If you haven’t looked at any news about the intersection of science and popular culture recently, you may have missed the fact that astronomer and popularizer of science Neal Degrasse Tyson is starring as the replacement for the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, in an updated remake of the series COSMOS, about, uh, the cosmos we live in.
(I got to see a preview of the film a week or so ago at the National Geographic HQ in DC; email notices were sent to probably every single amateur astronomy group in the US.)
I thought it was pretty good, and particularly liked the way that Tyson explained what the scientific method really is — using not a single word in the various definitions of “scientific method” that students are often expected to memorize in their middle-school science courses.
Unfortunately, even though I have a full set of the original Cosmos VHS tapes, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the original. So I’m not one to compare them. Again, I liked it, and am looking forward to the rest of them.
But I do have some criticisms or comments about this remake:
1. Looking back, I think there were probably too many special effects, but I’m probably in the minority on this one.
2. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Fox “News” are despicable, and that they actively promote anti-scientific hogwash of all sorts. I was really surprised that the Fox network co-sponsored these shows. (I realize that fox ‘news’ and network are 2 different groups, but they have mostly common ownership, right?
3. I was surprised that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno. I thought I remembered he was a minor, dissident priest burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition for believing that there were other solar systems with people in them, among (most likely) other heresies. In the first episode, Tyson points out that Bruno wasn’t a scientist and that his theories about other solar systems, while recently proved to be correct, was merely a lucky guess.
So if Bruno wasn’t an astronomer or a scientist, then why spend so much time on him?
A Jesuit friend gave me additional background on Bruno; apparently he was very fond of making enemies. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll probably find out that he had a famously prodigious memory, and that he made money teaching important and wealthy people how to memorize things.
My attention has also been drawn to another article, making suggestions about how they could have improved the episode, by putting in the person from whom Bruno may have originally learned about infinite space: Thomas Digges.
Here’s why Digges’ ideas were important: if the earth is the center of the solar system, as it is in the Ptolemaic system, and everything rotates around the earth exactly once a day, then the stars simply can’t be spread out into infinite space, because their rotation would be faster and faster the farther away from the earth that they happened to be located, which didn’t make sense. So Ptolemy and Aristotle and the Roman Catholic Church believed the stars were all located on more or less of a sphere — one that was larger than the rest of the solar system, but not too far away, on a cosmic scale. So there couldn’t also be solar systems around those stars.
However, when Copernicus worked out the details of a sun-centered solar system, then it was just the earth that was spinning on its own axis once a day, and revolving aroudn the sun once a year, just as the other planets did in their turn. And with this new system, there was no need for the stars to be located along an invisible black sphere – they could certainly be other suns, and the universe could well be infinite, just like the mind of God .
The second article makes it clear that Digges, about whom I knew nothing at all, could have profitably been the cartoon hero of the first Cosmos episode.
The relationship between science religion gets interesting. While the Catholic church continues to condemn basic things like birth control or divorce, it has abandoned the idea that you can calculate the exact beginning of the universe by adding up all the phrases like this:”And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth” — a method that is a lot less reliable than going out, taking cross-sections from old and young trees, comparing them and lining them up by comparing relative sizes to known climate events, and cross-referencing that with sediments in ponds and lakes, and to layers of ice in Greenland and other places. You know, doing it scientifically. Unfortunately for us, there still are some people who claim that the ONLY evidence they believe comes from certain sections of the Bible (but in fact they discount the rest). Some of these people hold their hands over the ears of their children when they visit the Grand Canyon if an actual geologist is giving a talk explaining how the various layers of rock were laid down over the past few billion years. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has actual scientists and astronomers on staff. Even Galileo thought he was a good Roman Catholic Christian until his dying day…
(apparently this drawing was made in the 19th century, hundreds of years after Diggs, Bruno, Galileo or Copernicus)
In any case, I’m skeptical of all accounts of the beginning of time — we just don’t have a tremendous amount of evidence. Yet. A case can certainly be made that there was a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and it seems to me quite clear that the Earth was formed over 4 billion years ago (we even have zircons and other rocks and minerals that seem to prove it), but what on earth caused that Big Bang? Are there other universes, as was illustrated in the movie? We can make a case for dark matter, but there might be other explanations for the effects that lead astronomers to believe that there is some sort of unknown, invisible substance in and around our galaxy that causes things to rotate in ways that they shouldn’t, otherwise.
(If you didn’t know, celebrated astronomer Vera Rubin, who lives in the DC area, was one of those who discovered those strange rotational speed anomalies back when I was a kid by taking very careful measurements of redshifts and blueshifts of stars orbiting in spiral galaxies. Last time I asked her, a couple of years ago, she said she thought it was entirely up in the air whether the best explanation for this phenomenon was dark matter or that we simply don’t understand the laws of gravitation fully in the first place.)
When certain cosmologists tell us precisely what happened “Between 10–43 second and 10–36 second after the Big Bang”, we should keep in mind that we weren’t there to witness it. Sure, those accounts are in accord with a very complex physical model that right now is the most=accepted standard model. I won’t do a John Dobson and accuse those cosmologists of dishonesty; this is the best model we have right now, according to people who have studied his stuff very hard and very carefully. Is there actually ‘dark energy’? I am more skeptical about that. Perhaps; but the evidence is built on such a long string of extrapolations from very difficult observations and calculations that we should keep in mind that it very well may be that future observations with better instruments of some sort will change that model. In fact, every single time scientists have devised and used new instruments to look at and examine the universe (under our fingernails or up in the sky or in the center of the earth), all of humanityy learns new things that we never imagined could possibly be.
Who could have dreamed of paramecia, amoebas, viruses, or the genetic code of DNA before the microscope — at first very crude ones, but now of the electron or x-ray diffraction or scanning tunneling varieties? Each improved microscope showed us much more than the previous ones and are responsible for the fact that we no longer have a third of our newborn children dying of diseases before they reach their fifth birthday.
Galileo’s first, crude telescope showed us the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, the rings of Saturn, craters on the Moon, and clouds of stars in the Milky Way — all complete and utter surprises. The 60-inch and 100-inch and 200-inch telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar first showed us that many of those mysterious ‘nebulae’ in the night sky were actually other galaxies, millions or billions of light-years away.
I’m sure all of this will be illustrated quite well in this series. I need to figure out how to record it — just changed to a cable service bundle after getting rid of separate DSL, telephone, and satellite dish services…
Read the articles and let me know what you think.