March 11, 2014

The Return of Cosmos

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I watched the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey a day after it aired. I figured I would post my thoughts on the reboot of the series after seeing the first episode, but I have to admit that I am having trouble doing so. You see, the the original version with Carl Sagan made the impact on me in my youth that I'm finding it almost impossible to evaluate the new one on its own merit. I really enjoyed it - and not just because I found myself thinking "the fundamentalist Christians aren't going to like this" so frequently. But I can't separate my enjoyment from my memories of the original or how happy I am to see anything on TV aimed at getting kids interested in science.

When I was growing up, Cosmos was not the only educational show on television. I also remember catching several episodes of PBS's long-running NOVA, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and various shows featuring Jaques Cousteau, the names of which escape me right now. All of these shows contributed to my interest in science, nature, and the concept of discovery. What made Cosmos different was that it had Carl Sagan. To this young boy, he was something special.

Rest assured, I watched more than my share of crap on television during my formative years too. What was different about Cosmos and these other nature shows was that I found them stimulating. Most of the rest of what I watched was simply numbing. Being stimulated by these shows made me want to read, to think, and even to pay more attention in school. But most of all, they made me look at the world around me in different ways, ways that would lead me to science and eventually become difficult to reconcile with the Christian beliefs I had at the time.

My primary hope for the new Cosmos is that it stimulates and inspires the youth of today like the original show did for me. I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson is the perfect choice to host the show, as he has the sort of infectious enthusiasm for science that Sagan did. I recognize that I am not really part of the target audience for the new Cosmos, but I certainly plan to keep watching.

A secondary hope is that the show contributes to the gradual erosion of religious belief in the United States by exposing more people to reality. It has been thoroughly criticized by creationists because it, like much of reality, contradicts large portions of their worldview. One of the thoughts I had while watching it was that it is going to be increasingly difficult for the children watching to cling to the belief that our planet is only 6,000 years old. But this first episode contained another even more potent message that extends far beyond creationists.

As Tyson provided a brief recap on some of the major figures involved in the origins of astronomy, a clear pattern emerged. These early figures (e.g., Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo) faced opposition and intimidation by the ruling Christian organization of the time, the Catholic Church. When science and philosophy conflicted with church doctrine, the Church sought to suppress them. That is a powerful lesson, one that remains unfortunately relevant today.

If Cosmos can manage to stimulate critical thinking, increase scientific literacy, and inspire some viewers to ask questions they might not otherwise think to ask, it will be a success. If it leads some viewers to question the religious traditions in which they were raised, that would be welcome too.