I hope you all have been enjoying the remake of COSMOS. (Sundays: Fox Entertainment and Mondays on National Geographic.) While episodes one and two were merely very good -- with some stretches of preachiness -- we were awed by the third installment, which was stunning on a par with… even exceeding… the Carl Sagan original.
Yes, all right, I'm biased: Edmund Halley has always been one of my heroes and the depiction of comets (so well-executed by show science director Andre Bormanis) seem to have been taken from my doctoral dissertation!
(See below about the controversial earlier choice of Giordano Bruno as the historical centerpiece of episode one.)
== What's wrong with us? ==
But none of those elements mattered next to the awesome vistas and deeply-moving messages of this exciting and enlightening show, so well delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you have not watched… and heavily proselytized… this event, then you must have simply fallen into a torpor. Wake up! It's time to restore our civilization's confidence and sense of can-do wonder.
Just ponder one absolutely amazing fact.
Last week, it was announced that a telescope on the south pole, financed by your tax dollars, just mapped out the inflation event that occurred in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the Big Bang. Is that the amazing thing Brin is referring-to? No, it is not.
Or was it last year, when your taxes paid to send a capsule threading the narrow atmosphere of of a distant planet. A capsule that then -- in the exact-right millisecond -- deployed a parachute, that precisely deployed a rocket, that used a crane to gently lower a complete, mobile science lab onto %$#! Mars… was that the amazing thing?
Nope, nor was it the discovery last week of an asteroid with rings, or finding a new mini-planet beyond Pluto, nor the announcement of seven hundred new planets beyond our solar system (see below.)
No, the amazing thing is that YOU, when you heard about these things… and dozens more, in just the last year… , did not run outside -- (even naked) -- grabbing every random person you met, telling them about it, bursting with pride and shouting "I am a member of a civilization that DOES stuff like this!"
Admit it. You didn't do that. Now admit it reveals that something has gone very wrong with us.
Yes, restoring that sense of confidence and joy is what COSMOS is about.
== One small fret? ==
As one of the show's side-endeavors -- and a way cool one -- kids all over the world have been invited to use an online drawing tool to scrawl "messages to extraterrestrials" on a stylized version of the Sagan-Lomberg "Golden Record" that is carried aboard the Voyager space probes. Have a look: some of them are endearing and give hope for the next generation. A worthy activity that stimulates thought! However…
…there is this rumor going around, that some of the producers -- perhaps Neil himself -- plan to announce a surprise stunt to "beam" some of these messages into space by radio dish. And if it turns out to be true, well, that would be a major blunder. Ever increasing numbers of prestigious scientists are coming out against such "METI" stunts, which arrogate a peremptory right to change one of our planet's major observable characteristics without ever exposing the endeavor to critique by scientific peers.
There are no good reasons to do such a thing, without discussing it with humanity's greatest sages and with the public involved. Indeed, a number of us have come up with some very good reasons not to! So please, Neil, just in case the rumor is true, stay scientific and don't do it. And if you do it anyway, recall that a Klystron can transmit at very low power. Talk to us…all of us. You're doing a great job at that. Leave such stunts for a later, more-knowing generation.
== Oh, in keeping with the spirit of Cosmos… ==
…see this very moving essay: "It's time we fell back in love with science," which bemoans how British attitudes toward science are becoming crazier… as in America.
"When science used to tell us things we didn’t want to hear, we listened. Now we stick our fingers in our ears and say “lalalala” before finding someone who will tell us what we do want to hear." writes Alex Proud in The Telegraph.
==Was Bruno the best choice? ==
Interesting articles spin online, about how COSMOS producers chose in episode one to focus so long and hard on Giordano Bruno, whose immolation in Italy cast into stark focus the fear and wrath provoked by heretical beliefs. (I was surprised that Tyson did not pose next to the statue of Bruno that now towers over the square where he burned.) Although I speak of Bruno often, I never portray him as a saint of science. Rather, he was a paladin of confrontation… the top contrarian of an era that was just learning how to accept the prodigious benefits of open and fair argument. And this fellow contrarian appreciates him in that ornery spirit.
As far as science goes, well, this article (Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?) compares Bruno to the Englishman, Thomas Digges, who was quietly doing much more to bring the ideas of Copernicus into the mainstream of European thinking, without the accompanying in-yer-face theological dross that Bruno added, that multiplied his troubles.
Oh, certainly, I am more like Bruno, I suppose. But with just enough maturity to know that civilization is actually pushed forward by more modest men and women of science.
== More compact! Yet cogent ==
Less flashy than Cosmos, the "inFact" series by science journalist Brian Dunning, aims to offer net-era brevity to snappy-but-wise riffs on science for the interested layman. I especially recommend the short piece on global climate change which aims -- above-all -- to calm folks down and get us no longer making science decisions based upon our political party. Compact enough to get your crazy uncle to watch! Oh, also see his video about Tesla!
Kind of impressive. I would have added a couple of notes… e.g. that the mavens of weather forecasting make vastly more money than climate scientists and have no vested interest. They are the geniuses who transformed the old, 4 hour joke of a "weather report" into a ten day miracle. They know their stuff and have no reason to foist a scam on us… their "grants" are safe. Yet all of them agree we should take reasonable steps to become more efficient and reduce the worst effects of climate change.
Still, a very compact and cogent missive. I recommend it highly, especially as a bridge for all your crazy uncles, out there.
== And yes, we live in a time of wonders, this month! ==
Again, let me reiterate… a special polarimetry telescope (at the south-freaking pole!) has tracked the subtle light twists that may show the gravity wave echoes of the first pico-pico-second of the Big Bang? (Formerly, the cosmic background studies could only penetrate to about 300,000 years AB (after bang.) Your taxes paid for this. An earlier, science friendly Congress voted to be the kind of civilization that invested in such glories. Run into the street about this!
Better yet… make sure science-friendly folk aren't lazy about voting, this year! Think of the Supreme Court and get busy!
And in the same month: we tracked an asteroid passing in front of a star and found it had rings! And also… we (you and me and others) discovered a new dwarf planet out there beyond the Kuiper Belt.
A little more than a month ago, Kepler scientists have confirmed the existence of 715 new exoplanets — four of which are located within their star's habitable zone. It's the single largest windfall of new confirmations at any one time. That's a 70% increase... in just one announcement.
And we're all taking part. See a chart of astronomers and physicists who have the most twitter postings and followers. And how many years they've been at it. All told, I suppose I score pretty well (@DavidBrin on Twitter). Especially since I don't tweet that much… and science is not all I talk about!
Still, I won't compete with Neil deGrasse Tyson. The New COSMOS is a wonder. Drag everyone you know into watching. It is a tonic for a scientific civilization, fighting to save itself from those agitating for a new Dark Age.