I will lead into this, as I often do, with an over-contextualization of my thinking. Growing up, and to this day, both I and my equally eloquent brother enjoy knowing ‘stuff.’ We bonded over baseball facts and, as you can see, movie factoids. Our family consumed hours of Bill Nye and the underrated (and probably too weird for an extended run) Beakman’s World. Credit Mama and Papa G-dub-dubs for instilling a healthy curiosity in their verbose offspring as to what things do and how things work. Shows like Planet Earth, movies like Chimpanzee, and a yes a series like Cosmos all appeal to a portion of my mind I have little control over. If I catch a thread, I want to yank it. I devour fictional shows with a curious, science and pseudo-science tinge. Lost, Fringe, Almost Human, even the campier Helix, Eureka. Movies like Looper, Moon, more recently, and classics such as Back to the Future, Blade Runner, and Alien – truly I could go on and on. If you follow our posts, or me on Twitter, you see I am of a certain science-fiction-y mindset, perhaps more so than my far more cinematically cultured brother and counterpart on the site.
This rambling introduction is meant to let you know – I am fully aware I am predisposed to get sucked into Fox’s multi-channel initiative. This enthusiasm should not change my message: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an incredibly impressive, important show – and comes at a crucial time in our society.
A host is a backbone to, but does not totally make, a good show. Listening to Tyson give a lecture might be enjoyable for some (hand raised), but does not make for good television. He has a wonderful air about him as he speaks, sounding like a mischievous science teacher or your favorite professor. Again, though, his demeanor and vocals cannot carry a show. With just a cool expert going on for 42 minutes, such a show would spin into ‘very thoughtful powerpoint’ territory. Instead, Tyson’s evident passion gets matched and aided by truly impressive visualizations.
Breathtaking and well edited, the VFX/design team (which is composed of too many bright folks to list) for Cosmos deserves heaps of credit. The viewer glides from the almost impossibly huge to the most tiny. We see oceans and black holes, supernovas and the multiverse, bouncing from the stars to awesome earthly landscapes, from moons into our connective DNA. Beautifully illustrated shorts help explain mini-history lessons behind great thinkers and discoveries. Many of these ideas and concepts discussed could take up entire semesters, if not entire Masters or higher-level studies to fully understand as Tyson does. The visual and editing team deserves every accolade. They present the abstract in a way for our minds to latch onto, guided by a chuckling, lovable host, bringing incredibly big ideas to our televisions. Combining scientific discoveries and complex notions through the screen through a talented artists’s eye.
Up to this point, I have been superficial. You could no doubt go look in any positive review and see the glowing endorsements for Tyson’s likable charm and the stunning visuals presented. Toss my thoughts into the pile. The show is worth checking out merely due to these factors, even if you don’t spend as much time contextualizing your television watching as I do (which is to say an unhealthy amount).In Cosmos, there lies something more important than merely being an impressive visual and scientific experience: a multifaceted importance for our larger society.
The United States have slipped in our Science and Math learnings by just about any metric you choose. The data is out there, trust me. This does not mean we’ve lost any ‘industrious American spirit’ or some other form of jargon, necessarily. Certainly, on some level, declining scores are some cause for concern. However we as a nation have not given up on science, given up on inquiry, given up on innovation – we just keep it contained. We have more limited focus. A telescope app will get you further than making a better telescope, to put it bluntly.
I was not alive for the moon landing or the heyday of NASA and the space race , so do not mistake my ramblings for any form of ‘back in my day’ blustering. That said, it doesn’t matter. Think about how quickly things technologically and scientifically have changed in just the last 30 years. Now think about how much of that has to do with space, with the bigger picture of our universe. The discoveries still occur – we landed on Mars, after all – but they are not appreciated to the same extent as our earlier explorations. It’s as if our societal-media mind went to the moon then said, ‘good stuff, time to go home.’ Like a drive-by vacation, in relative terms. Maybe the aliens asked us to not venture out too fast. I suppose the awesome vastness of what’s around us is not a sexy sell, not easily packaged. Therefore the accessibility of a show such as Cosmos makes an important leap in reaching out to more minds. Reaching out with the message, ‘we live in an amazing time, surrounded by amazing things. You should ask about them.’ Heck, you never know what Kaiju are lurking in our ocean’s unexplored depths, right?
Our current state presents a fascinating conundrum. We have resources and understandings like never before in science and technology, yet so much the world around us can be presented as very black and white. You cannot believe in ‘x’ if you follow ‘y’ faith. ‘X’ is bad and ‘Y’ is good for you. 6 months later those switch. Republicans support this and Democrats support that. Everything comes to us through a filter, even science. To tiptoe around a delicate political and religious issue, science and curiosity have an odd existence in our world today. The notions of organized religions, and of the blurred lines between politics & religion are a topic for another blog, another space. However we must acknowledge those lines and how they couple with a cannibalistic media culture – all leading towards our larger societal consciousness of polarization. I’ll cut bait there and get to my point. Cosmos stands as an important step in the larger discussion between science and spirituality.
These two fairly amorphous concepts in reality are presented as opposites on a spectrum by many. To me, this is small-minded. Without truly stepping up on a soapbox, religion can make the brightest folks think narrowly. I distinguish between the organizing factor, religion, and the notion of ‘spirituality’ purposefully. Religion often confines the world into black and white boxes. Think about it, some explicitly operate under the assumption that everyone who does not agree is doomed for eternity. Yikes. I have moved away from organized religions on the whole, however I think of myself as a very spiritual person. Therefore, this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson lingers in my mind from episode 1 of Cosmos: “Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science… It’s also a soaring spiritual experience.” At the core of spirituality and, therefore, the basic idea of all religion (under millennia of put-upon layers), lies these same ideas of wonderment and appreciation. Science, though taking more work than saying ‘my god did it,’ should lead the mind to the same feeling of connectedness and amazement, albeit with an unknown endpoint.
Science will never explain everything. Certainly not in our lifetime. I hesitate to belittle anyone’s staunch belief in their faith, in their religion, but I will never understand some folks’ lack of wiggle room. One can appreciate the unfathomable complexity of a tree, scientifically down to an atomic level, and yet be left with dozens of questions – that mysterious force of ‘why.’
Clearly, one show will not change the world. As of writing this several groups have bemoaned Cosmos’ lack of time devoted to ‘creationist viewpoints.’ Everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe. One hopes Cosmos helps open and engage minds. The next great scientist may be inspired by such a show – or maybe our first Martian astronaut. Perhaps Tyson’s easy charm and obvious reverence for the world around us (and beyond) will help bring some on opposite poles closer to center. If Cosmos inspires one student, makes one person inquire further, no doubt Doctors Tyson and Sagan would be happy – luckily, in ratings-share terms, the show has fared much better than that. Whether or not you buy my notion that Cosmos marks an important societal presentation, you’ll agree it looks good on screen. Fox’s appropriately grand scheme to get this show out there was quite the cross-channel experiment. Cosmos is a show unlike any other, save for maybe something you would see on PBS, stuck right into primetime. I like a cop procedural or plucky group of pals as much as the next person – sometimes I like to boldly go and think beyond. Sometimes it’s nice to get lost in space(time).