EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth” (Episode 9)

Kevin Long
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My computer is fighting me like crazy today , and keeps crashing and/or hanging up. Lucky you: rather than my normal rambling gonzo journalism style I’ll just stick to the topic at hand

In essence this week we get a sort of “Rocks for Jocks” intro. That’s what we called the Introduction to Geology class at my old college. It was quite literally the simplest science course available, and the basketball and baseball players used to all take it to bump up their GPAs (We didn’t have a football team.) I took it not because I was an athlete, but because I needed something to offset my incredibly poor grades in math (Dyscalcula, don’t’cha’no). But ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘not fascinating,’ and honestly I loved the class. Rocks actually ARE pretty cool, and when you get up into a larger scale, dealing with things like plate tectonics and volcanism and the effects these have on climate over millions of years, it really is pretty neat, even if it’s perhaps not as detailed and complex as, well, pretty much any biological science you want to name.

We get a quick rundown from the 1600s when cartographers first started to notice South America and Africa fit together way to well to just be casual friends. Then we’re subjected to the obligatory explanation of how scientists refused to accept these observations, and came up with increasingly ludicrous theories to explain the dispersal of fossils oceans apart. All of this stemmed from the idea that the world doesn’t change, that it’s always been the way it is.

Allow me a rare segue: This is, in my opinion, the curse of our existence: 99 out of 100 people assume the world has always been this way, and always will be this way, and furthermore, that this is the ONLY way things can be. To badly paraphrase someone – I think it was CS Lewis – people who came of age in World War II tended to think that the war had always gone on, and always would. People a bit older knew better, but you see the bias there, right?

So anyway, it turned out that the more conservative scientists were wrong, and the ‘crazy theory’ ones were right. A lot of people use this kind of thing to justify insane theories like ancient astronauts and the loch ness monster and the idea that Obama isn’t *REALLY* an American, but that’s nonsense. The “Crazy Theories” were really only in relation to the accepted reality at the time. The accepted reality happened to be wrong, and the baroque – and goofy – theories people believed in a pre-continental-drift mindset were essentially attempts to make sense out of something that made no sense, and their increasingly hilarious intellectual backflips trying to make it work.

The truth was much more simple: The continents move, slowly and over great time. Tyson explains how and why this happens, and he also discusses “The Great Dying,” a period of the greatest mass extinction of all time. This was hundreds of millions of years BEFORE the dinosaurs, and 90% of all life on earth died. This extinction was big enough to make the Dinosaur Killer Asteroid Impact look like merely an inconvenience. A significant inconvenience, but still nothing on the scale of The Big One.

We get a little crappy animation, depicting a woman who discovered the midatlantic ridge based on sonographs, but was blown off ‘cuz “This is just crazy woman talk” and “This sounds like continental drift” and “You don’t want to get a bad name around here because of that, do you?” And of course “All her degrees meant nothing.” Sometimes this series wears its heart on its sleeve, and in its desire to make sure women get credit for contributions to science – which they totally deserve, and its long-since overdue – they frequently just take stabs at guys in general. “That’s just crazy women talk.” Is that REAL dialog from a real conversation? I mean, are we honestly supposed to believe one geologist spoke to another like that IN 1950? Come on! Fortunately, this is the only stab of this sort in this episode.

(I should mention the idea of Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics gets me all giddy. When I was a kid growing up, I noticed the way the continents fit together on my own. I asked about it, and most grown ups I knew didn’t really know anything about it. I was able to find out info in school, eventually, in the early 1970s, but it was still considered a highly contentious issue and the textbooks stressed that it wasn’t proved. [This was secular school, not Christian. As you may or may not know, I jumped back and forth between school systems a fair deal] This whole subject makes me giddy because it honestly didn’t gain universal acceptance until my own lifetime. Likewise, I remember when the Dinosaur Killer Asteroid theory was first proposed in 1980 (I happened to be reading the magazine it was first published in in the lobby of a doctor at the time), and it was bitterly opposed. It wasn’t until 1988 or so that it really started to make headway. So: Two great theories in my lifetime. Both of ‘em still get me worked up. How exciting is that?)

They also have to get in a stab at God, or at least the people who believe in God, so we get a quick “Where did that come from” aside in which Tyson says earthquakes aren’t the result of sin. Whaaaaa?

We then get a discussion of how all this affected us, how our species evolved from rat/shrew things that survived the Dinosaur Killer, and were amazingly fruitful and multiplied in the absence of any serious predators, speciating and becoming  zillions of new kinds of animals, including monkeys. He explains how the collision of North and South America about 3 million years ago changed the climates of Africa, necessitating our ancestors emergence from the trees, and the development of upright walking and running. It’s neat. There’s a definite connection between our evolution and the hot/cold/hot/cold cycles the environment goes through, but its seldom spoken of.

The coda for the episode is, unfortunately, political grandstanding. I’m not a “Denier,” or “Denyer” or however you spell it. I’m not opposed to the idea that climate change happens. Certainly it does. In fact, it seems to happen pretty fast much of the time. I am skeptical, however, as to how much of an effect we’ve had on this process. It’s POSSIBLE that we have, but at the same time, the earth’s climate system has been extremely volatile for the last three million years, and this could just be another swing. Did we cause it? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ve studied, and have concluded that most sources are too biased on one side or another for me to make a fact-based decision.

The last part of this episode, however, flat out says that our use of fossil fuels is bringing about climate change, which could potentially lead to our extinction.  This is, of course, nonsense. One would be hard pressed to think of any kind of environmental disaster that humans can’t survive, with our big brain and tool useage, and our ability to make clothes and/or take them off as need be. Even if the absolute worst the Environmental Change Fanatics claim is 100% true, even if it kills off 90% of the population of the world, that’s really not anywhere near extinction. That just puts our numbers back around where they were in 1700.  And given that we’re clever apes, we can probably find a way for all that to work to our advantage. But of course the worst case is never the realistic one, and the best case is generally too much to hope for, particularly in a situation like this where we honestly don’t have much of a clue how these systems work.

So the episode tonight made three obligatory knee-jerk sociopolitical statements, two of them pro forma, the third as an actual propagandistic thing. But apart from that, I quite liked tonights episode.

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who’s fourth book is called “The Bones of an Angel,” and it just came out this weekend! (Check it out here https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433927 and here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K348VGI ) and he’s written three full-length anthologies. 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 older 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!

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