Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cosmos Episode 1: The good, the bad, and the problematic stuff

by Salman Hameed

The rebooted Cosmos has started with a bang. But bangs can go in many different directions. Here are some thoughts on the first episode. But with some caveats first: I was enamored with the first Cosmos. So it is always tempting to compare the rebooted version to the original one. But I watched the original when I was thirteen - and it is impossible for me to be in the same state of mind while watching Cosmos 2.0. Second, the idea of Cosmic Calendar was original in Sagan's Cosmos - and while it has been updated, the new Cosmic Calendar is now a copy. As is the phrase, "we are made up of star stuff". Plus, because of the hype, publicity, and the team behind Cosmos 2, we have to raise our standards of evaluation - and that may not be that fair. With some of these limitations in mind, here are some things that stood out for me:

The Good Stuff: The visuals are spectacular! I also enjoyed the addition of animations in story telling. In particular, I absolutely loved the animated sequence of the development of human civilization at the end of the Cosmic Calendar. Similarly, the pacing of the Bruno segment was perfect (though it had historical problems - see below). The tour of the universe and the Cosmic calendar could have been better with less "information" and more context. For example, there were too many stops in the early part of the Cosmic Calendar - and I think that diluted the overall impact. Oh and a big missed opportunity towards the end of the Calendar when Tyson was talking about the early hominid species. As I remember, the background had the famous 3.5 million year old Laetoli footsteps, possibly of three individuals, preserved in the volcanic ashes of Tanzania. It would have been amazing to have imagined where those three individuals might have been headed - while leaving these footprints that not only have lasted over 3 million years, but also have provided us with the evidence of bipedalism before the development of modern brain. One could have also jumped from these footprints to the importance of Neil Armstrong's footprint on the Moon. Okay - I didn't write the show and it may be unfair to start bringing up new additions.

The Bad Stuff: There already has been criticism for the animated story centered on Giordano Bruno. So lets get it out there: Cosmos 2.0 did not do a good job with history. Here are two reasons why this is a problem: a) It provides unnecessary fodder to places like the Discovery Institute (see here), and b) There is no excuse for bad history. After all, we all complain when bad science is depicted in TV shows and movies. Heck, Tyson was even upset with Sandra Bullock's zero-gravity hair in Gravity. Considering this, they should pay the same respect to other fields, including history. So what was wrong with the Bruno story? Well, the story implied that he was primarily burnt for his 'heretical' view of an infinite universe (with infinite number of worlds) and his belief in Copernicanism. Like the Galileo Affair, this is often depicted as a clash between science and religion, or at least science and catholicism (though Cosmos 2.0 correctly pointed out opposition to Copernicanism from Lutherans and Calvinists as well). Reality is more complicated, and this particular narrative of Bruno vs the Church was created in the 19th century  (See this Irtiqa post from 2008:   Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?). As Corey Powell explains very nicely in his post, Did 'Cosmos' pick the wrong hero?, Bruno was accused of several heresies, and a belief in an infinite universe was just one of them:
The Roman Inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno. His belief in the plurality of worlds was just one. The others involved denying the divinity of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, denying transubstantiation, practicing magic, and believing that animals and objects (including the Earth) possessed souls. You could fairly call Bruno a martyr to the cause of religious freedom, but his cosmic worldview was neither a deduction nor a guess. It was a philosophical corollary of his heterodox belief that God and souls filled all of the universe.
Oh and he thought that most of the Church officials were idiots - and called them "asses". So while, technically it is true that he was burnt at the stake for his belief in plurality of the worlds, to have a story that makes it the only thread is a bit misleading. And just as we don't like bad science in the name of simplicity, we should not like bad history in the name of simpler narratives.

Perhaps the worst thing in all this is that this can become a divisive issue. Similarly, Tyson at one point says that if you are ready to accept scientific methodology (I'm paraphrasing here), then join me in this voyage. I would have guessed that everyone should be invited to join in this adventure, and hopefully, all viewers will come out with a deeper appreciation of science and the universe.

I also thought that after the soaring rhetoric of Cosmic Calendar, where humans are literally insignificant, it was a letdown to end the show with Tyson's meeting with Sagan. Yes, yes, it is about passing the torch. But that was already done at the beginning of the episode. The original Cosmos left us pondering about the future of humanity (what will we do in the next second of the Cosmic Calendar?), whereas the first episode of Cosmos 2.0 left us firmly planted on Earth with Tyson.

The Problematic stuff: In Reflections on the Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote:
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
And yet, Cosmos 2.0 started with glorifying one of the current leaders: President Obama. I have no idea what Sagan would have thought about Obama's drone program, NSA spying, and the long solitary confinement by the government of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). Sagan opposed many of President Reagan's policies and even declined an invitation to meet with him at the White House. Unlike seeking a Presidential endorsement for his show, I wonder if he would have wooed the audience just by focusing on the grandeur of the universe - like he did in 1980. I think the very beginning of Cosmos 2.0 succumbed to the celebrity culture, and thus became a bit smaller.

Waiting for episode 2. I know that one of the episodes will also feature al-haytham (Alhazen) as one of the major animated characters. Hope they get the history right.

Related post: 
Watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos in Pakistan in 1984

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