Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

I've enjoyed watching the COSMOS reboot (A Spacetime Odyssey) over the past couple of months.  Overall, it was a positive experience.  It took many scientific ideas and presented them in a fun way for many to enjoy.  Special effects were top-notch (mostly), and the music by Alan Silvestri was superb.  The historical stories told were very interesting and provided many new details I had never known before.

Possibly my favorite episode was the one on Global Warming.  Seldom do we see non-partisan, non-biased views on the subject.  Republicans want to pretend like it doesn't exist, while Democrats seem to want to go overboard and panic.  Neil deGrasse Tyson presented scientific facts without all the politics, and it was very much appreciated.  He even presented some valid solutions to the problems--many of which scientists are already researching and/or implementing.  After watching the show, I felt inspired, realizing that Global Warming is real, and we're going to okay, since we're going to figure it out eventually.

I would love to see another 13 episodes produced.  Tyson says he most likely wouldn't host another series, but fans are calling for the likes of Bill Nye or other prominent well-known scientists.  We'll see.  The 13-episode series stands as-is on its own.  I strongly recommend catching this now on Netflix (or some other online source).

The show isn't without its faults, though.  I still find the original Carl Sagan's COSMOS to be a greater and more inspirational show.  There were a little too many cutesy Seth MacFarlane-ish funny bits that didn't work for me.  In one episode when Tyson spoke of the electromagnetic spectrum, there were several moments when the light surrounding him went dark and we heard a short discordant clip from Gershwin.  Tyson would then give a funny smile and ask, "What was that?"  When the show ended, I still didn't know what the heck that was.

In another episode, we were treated to a closeup view of the photosynthesis machine, which looked oddly like a factory.  I have yet to talk with anyone who had a positive reaction to that graphic.  Unfortunately, it started getting to where it was hard to determine when something was an artist's rendition and when it was an actual video of something.

For example, when Tyson was in the underground Super-Kamiokande chamber, I didn't know whether the blue flashes of light in the dark were real as presented or exaggerated.  I tried to confirm on Youtube to see if anyone else captured this amazing radiation (at that brightness, and with that frequency), but was unable to find a single video.  My conclusion is that the producers exaggerated the effect.  Though, I'd appreciate it if a reader could help confirm with an independent video that this effect was not exaggerated.

I was also a little disappointed with the level of technical knowledge shared.  The science felt dumbed down for general consumption.  Many times, when the actual science started getting interesting, Tyson would stop and move on to the next topic.  I felt that Sagan's COSMOS went into more detail and covered more interesting topics overall.

And lastly, I'd like to talk about Tyson himself.  To me, he comes across as the cool uncle who has plenty of cool stories to tell, and cool things to show, but he's also cranky and always complaining about something, always more than willing to point out when you're being stupid or wrong.  In comparison, Carl Sagan was like the wise old man who not only tells you stories, but also makes you think, slow to judge you, and more than happy to help you figure things on your own.

While I praised Tyson's episode on Global Warming and its mostly nonpartisan approach, there were still many times during the 13 episodes that Tyson took direct stabs at several different "silly ideas."  Tyson claims that he was just presenting scientific fact, and that we were the ones making it controversial, but I'm going to call him out.

I will present as evidence, the following.  In one episode, Tyson was talking about how long it takes light to travel.  He was doing well until he stopped to say, "There are some who believe that the universe is 5000 years old.  But if that were true, then we could only see this much of the universe."  Then a graphic showed how our view would fall short of some famous nebulae.  I found this to be a low blow.  His comment (though really convincing) did not really add to the episode.  He had already provided the information a person needed to come up with this observation on their own, but then he stopped the flow of the show to attack a "silly idea."  This wasn't just presenting scientific fact, but rather going out of his way to disprove a controversial topic.

Atheists watching cheered in unison, praising Tyson's slam-dunk presentation, while at the same time high-fiving each other and talking about how stupid religionists are.  At the same time, many religionists watching decided to turn it off, and unfortunately missed out on the rest of the show.  I would have preferred that Tyson et al had read Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and come to more of a realization as to how they pushed some of his audience away.  Tyson missed an opportunity to reach a group of people who initially wanted to hear what he had to say.

Sagan, who was as much of an agnostic as Tyson is, was much better at not alienating his viewers.  He inspired me as a child to appreciate science.  He still remains my favorite scientific philosopher/presenter.

Despite Tyson's flaws, I believe he does have a good command of logic, and he remains on my short list of people I would love to meet in person.

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