Last night, we watched the final episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The series ended as it started, with a nod to individual scientific achievers but a focus on the ability of every inquisitive thinker to make a contribution, and a discussion of specific concepts and thematic ones. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke alongside a recording of Carl Sagan throughout the last few minutes, reminding us of the differences we can make in the wide, wide universe. Goodbye, Cosmos, we'll miss you well.
Our pale blue dot
Danielle: Last night, the final episode of Cosmos gave us a chance to reflect on the lessons of the series, and also managed to give a little bit of a lesson on some of space’s unsolved mysteries. Tyson talked about the work of Fritz Zwicky and Vera Rubin — Zwicky was the first to theorize about the existence of dark matter and supernovas, and Rubin provided further evidence showing that dark matter is real, among other things.
Abby: And, side note, in case you're wondering about the eccentric take on Zwicky briefly shown on the show, this photo suggests it might be warranted.
Danielle: It makes sense for Tyson to end on a discussion of dark matter — both because of what it is, scientifically, and what it stands for, thematically. Our understanding of the cosmos is held together by the assumption that dark matter, a massive substance that takes up most of deep space, exists — even though we can’t see it or identify what it is. It reminds us that science is about theories and curiosity more than about establishment and fact, which is precisely what this series is about. Tyson said in this episode that “we don’t have to pretend we have all the answers,” and that “pretending to know everything closes the door to find out what’s really there.”
Abby: I've been thinking about precisely that a lot over recent weeks. As was very apparent from the way this episode ended, Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos has an emphasis on policy and on political controversies surrounding more or less settled scientific research that wasn't repeated as much in Sagan's version (although, of course, it was certainly present, which we'll get to). Sagan used that sense of wonder he was so good at eliciting as a way into understanding how what science has learned about the cosmos can be as awe inspiring as any temple. Tyson also wants to argue for that same sense of wonder, however he seems to spend a lot more time dealing with the denial of science in favor of, say, religion or industry. Although I feel like it's a necessary part of a 2014 Cosmos, I've wondered if the second point of emphasis complicated the effectiveness of the first.
Danielle: I fully expected this to be a continuation of last week’s episode, about climate change, but instead last night’s episode marked a return to an earlier theme — that of dismissing religion-fueled ignorance. Tyson’s comments about open-mindedness (and, more notably, a lack thereof) called back pretty directly to those he’s made about young-Earth creationists. At the close of the episode, Tyson reminded us that he prefers his universe to be big, as he has done in the past when disputing the theory that the Earth was born only a few thousand years ago (that theory necessarily shrinks the borders of the known universe).
Abby: Right, a callback to good old Giordano Bruno, who launched a thousand ships of history of science criticism at the series, for its use of history as parable.
Danielle: Tyson also certainly hammered home the message of science as a democratizing force. He pointed out that the greatest scientific minds have made mistakes, and cited that as the reason for us to question everything, constantly and diligently. He said that “science belongs to all of us,” instead of to a privileged few, which seems to emphasize the point that Tyson made so many weeks ago -- the series is for those who might not see themselves as scientifically minded, those who have a latent spark for the field that needs to be ignited.
Abby: I think your latter point about the show's scientific evangelism is right on. Faith of a mustard seed, so to speak. I'm still not sold on the idea of a straw man to make that point, however. Tyson is correct that many science-deniers talk about scientists as members of the liberal elite and their research as merely the biased product of that culture. But straw man arguments don't generally convince the opposition they're supposed to represent.
Danielle: Agreed. I suspect that using a straw man argument in this scenario could easily backfire. Of course, the show finished off with a voice-over from Sagan, which was the right choice. It’s somewhat disheartening that Sagan’s 30-year-old advice, to take care of our planet and each other, has been so thoroughly ignored. But I suppose it’s nice that Tyson decided to end on a positive note, discussing our responsibilities to each other rather than our failings. Although I wonder if that wouldn’t be a more honest conclusion to the series.
Abby: That Sagan ending. I can tell you that my living room suddenly got a little bit dusty once Sagan's voice started into the famous Pale Blue Dot passage, from Sagan's 1994 book of the same name.
Although I think you and I have found a lot to criticize in Tyson's update of the show, I do believe that it has stayed faithful to its predecessor. Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" passage came after Cosmos, but it does something central to the mission of both shows: it juxtaposes current knowledge with a vision for the future. Sagan told us that we would have to "save us from ourselves," and Tyson wants us to avoid the consequences of imagining a universe that is too small. Similar messages in two different political realities. What did you think?
Danielle: I came into this having not seen the original series (and still haven't) but agree that the idea of the future, a possibly pleasant future, very much drove 2014 Cosmos. The fact that Tyson is speaking to those who might be on the fence about things like climate change and the Big Bang Theory, regardless of whether we think that's a good tactic, shows that he hopes disseminating information can help foment a populace better prepared to care for our planet.
But what did the Internet think?
So let's get this out of the way right now: Cosmos's finale lost a little bit of its viewership to the Tony Awards:
To make up for it, however, Neil deGrasse Tyson was in top form on Twitter:
#Cosmos was conceived not to tell the you what is true, but to share how we have come to learn what is true.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 9, 2014
By the time the #CosmosFinale ends, the beginning of the program will have passed Jupiter, en route to the depths of space.— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 9, 2014
And fans of Sagan's work were thrilled to see the Pale Blue Dot monologue finish the series:
Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot" monologue is one of the most poignant expressions of humanity I've ever heard. #Cosmos— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) June 9, 2014
The Pale Blue Dot speech will always render me a blob a sob. #CosmosFinale— Holly Amos (@hollyamos22) June 9, 2014
What we learned
Abby: I'd never heard of Fritz Zwicky before the finale, which is a shame. There's a truly amazing insult attributed to him that goes, "Astronomers are spherical bastards. No matter how you look at them they are just bastards."
Danielle: Ha! That Zwicky. I hadn't heard of him either and had not realized that our understanding of supernovas was quite so recent. I was also not familiar with Vera Rubin, who is now 85 and has some pretty stellar portraits of her own:
That's all, folks.
Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below:
Epsidoe twelve: It's the Beginning of the End on This Week's Cosmos