it took for the Earth to go around the Sun — and a large chunk of Australians believe that humans lived during the time of dinosaurs. Thanks for nothing, Jurassic Park.
No one can really shoulder the blame for this problem, and there are many variables, but one core sticking point is that the scientific community has always had great difficulty starting a conversation with the general public about their work. Cosmos is evidence that there is room for blockbuster style science programming that interprets scientific research into malleable concepts — a wonderful gift of knowledge to anyone who watches it.
Cosmos screens on the National Geographic channel on Foxtel, at 8.30pm on Mondays.
Cameron Williams is a writer and film critic based in Melbourne. He really enjoys science. Follow him on Twitter @MrCamW