EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos – A Spacetime Odyssey: “When Knowledge Conquered Fear” (Episode 3)

Kevin Long
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This episode bugged me a little bit for philosophical reasons I’ll get to a little later. Consider this full disclosure, so if I’m a little dour in this review you’ll know where it’s coming from.


Anyway: This is an awesome episode! A vast improvement over the first one, and honestly a significant improvement over the second episode as well. They’ve wisely dropped a bit more of the pretention, the writing is tighter, and the story this time out is a personal narrative – that is, it’s about people – rather than scientific arcana. This always makes it more interesting to a casual audience, giving them something understandable to grab on to.


We start off with a baby in a basket, which is likened to the human species as a whole: A foundling with no idea where it came from or what it is, or where it’s going, but trying to figure it out. Ok, as metaphors go, it’s both obvious and not very good, but most metaphors don’t bear close examination so whatever. Ignore it.


We’re told that the big thing that separates us from the other animals that don’t now nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ is that we have pattern recognition. We can generally predict the next instance of a sequence, and we can generally understand cause and effect, which most animals can’t do at all, and which others don’t do very well*. From this we figured out the clockwork of the skies, and how it corresponded with the seasons and migrations of animals and whatnot, which was beneficial. Hence we presumed it had to be for our benefit, which implies SOMEONE put it there, which gave the idea of a Divine Clockmaker. Neil DeGrasse-Tyson infers that they were idiots to do this, but that you can’t really blame ‘em because, hey, not a lot of info to go on.


He then talks about how comets – which didn’t fit the patterns – tended to freak us out simply because they didn’t fit. Fair enough. I’ve seen a comet, and even if you KNOW what it is, it’s mere out-of-place nature is disconcerting.


From here, we’re introduced to the obligatory terrible flash animation (Seriously: Isn’t executive producer Seth McFarlane like a cartoon guy or something?**) about a guy named “Hooke,” who invented the compound microscope, came up with the name “Cell,” invented an improved telescope, and we’re told “Was probably the single most inventive man who ever lived.” Also he was physically ugly, and tended to claim everyone stole all their ideas from him. And he was a bit of a dick. And that’s pretty much all we’re told about him: Most inventive guy ever, and let’s immediately sully his reputation.


Odd choice.


We then move on to talk about Edmund Halley, the brilliant astronomer who charted the southern skies, plotted the motions of the planets, did a million billion zillion other things as well, and also concluded that the world was hollow, open at the poles, had a tiny sun inside, and people living on the inside of the earth’s crust. Cosmos chooses to leave that whole “Hollow World” thing out because Haley is the hero of our piece, and it wouldn’t due to point out that he was a bit of a loon. Conversely, Hooke’s bastardly behavior is trumpeted out at every turn, because a story has to be a villain and he got the short straw.


So Hooke dicks Haley around for a while claiming to have done stuff he didn’t do, and in frustration Haley looks up Isaac Newton, who, we’re told, is a loon. He’s into alchemy and Biblical Numerology. This negative stuff is mentioned so that Tyson can explicitly tell us these pursuits came to nothing, but Newton’s actual SCIENCE did. Also recall that Haley is the hero of this piece, so everyone else must be made to look bad or at least eccentric. So it turns out that Newton already figured out universal gravitation, but being something of a flibbertigibbet he used it for a coaster or something and lost it. He re-does it for Haley, and Haley recognizes this as a huge revolution.


We’re told Haley convinced Newton to write it out in book form, and that Haley himself paid for publication out of pocket because, y’see, it’s his story and hence he’s a saint. He’s also partially paid in books about the history of fish. (This part is kinda’ funny)


Tyson tells us that Newton had discovered the rules by which the clockwork universe, and infers there is no God (or gods), but rather that “Gravity is the clockmaker.” Then we get back to St. Haley spreading the gospel of science and predicting the existence of periodic comets and “Becoming a prophet.” Most of that sentence was my own condescending hyperbole, but Tyson actually says that last bit.


So Hooke dies in humiliating and stupid fashion, and Haley takes of the chair of the British Scientific Something-or-other society from him. Then Newton burns the only portrait of Hooke. Then we’re shown the baby in the wilderness (Which somehow hasn’t been kidnapped by dingoes yet) and we’re told it’s learning or something hokey like that, and then it’s done.




My own personal bias is that science and theism are not naturally at odds. Science is about the physical universe, and theism is about the supernatural. By definition, the supernatural isn’t natural, so, there you go: no real problem. I’m keen on both. In fact, MOST people are, though folks on the hard-right get all bent out of shape over preternatural stuff turning out be natural (“What the hell do you MEAN the seasons aren’t caused by Persephone eating golden pomegranates!  That’s nonsense! I demand that pomegranate-seasons be taught on equal footing with your so-called axial-tilt theory. Which is just a theory, and can’t be proved despite mountains of proof which I choose to ignore!”) Likewise, folks on the extremely left end of the spectrum tend to get a little beefy over their annoyance that most people believe in the supernatural, at least a little. (“Dammit! If only I could prove a negative, then everyone would know they’re idiots compared to my faith in Science!”) So that’s my bias, and I’ve been on both sides of that equation at one point or another in my life. I’ve argued it from both sides, though I am essentially a believer and theist.


Now, that said my biggest complaint here – obviously – is the increasingly anti-faith aspect the series is displaying. As I’ve just said, science and faith move in basically different spheres, which means they can basically ignore each other and no harm is done. (Do Buddhists and Muslims get all pissy about Evolution? Generally speaking: no. Do Scientists get all pissy about Buddhism and Islam? Generally speaking: no) It doesn’t matter what one side thinks of the other, they can just ignore each other and everyone will do fine.


Cosmos II: Armed and Fabulous is going out of its way to take little subtle jabs at Theism. We’re told that primitives who believed in the gods were idiots. It’s inferred that our belief in God was “False pattern recognition.” We’re told that the clockwork universe was built by itself and not a clockmaker. We’re told that Newton’s non-scientific pursuits were worthless, and that he was a Godfearing man who (Inferred) proved there was no God. Haley is portrayed as a prophet, and we’re told in no uncertain terms that the prophets of old could lay no claim to predictions as specific and accurate as Haley.


I mean, why you gotta’ be like that, guys? Why pick a fight? The hard right in our scientifically illiterate society is already more than freaked out enough. Why goad them?


To be fair, I could also level this accusation against the original Cosmos, which I wrestled with as a 13 year old, but which ultimately upheld my fanatical faith in God at that time. (I’m not a fanatic anymore, but I am a believer. And there were some atheist periods in there, too. I’m a highly fluxional man.) For whatever reason, though, Carl’s show seemed more honest about these things, less propagandistic. I don’t actually like Carl much, but he was at least transparently what he was. He wasn’t pretending to be your friend and then disingenuously taking little stabs at you. The new show feels less honest. And oddly less glitzy, what with all the crap animation.


Leaving that aside, though, I don’t think Carl would have decided arbitrarily to make one brilliant scientist a bad guy, another one a saint, and have Newton sitting in a corner wasting his life trying to turn lead into gold until Haley came along. All these men dared mighty things, so why point out the warts on one and not on another? I mean: Hollow earth, dude. There’s more than enough crazy to go around. My criticism here being basically that shaping the narrative into Haley: Superstar at the expense of everyone else is, well, cheap. Cheap, dishonest, and propagandistic.


On the other hand, Oort comes out looking pretty good, though he’s pretty much just a cameo here.


Finally, a note on prophets. While it’s popular to claim that prophets talk about the future, and that’s their job, and that’s all they do, in fact it’s not correct. To say so betrays a profound misunderstanding of their role in religion. Prophets spend far, far, far more time talking about the present or even the past than they do the future, and they tend to function more as mouthpieces for your God or gods of choice than they do as prognosticators. In fact, in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition the primary job of Prophets was to criticize the existing social order, particularly the clergy. As one Catholic priest said recently, “There is not a single Old Testament prophet who wouldn’t get excommunicated from the Catholicism if they were priests, for talking the way they do.”  Don’t believe me? Go here http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Prophecy.htm   Here’s the pertinent bits: “Contrary to what many fundamentalist preachers or late-night radio hosts would have you believe, biblical prophecy is not primarily about "predicting the future" or finding clues in the Bible that correspond to people or events in our own day and age! The prophets of Ancient Israel did not look into some kind of crystal ball and see events happening thousands of years after their own lifetimes. The books they wrote do not contain hidden coded messages for people living in the 20th or 21st centuries!


Rather, biblical prophets were mainly speaking to and writing for the people of their own time. They were challenging people of their own world, especially their political rulers, to remain faithful to God's commandments and/or to repent and turn back to God if they had strayed.”


(I should mention that I am not now, nor have I ever been even REMOTELY Catholic)


So Tyson and/or the writer’s backhanded slap at prophets proceeds from a false assumption. That it’s a common false assumption is immaterial. This is a science show, right? Be factual.


Other complaints: The usual stuff. Animation was crap, history was substantially fictionalized to reach a particular point that was equal parts propaganda, supposition, and truth. The music is bland. The CGI is largely gratuitous.


All that said, this is the best episode to date.




Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and is at work on several other projects. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support! ANd, hey, if anyone knows how to embed these links so they don't take up twenty miles of space, that'd be keen, too!




*- Small list: Elephants, Dolphins, some Apes, Raccoons, and maybe some kinds of rats.


**- Sarcasm. I know exactly who he is.