EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “The Immortals” (Episode 11)

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

Have I been too hard on this show? Last week, for the first time ever, I genuinely enjoyed an episode. For the first time, I had no real quibbles. For the first time the show managed to become more than the sum of its parts and actually achieved – for one, brief, shining moment – a quality on par with that of a second-string episode of “Nova.” You know, the filler episodes they throw in there to pad out the seasons that are genuinely interesting, but not nearly as interesting as their usual standard? Probably an episode featuring bugs or something…

Anyway, for the first time since I heard about the new “Cosmos” (Which was less than four hours before the series premier) I find myself actually looking forward to an episode. Will they manage to equal or surpass their high-water mark last week, or will they fall back into their standard disjointedly irrelevant, misguided tribute to/pale imitation of the iconic (But not entirely satisfying) series from 34 years ago?

Man, that was a messy sentence. Diagram it! I dare you!

Anyway…they blew it. Badly.

The episode starts off with a clever central conceit: Noah’s Ark. The theme is that just as Noah’s Ark preserved human and animal life from a universal disaster, so various other things can become arks as well. The most personal of these is writing: We still read The Epic of Gilgamesh, ostensibly the oldest written work still extant. Or at least we could read it if we choose to. The fact is, of all my friends, I’m the only one who’s read it, and that’s just pretty much so I could SAY I wrote it. Bragging rights. It’s important when you’re 20 and tend to date Lit Majors.

Anyway, the point is that writing was an ark for bits of ancient culture, including (Cleverly) two separate ark stories: the one from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and, of course, the one from the Bible. (Curiously the Greek story of Deucalion didn’t make the cut, but, eh, whatever)

We’re then subjected to a brief series of theories about how life on earth could have arisen in the first place. Tyson admits that science doesn’t know. Among the theories is “Panspermia” (Though this name is curiously never mentioned in the episode), the idea that life began elsewhere in the universe, plunked down here in some primitive form, and evolved to fill the world.  This doesn’t resolve the question of how life began, but it does kick it offstage, and it allows us to concentrate on its transmission – by ark! – rather than its creation.

Tyson tells us of meteors that almost definitely came from Mars and have whacked into earth in the past. These were assumed to have been blasted in to space as debris from a huge asteroidal impact. Entirely possible. Mars has low gravity, it’s close to the asteroid belt, and even a glance at its pockmarked face makes our moon look like a proactive commercial by comparison. From this, Tyson extrapolates that asteroid impacts on earth could throw debris up into space as well.

This IS possible – we lost half our atmosphere when the Dinosaur Killer hit, and it still hasn’t recovered – but it’s important to note that given our mass, it’s much harder for objects to be blasted into space from the surface by impact. This is ignored. He then extrapolates further to say that early Venus was probably a lot like earth (Without any substantive evidence, by the way. Venus is kind of my hobby horse. There’s no credible evidence that Venus was ever significantly more earthlike than it is now), and suggests that all three planets have been getting whacked by big rocks from space, causing them to throw little rocks off INTO space, which then make their way to other planets and crash.

In essence, he says Venus, Earth, and Mars (Curiously, he leaves out the moon) have been exchanging material for billions of years, albeit on a small scale. Ok, sure, this is possible, even likely, but also pretty darn rare. He then throws panspermia into the mix by saying “What if these rocks thrown back and forth between worlds were carrying bacteria?” and suggests that we’ve been exchanging biological material as well.

Now, that may not seem like a big leap, but it is. Think of the factors that have to be overcome for a rock to fly from earth to Mars. Call it a million-to-one. Now, let’s assume the rock had life on it, that this life wasn’t sterilized by the heat that would undoubtedly accompany it being flung off into space, or simply knocked clear, or sheered off by atmospheric resistance, or a zillion other things that can kill even the tiniest organisms in a big explosion. Then the bacteria has to survive in dormant state a passage through a very hostile environment full of radiation, but lacking all moisture and reasonable heat, and it has to do this for millions of years until it whacks down on another planet, at which point the biological material has to once again survive passage through an atmosphere, and a head-on collision at a minimum speed of 15,000 MPH, and the heat attendant upon such an impact. What are the odds there? Liberally, lets also say also a million to one. So for every million rocks from earth that make it to mars, ONE of them has life that actually survives the passage.  A million times a million is: 1,000,000,000,000. What are the odds? A trillion to one against.

Which is not to say that its impossible – I mean, a Blue Whale ejaculates something like 400 gallons of semen to impregnate ONE ovum – but it’s pretty unlikely. And that’s not even getting into the idea that Venus is utterly hostile to life, and Mars is almost as utterly hostile to life. Still: It only takes one.

But we gloss over these.

The interesting part of the episode, for me, was when he discussed the ways in which this might explain life on earth. I’m not really buying the crap about panspermia to and from other worlds, however I *am* very interested in a new wrinkle he put into it: if earth gets hit by a big asteroid that essentially melts the entire crust (Which has happened several times), theoretically rocks holding bacteria could get blown into space, and then eventually fall back to earth a few thousand years later, re-starting evolution from a bacterial state.

This is fascinating and new, and I buy it. Firstly, an impact of the scale he’s talking about makes it paradoxically easier for rocks to get into space ‘easily’ for reasons I don’t want to go into now. Also, if they’re carrying life, and stay in earth orbit, say below a thousand miles and above a couple hundred, then they’re only getting 2x as much radiation as they were getting on the ground, which is survivable. In a few thousand years, when the earth cools again, these things are just starting to plunk down, and life starts over almost – but not quite -  from scratch, much like that sequence in Allegro Non Troppo when all life on another planet evolves from a leftover swig in the bottom of a coke bottle an astronaut leaves behind. (Like I said: I dated lit majors)

So, again: Arks!

