On this week's episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey host Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us of our own collective mortality by asking us to think about our origin stories, and to consider the stories our Earth-abandoning offspring will tell about us. It's a pretty somber episode, with a warning about climate change and ignorance at large, but with a possible happy ending -- for those who believe in happy endings.
Prepare for more floods
Danielle: Tyson touched upon the topic of climate change two weeks ago, and he really focused on global warming as a dangerous, human-driven problem last night. But let’s start from the beginning, which was Tyson’s reflection on the stories we tell about our past. The tone of this discussion was more philosophical than usual -- Tyson talked about Enheduanna, the Mesopotamian high priestess who was the first to sign her name to literary works, as one of the first people to try to communicate with future generations. Then, Tyson discussed the Epic of Gilgamesh as another effort to pass knowledge down to future generations. That story also happened to tell of a flood, which served the dual purpose of reminding creationists that the story of Noah is not all that original, and reminding us that humanity being wiped out by rising sea levels is a possibility -- one that should feel very real to us, considering the fact that last week scientists confirmed that there’s no reversing the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.
Abby: Right. This episode spends a lot of time imagining the future, but through that lens of what history tells us about the things that do — and don’t — survive as civilizations change. Interestingly, the flood story itself is something of an example of this idea. While the myth itself has endured, no one's really sure how it was transmitted culture to culture — did the editors of the Book of Genesis take the myth from Gilgamesh? Does the Noah story, possibly itself based off of the oral tradition from which the Bible was composed, share a third, common origin with Gilgamesh? Later, Tyson drew a direct parallel between Gilgamesh and our own early transmissions out into the cosmos — 20th century radio waves. Which brings up the question about how our current incarnation as humans will be remembered.
Danielle: I was pretty happy to see a clip from A Trip to the Moon on last night’s episode. The short silent French film is widely regarded to be the first science fiction movie. It’s really bizarrely charming and worth watching, and I’m glad it was included as an example of our imaginings of space and our legacy on Earth.
Abby: Yes! I was so excited about this. Although I've really appreciated the more scientifically detailed episodes of Cosmos, this episode was a great example of the show doing one of the things it does best: presenting scientifically-informed moments of imagination. And, as evidenced by the clip above, by incorporating the imaginations of those who went before us.
Danielle: Speaking of which, we got hologrammed Tyson stomping around on Mars. Which, I’m assuming, he was just doing to one-up the hologram of Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk at the Billboard Music Awards. There’s no way that was a coincidence, right?
Abby: Absolutely not. Impressive how Tyson doesn't need to wear a space suit on Mars, either.
Danielle: Ha right. Tyson is apparently a super human, but that's not all that surprising. Another cool part of last night’s episode was when Tyson said that it’s possible we may have just missed messages from aliens. Like, maybe we’re just pointing our satellites in the wrong direction or something. If Tyson thinks that aliens exist and that we’re playing interstellar phone tag with them, that's pretty great.
Abby: Given Sagan's shadow over this whole reboot, it'd be impossible to imagine a Cosmos series without some good alien talk. I also loved the question he raised about why some microbes are capable of surviving the vacuum of space. How did they evolve that way on Earth? Is that, uh, feature, a result of some interplanetary travel aboard a rock floating in space, as Tyson posits could be possible? DOES THIS MEAN ALIENS ARE ALREADY AMONG US? It might be imaginative, but it sure is fun.
Danielle: Aliens, if you're reading this, please show yourselves. On another note, Tyson certainly did the best he could to paint a rosy possible future for our planet, by pointing out that we’ve come a long way in terms of what we know about the way the cosmos work and how we can prevent societal collapse -- like, for example, tracking asteroids and recognizing the damages done by fossil fuels. If we actually pay attention to those things we could, Tyson predicts, live for thousands of years on a healthy, blooming Earth before bidding our planet adieu and setting up a base on other planets. But, unfortunately, things aren’t going that way, and though Tyson left us on a positive note there’s no mistaking the urgency of his warning -- life is unlikely, and fragile, and we’re pretty methodically and foolishly throwing our chance of surviving on this planet away.
Abby: Based on the trailer, it looks like the next episode — airing two weeks from Sunday — will be entirely about climate change. So I'm expecting things will get a little less optimistic when we return.
But what did the Internet think?
The global warming message was certainly not lost on last night's Cosmos watchers:
... and not everyone was on board with it:
Carl Segan is rolling over. This COSMOS is a disgrace. Between Global Warming and European Invaders it"s a liberals wet dream.— marnes (@marnes) May 19, 2014
Viewers also noticed that Tyson's reference to Noah's flood as strikingly similar to the way-earlier story of Gilgamesh was yet another rebuttal to creationist thinking:
Plus, we got to see some evidence of what appears to be a beautiful bromance between Tyson and Cosmos executive producer/director Brannon Braga:
What I learned
Danielle: I hadn't really considered the implications of life having been started by a massive asteroid strike — namely, that it's entirely possible and (perhaps likely!) that the very same process has started life elsewhere. And last night's episode returned to a theme we saw earlier in the series, that there is often a fine line between mythology and science -- and that when we put aside willful ignorance, we are free to explore the depths of each. Not a thing I learned, really, but something I appreciated being prompted to think about again.
Abby: Right, this episode wasn't so much focused on what we have observed to be true, but rather on what our observations tell us could be possible. That being said, I watched a lot of sci fi as a kid and so I know all about the whole "microbes on an asteroid" scenario, but usually it doesn't end well for us. Oh well.
Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below: