The first episode of Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey starts exactly where it should.
This voyage through space and time, a tour of what we know about the universe and how we came to know it, starts here on Earth — the white cliffs of Dover in England to be specific — where Carl Sagan began the original Cosmos series in 1980. Sagan’s distinctive, faraway voice starts off this series as well. “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
Almost immediately though, Sagan is gone and we meet our new guide to the Cosmos, Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He wastes no time getting to the point: this will be a show about the wonders of the universe revealed by science. Science, it turns out, is just a simple set of rules: test ideas with experiment and observation, build on the ideas that pass the test and follow the evidence and question everything.
Oh yeah, and we’re going to need a special spaceship of the imagination to take us there. It’s a somewhat cheesy conceit, but it’s an effective way to convey the radical and drastic shifts in perspective needed to examine the universe.
As I said, this episode starts exactly where it should. It’s a chance to lay out the scope of the cosmos and it does so by asking two fundamental questions: Where are we in the universe? And when are we?
Sprinting to the Edge of the Universe
Tyson first tackles the questions of where. Hopefully we all realize we inhabit a planet called Earth. Earth is home to a lot of pretty things: mountains, rivers, clouds, deserts and cities glowing at night. Without dwelling too much on what’s going on down at the surface, we head right on out into space.
Similarly, we don’t stop long to say “Hi!” to our nearest neighbor, the Moon. In fact, Tyson seems keen to get the hell out of the solar system. The Sun, sustaining presence that it is, get barely a nod as we scoot past the inner planets: Mercury, the “hellish” Venus, Mars (complete with a Curiosity flyby).
We pause at Jupiter, to check out some visuals of the Great Red Spot, a storm that has been churning for over a hundred years and is three times the size of Earth. Saturn (Tyson’s favorite planet), Uranus, and Neptune round out the major planets.
Past Neptune, Tyson runs into his old nemesis Pluto. Tyson helped precipitate the exclusion of Pluto from the major planets in his work at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, where he instead placed it in the category of “dwarf planets.” Out here we also run into Voyager I and the golden record placed aboard by Sagan and series writer and producer Ann Druyan.
Let’s pause for a second to catch our breath. After all, we’ve travelled 5,000 AU in a matter of minutes. This is the exurban region of our solar system, the Oort Cloud, named after Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, who suggested the cloud’s existence in 1950.
Now consider this: we know today that there are many planetary systems just like ours, with a zoo of different types of planets. This is one of the new pieces of information we’ve uncovered since Sagan’s time. While he might have expected it, Sagan, who died in 1996, would never get too see confirmation that there were planets orbiting other stars.
One kind of planet out there is the rogue planet, a body floating through the cold dead of space after being ejected by gravity from the chaos of their original star systems. They don’t shine in the visible light spectrum, but we can see them glow in the infrared, one of the many types of light that astronomers use to gather information about the universe. We can see other things in the infrared as well, like stars, and seeing the Milky Way in infrared is the kind of picture that will make you just stare, mouth agape. The other justification for rebooting cosmos, besides scientific advances, was advances in imaging technology. If the graphics through the rest of the series are anything like the ones in the first episode, we are all in for a treat.
Our journey out from Earth has now accelerated and beyond the Milky Way, the scales of the cosmos become almost silly to try and put into perspective. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Comparing earth to a speck of dust in terms of the size of the Milky Way is actually eerily accurate: the size ratio between a dust mote and the earth is the same order of magnitude as the Earth is to the entire galaxy, a factor of about 10 trillion. And things get even bigger. The Local Group, our galaxy cluster made up mostly of the Milky Way and Andromeda, is about 10 million light years across. Zoom out further and we see we are just a part of an even larger structure of galaxies, called the Virgo super cluster. “At this scale, all the objects we see, including the tiniest dots, are galaxies,” Neil tells us. Finally, we reach the end of the road, the restaurant at the edge of the observable universe. Looking back, it’s impossible to pick out even the Virgo super cluster from the 100 billion other galaxies that make up the filaments of the cosmos.
If there were ever a time for a person to feel small, this would be it.
Before we can get going on answering the “when” question, Tyson and Druyan throw in an interlude to help us meditate on our new found cosmic perspective. Even just a few hundred years ago, almost every single person on Earth was oblivious to the details of the immensity of the universe we just got funneled to us through a TV screen.
