EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Adventure: “The Clean Room” (Episode 7)

Kevin Long
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Full disclosure: I’m not really feeling it today. It’s Easter, I got up way the heck too early, spent way the heck too much time out of the house today, and ate way the heck too much food, which I paid for by spending WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY the heck too much time in the bathroom. (“I’ll take ‘Things Only People With Ulcerative Colitis’ Know for $300, Alex!”) So, yeah, not really in my full gonzo form, not really in the mood to watch this show tonight, mostly I just want this headache to go away, and I’d rather not be reviewing this warmed-over regrooved tire of a series (Mixaphorically speaking). Still, I’m all about duty. I sat through the final awful season of Chuck, and I’ve sat through the final terrible season of Babylon 5 several times, so I can make it through one Sunday, right? Though some bathroom breaks might be required.

On we go:


Oh, no, wait: one surmise: I haven’t really been following the ratings on this show, but I understand it’s fallen by like 40% since the premier. I anticipate that’ll probably bottom out tonight, and it’ll start to climb a little next week. That’s just the way shows run this time of year.


Ok, on we go really:


Tonight’s episode was probably the most consistent and best one of the series so far (Not that that’s particularly hard, especially after last week’s random-tangent-fest). The first half hour discussed how old the world and how we go about figuring that out. This is interesting because it’s one of those things that most people just never think to ask. “Yeah, we know it’s 4.5 Biiiiiiiillion years, but how did we arrive at that number?”


We start out with a fairly straight-forward account of the formation of the solar system from random dust and gasses coalescing into planets. Then the ep discusses how we can’t actually GET at the oldest rocks to figure their ages, and the earliest constituent rocks have long since been re-melted and re-formed, possibly several times older. However: meteoric iron and lead and whatnot can help us figure it out, since meteors and asteroids are left over from the formation of the solar system, and they haven’t been subject to the whacky and invasive forces of nature on a geologically active world like earth. Using a variation on the radioactive isotope dating process (A turns into B at X rate. If we take a sample, and note how much of A and B there is, we can figure out how long it’s taken to get to that point)


Enter C.C. Patterson, who kept getting wonky levels when testing “B” (In this case, lead). Ultimately he created a clean room to completely isolate his samples from any contamination, and was able to figure out the age of the world, give or take a hundred million years in either direction.


So way to go, Pat!


The second half hour abruptly changes gears, and is all about environmentalism. It talks about how Big Oil knowingly poisoned the atmosphere with millions of tons of lead in the form of Ethel (Leaded) gasoline. This is the kind of random shift that I’d probably criticize were it not for the fact that C.C. Patterson, the same guy who figured out the age of the earth, ALSO figured out the amount of lead in our atmosphere wasn’t a constant, and had in fact spiked in the 1930s. This increase was more-or-less simultaneous with the introduction of Ethel gasoline, and the numbers spiraled steadily uphill from there.  By taking deep sea sample and ice samples, Patterson was able to determine with a surprising amount of accuracy just how quickly the threat had developed. It was largely due to his actions that Leaded gas was delegalized (more or less) in the US, and the amount of lead in the atmosphere has begun to decline.


So, way to go, Pat! Again!


People who’ve read my stuff in the past know that I’m skeptical about global warming. It’s not that I don’t think climate change can happen – obviously it can – and it’s not that I don’t believe it could be happening now, I’m just skeptical about whether or not humans have any part in it. I tend to think not, but I’m open to real (Non hyperbolic) evidence to the contrary.


People assume that this means I have no interest in any environmental issues, because, honestly, most ‘Deniers’ (as they call us) really do go on to deny that there could ever possibly be anything wrong with the earth that we, ourselves, caused. I’m not one of them. There are actually environmental issues I’m very concerned with, and #1 on the list is the amount of Lead and Mercury in the Atmosphere and Hydrosphere. In the 1990s, the amount of lead was ONE THOUSAND times what it was a century before. A THOUSAND TIMES!  So obviously this episode had some appeal for me. And it’s nice to hear people bitching about an environmental issue that isn’t trendy.


Of course all the normal “Cosmos II: Electric Boogaloo” caveats still appear: The took the obligatory slap at Christians for believing the earth was built in 4004 BC. (Yes, that number is wrong, but making fun of Christians on Easter is sorta’ like praising the queen on the 4th of July: It’s just tacky) The animation is all kinds of awful. There is a pretty strong political bias, though in this case the bias happens to line up with my own, so I’ll forgive it. It still bears pointing out, however: this show not a neutral platform. Tyson is kind of a boring host. The music is the blandest of the bland.


Inexplicably, the asteroid belt is shown to be a zillion times denser than it actually is. Also, the animation seemed to be trying to make Patterson out to be kind of an OCD guy seeing germs and toxins everywhere, when that wasn’t the case. Sensationalism.  


All that aside, though, it told the story of a guy who had the incredibly rare good fortune to change the world TWICE by hard work and dedication.


…you know, if we ignore the fact that leaded gas is still heavily used in Africa and South America and the less pleasant parts of Asia.


Ah well. Still an interesting guy and an interesting story and (for once) an interesting episode of Cosmos.




Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and has a fourth one coming out any week now. 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!