And now we’re at the 30 minute mark, and it falls apart.  The question is raised: could life cross from other stars this way? Tyson flat out says ‘no.’ He then gives an elaborate explanation which allows him to say ‘yes’ based on lots of conditional stuff about passing through nebulae over the course of billions of years. This in no way changes the “no” to a yes, it doesn’t change anything, really, but Tyson seems to feel it does, and that life is all over the galaxy because of panspermia.

Ok, whatever. We move on.

We then get into a discussion of the first signal that was deliberately beamed into space in 1946 (Actually, arguably, we’ve been beaming stuff since the earliest days of radio, but this WAS the first really strong, deliberately shot signal). It’s still chugging along through space at a speed of one light year to the year (Well, duh), so it’s 68 Light Years away by now, being followed by pretty much every radio and TV show and cellphone signal and whatever. These signals put us at the middle of a bubble of our radio waves 136 LY across! Dozens, perhaps hundreds of worlds could have heard “Amos and Andy” and watched “The Beverly Hillbillies” and basked in the sage wisdom of our species in all that time.

This is bullshit.

See, there’s this thing called “The Inverse Square Law” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inverse-square_law which states that a signal gets weaker as it gets further from its source. This is why standing next to a motorcycle is deafening, but it’s not so bad if you’re 10 feet away, much, much quieter at 20 feet, and really nominal at 30 feet. At a thousand feet or so, no matter how much noise the bike is making, you’ll barely be able to hear it, and at a mile you won’t be able to hear it at all, it’ll be quieter than the background noise of crickets chirping and frogs croaking and lit majors toking and all kinds of bucolic Disney shit like that. Not the greatest example, but bear with me.

Likewise, radio transmissions from earth diminish in intensity rapidly, and once you get about 1 LY from the sun, our signals are far quieter than the background noise of the galaxy itself. Even the nearest star – Proxima Centauri, a bit over 4 LY off – wouldn’t know we’re hear, even though we’re screaming at the top of our lungs. This is also why WE haven’t seen the alien equivalents of Amos and Andy and Gilligans’ Island and what have you. Even if they’re right next door, it’s not going to happen.

There are ways around this, but they are not at all casual, and are beyond the scope of this review. The point is that SETI is bullshit, and it’s not because of a lack of funding or a lack of time, or only searching a small part of the sky. No, it’s bullshit because the very laws of physics say it won’t work! And this show passes it off as plausible. This is the first time the show has lied to me.  I don’t mean slanted or been unclear, I mean flat-out lied.

Which brings us to global warming, or Climate Change, or whatever you want to call it these days.  Now, to be clear, I’m not a “Denier.” I don’t debate the fact that the world now is warmer than it was in George Washington’s day, an any student of history will know it is. (The Hudson River used to freeze so solid that George was able to haul cannon across it. This happened every year. How long has it been since the Hudson froze solid? More than a century?) It’s painfully obvious to anyone who looks that the temperature of earth has been pretty unstable for the last three million years or so. And although most people don’t realize it, we are, in fact, in the middle of an ice age. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quaternary_glaciation  It waxes and wanes quite a bit. 30,000 years ago, there was ice all the way from the North Pole to Louisville, KY. A thousand years ago, it was warm enough to farm in northern Greenland. Five hundred years ago it was so cold it killed off all the Vikings in Greenland. Now its warming up again.

So I don’t debate climate change, nor do I debate that the world is in a warmer phase. Nor do I seriously debate that humans probably COULD change the environment if we really put our minds to it. But I am skeptical of the notion that we’ve done it accidentally.

That’s my bias. A fairly mild one, I think.

Anyway, so the show abruptly jumps into a weird slam on capitalism (“Short term profits over long-term survivability”) and shows us scenes of global devastation that are IMPLIED to be the results of natural catastrophes we’ve caused by despoiling nature, but which are in fact footage of the Iraqi Oil Field fires in 1991, and the aftermath of the Japanese 2011 Earthquake, and whatnot. Passing this off as capitalism wrecking the environment is about as honest as those posters from world war II that showed Japanese soldiers with devil teeth eating babies.

Tyson then talks about how this should be a non-issue, and that people should just accept the gospel of Human-Caused-Global-Warming without question, but that the reason we don’t is because we’re easily swayed by words and emotions, at which point we’re shown footage of Mussolini and Hitler leading rallies. Honest-to-God, I’m not making this up. It’s about as subtle as a stomach pump. Then we’re told that if we DO accept the gospel of “Nature is perfect and never gets any hotter or colder on its own”, then we can progress as a species (cue footage of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, no, I’m really not joking) and the last five minutes of the show are a bizarrely out of place prognostication of what the next few billion years will be like as we eliminate poverty, global warming, greed, science-phobia, money, nations, religions, politics, and whatever other shit Gene Roddenberry didn’t like in his later, more didactic days, when he wasn’t boozing or banging hookers. (Which honestly does take up more of a pretentious Executive Producer’s day than you’d think)

There’s a weird little aside about spherical galaxies with very old stars, and aliens that may have civilizations that last for trillions of years who can maybe use stargates to get around, but then this is abruptly dropped, and we’re told that humanity will solve all these problems and eventually head to the stars in great big ships – arks yet again - that look vaaaaaaaaaguely like the Megaroad O1 from the Macross franchise.


Sucks. Just terrible. Up until now the show has been fractured and sort of why bother. It has had a bias, but a relatively quiet one. In this one, we start off interestingly, and we end up slamming capitalism and overtly comparing “Deniers” to Hitler.

Good God! This is supposed to be a science show?



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 last week! (Check it out herehttps://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 pagehere. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his older books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, http://www.kevin-long.com and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!