‘Cosmos’ Premieres with a Big Bang and a Humbling Perspective
‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ got off to a strong start Sunday with host Neil deGrasse Tyson at the helm. His generous spirit and infectious enthusiasm bring a crucial human element to a show that cannot afford to rely on special effects alone if it is to accomplish its goal of making us fall in love with science all over again.
“Standing Up in the Milky Way” opens with the voice of Tyson’s predecessor, Carl Sagan. On the same rocky shore where Sagan stood 34 years ago, Tyson invites us to once again board a ship of the imagination that transcends the laws of physics and allows us instant access to all of time and space. In this sleek, sexy new model, we are transported from our familiar pale blue dot to the very edge of our universe and beyond as we establish our cosmic address. It’s a humbling spectacle, and though it serves to illustrate just how small we are, it also a testament to how big we think.
We’re then brought back down to earth to hear the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian friar, philosopher and theologian who drew the ire of the intellectual and religious establishment of his time by sharing his vision of a boundless universe in which ours was but one of an infinite number of worlds revolving around an infinite number of suns – the stars. At the time, this was seen as being at odds with Scripture and contradictory to the Aristotelian view of the cosmos that placed our world at the center of the universe. Bruno was burned at the stake for his views just a decade before Galileo confirmed their truth. He is portrayed as a martyr to the cause of free thought, but Tyson, quite responsibly, hastens to note that Bruno was not a scientist.
“His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess,“ Tyson says, “because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong. But once the idea was in the air, it gave others a target to aim at, if only to disprove it."
The animated segment can seem a little mean-spirited and hyperbolic at times (one official of the Inquisition may remind some viewers of Frollo from Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’), but the key message it delivers is that anyone, scientist or not, is capable of contributing to the big discussions. Science belongs to us all and is not just the realm of geniuses in lab coats, and with daring and imagination, any of us can become one of those geniuses.
The episode concludes with what will probably be remembered as one of the coolest segments of the new series. Tyson, having shown us around the impossible enormity of space, invites us to tour the dimension of time. We are introduced to the comic calendar – billions of years of cosmic evolution condensed into a familiar 12-month Gregorian calendar. The Big Bang (which Tyson bears witness to after sliding on a pair of shades like the cool cat he is) occurs in the first second of January 1. Humanity doesn’t enter the picture until the last seconds of December 31, represented by a tiny dot in the bottom right-hand corner of the calendar.
With his finger on the dot, Tyson eloquently puts it into perspective: “Every person you've ever heard of lies right in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves, everything in the history books happened here in the last seconds of the cosmic calendar.”
Sagan would be proud.