“There comes a time in our lives when we realize we’re not the center of the universe,” Tyson tells us, as he walks through the streets of Rome near the Vatican City. For Western Civilization, this came with Copernicus, who published his theory of heliocentricity just before his death in 154M, where the planets moved about the Sun, instead of the Earth.
Following Copernicus, an Italian monk named Giordano Bruno conceived of an infinite universe, an idea that would inevitably lead him to rot in a medieval dungeon. Inspired by the Roman writer Lucretius, Bruno came to the logical conclusion that since his God was infinite, the universe created by this God would have to be as well. This did not sit well with the Christian higher-ups, especially as he began to proselytize throughout Europe. Officially ostracized by just about everyone who was down with Jesus, he went back home to Italy, where he was nabbed by the Catholic Church’s Inquisitors. Perhaps bristling at the idea that their own version of God was too small, they imprisoned and tortured him for years before finally burning him at the stake.
Besides providing a chance for executive producer and Family Guy creator Seth Macfarlane to bust out some animations, the story of Giordano Bruno serves an important purpose for the series. Among the show’s viewers will be people with strongly religious worldviews. The series is able to set the tone by showing by putting dogma and orthodoxy in an unflattering light but maybe even more importantly, Bruno also provides devout viewers with an all-important out: if they truly believe that God created the Universe, wouldn’t you want to see just how great and expansive that universe is? It’s the show’s way of saying that just because you’re amazed by what science can tell us about the cosmos, doesn’t mean you have to give up a faith in God, you just might have to reconsider what you’ve heard in Sunday School.
The Universe in a Year
Now that we’ve conveniently put our Christian co-passengers at ease we can move onto the second burning question we all have. What is now in relation to then?
As a visual aid, we’re given all the 13.8 billion years in the history of the universe in the form of a Gregorian calendar. The Big Bang is the first second of New Year’s Day; the present is one tick before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. Every day on this calendar represents about 40 million years. This means that after the universe cooled following the big bang, it took about 10 days before gravity was able to bring matter together to begin forming stars. A few days later come galaxies and on March 15, we get to the formation of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
Our next milestone is many months later, the formation of our sun, in August 31, 4.5 billion years ago. Generations of stars are born and die in the intervening six months. As many of them go out with the bang of a supernova, they cook up the chemical elements that we find ourselves made of today. “We are made of star stuff,” Tyson gets to tell us again, something for which he’s become Internet–famous for saying.
Our own humble planet was born as a ball of debris that grew and grew from collisions with asteroids until finally it calmed down and watery oceans formed. It was likely here that life began, on September 21, although curiously Tyson leaves the door open for life being brought here from off-planet. In mid-December, we watch as Tyson stands on a beach while a fearless amphibian ventures onto land. And lest we forget how many iterations of life there have been on Earth, we’re reminded that flowering plants are relatively new, first showing up on December 28, in this calendar version of our universe’s history.
Dinosaurs had a few days of being in charge on Earth; humans have had even less. We only evolved in the last hour of the last day. “All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves, everything in the history books,” Tyson reminds us, “happened here, in the last seconds of the cosmic calendar.” And “it was only in the last second that we began to use science to reveal natures secrets and her laws.” Science is so powerful that in just 400 years we’ve gone from looking at the moon with Galilieo’s telescope to leaving footprints on it with Neil Armstrong’s boot. Science is the porthole through which we view our cosmic journey.
The episode closes with touching coda, in a sense a justification for why we should entrust Neil DeGrasse Tyson to be our guide to the universe. He’s wowed us so far, but spectacle only goes so far. Carl Sagan did more than wow, he was a trusted voice in the scientific community and inspired people to feel wonder in what science had to offer. Tyson carries this torch, passed on to him from Sagan, almost literally, as Tyson provides as an anecdote about how, as a teenager, he met Carl Sagan himself on a visit to Cornell University. During that visit, Carl autographed a copy of his book “The Cosmic Connection,” for Tyson. ‘For Neil, a future astronomer,” the inscription says.
The journey is just beginning. There are many more questions that need answering. And I wouldn’t want anybody other than Neil DeGrasse Tyson to show me the answers.