EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “The World Set Free” (Episode 12)

Kevin Long
Kevin Long's picture

I’m feeling sort of burned out and I kinda’ don’t wanna’ review this show anymore. I mean I *WILL,* there’s only one episode left after this one, so it’d just be stupid to quit now, but I’m just not all that into it. A lot of that has to do with my basic outlook at the moment: we had a major illness in the family that required major surgery, which resulted in endless stays at, trips to, and trips from the hospital, all sorts of crazy hours, keeping the kids from freaking out, and so on, followed by a major out-of-nowhere crisis with one of the grandfolks, so I’m just sort of exhausted. I’m so tired that I don’t even want to watch TV, and as those of you who know me can attest, pretty much all I DO is watch TV. That, and exhibit a tiny, but real gravitational pull over every particle in the physical universe. So part of it is just physical and emotional exhaustion.

But part of it is just that I don’t think this is really all that good a show, even when life is swell and I’m not exhausted. I mean, they didn’t really start filing on all thrusters until episode TEN, and then they immediately pissed me off in episode eleven two weeks back. I made a lot of charges about this show’s transparent bias, as opposed to the original series’ lack of invective, and said that Carl never would have boldfaced compared “Deniers” to Hitler, and people who accept human-caused global warming to Ghandi.

But John Many Jars proved me wrong on that. Check it:

“The principal energy sources of our present industrial civilization are the so-called fossil fuels. We burn wood and oil, coal and natural gas, and, in the process, release waste gases, principally CO2, into the air. Consequently, the carbon dioxide content of the Earth’s atmosphere is increasing dramatically. The possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect suggests that we have to be careful: Even a one- or two-degree rise in the global temperature can have catastrophic consequences. In the burning of coal and oil and gasoline, we are also putting sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. Like Venus, our stratosphere even now has a substantial mist of tiny sulfuric acid droplets. Our major cities are polluted with noxious molecules. We do not understand the long-term effects of our course of action. But we have also been perturbing the climate in the opposite sense. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings have been burning and cutting down forests and encouraging domestic animals to graze on and destroy grasslands. Slash-and-burn agriculture, industrial tropical deforestation and overgrazing are rampant today. But forests are darker than grasslands, and grasslands are darker than deserts. As a consequence, the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by the ground has been declining, and by changes in the land use we are lowering the surface temperature of our planet. Might this cooling increase the size of the polar ice cap, which, because it is bright, will reflect still more sunlight from the Earth, further cooling the planet, driving a runaway albedo* effect? Our lovely blue planet, the Earth, is the only home we know. Venus is too hot. Mars is too cold. But the Earth is just right, a heaven for humans. After all, we evolved here. But our congenial climate may be unstable. We are perturbing our poor planet in serious and contradictory ways. Is there any danger of driving the environment of the Earth toward the planetary Hell of Venus or the global ice age of Mars? The simple answer is that nobody knows. The study of the global climate, the comparison of the Earth with other worlds, are subjects in their earliest stages of development. They are fields that are poorly and grudgingly funded. In our ignorance, we continue to push and pull, to pollute the atmosphere and brighten the land, oblivious of the fact that the long-term consequences are largely unknown.”― Carl Sagan

So I’m wrong. No two ways about it.

I will say this, however: Sagan said that our actions were as likely to push earth towards ice age as hot age. One could argue that we have more information than him, and that’s probably true, but his warning was more inclusive. It was a sort of ‘we need to understand that we CAN affect the system,’ not “My way, or the Hitler way, baby.” I still think that was a little excessive.

Anyway, I felt the need to point out that I was wrong. It’s always important to be honest.

Now, on to the episode itself:

We start off on the planet Venus, which is both neat and cringe-inducing. Neat because Venus has long been my favorite planet. Cringe-inducing because whenever someone brings up the planet, it is invariably a preface to a preachy discussion on global warming. Predictably, tonight was no exception.

Now, I’m not going to get into the whole “Are we causing global warming?” debate because we’ve all heard it a zillion times by now, and it’s boring. They make their case, and in my opinion they made it better than others have. Certainly better than that sanctimonious dipshit Gore did, and more efficiently. Well enough to make me wonder why, exactly, I’m so dead set against the idea. Bottom line: I don’t know. It could be that I resist change, or it could be that I don’t like these particular prophets of doom, or it could be that I’m tired of our present coastline and want a new one (Which – admit it – would be pretty neat), or it could be that I’ve just got a sneaking suspicion that these people are full of crap. But whatever my issues are, they make their point very well.

They also point out that Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect is not our fault. “Nature is perfectly capable of destroying a world.” THANK YOU! Apart from that, and a mention of the first probe to land on the surface (Soviet), they really don’t talk about Venus at all.

This is an annoyingly wasted opportunity to me because, honestly, Venus is fascinating. It is the closest cousin to earth, 97% our own size, but it rotates so slowly about its axis that it’s retrograde. There’s all the atmospheric stuff, of course, which is neat, *but* what’s really fascinating is that, insofar as we can tell, there is no plate tectonics on Venus. No big crustal plates. The crust is all one piece, like an eggshell or a ping pong ball. We don’t know why this should be. Also, insofar as we can tell, there are no features on the surface of Venus that are more than half a billion years old (As opposed to pretty much anyone one of us being able to go root around outside right now and find a rock that’s a billion or more years old, if we knew what we were looking for). The predominant theory that accounts for this is that the entire surface of Venus was liquefied disturbingly recently, and only cooled to the point of solidification 500,000,000 years back. This theory extrapolates that since there is no plate tectonics, there are no substantial vents for the core heat of the planet, which just builds up and builds up and builds up until it melts the crust. The liquefied crust then radiates all that accumulated heat off and solidifies. How often this happens? No one knows. The process could happen every 500,000,000 years, or every billion. It could be starting the next melt cycle now, or it could be another half billion or billion years. Conversely, it’s possible Venus was whacked by a VERY large object, say on the order of Ceres, which melted the surface, and it’s only now recovering. Either way, it is strongly suspected that the hellish state of the Venusian atmosphere is probably related to this liquification.

That is all super cool, right? Very interesting and mysterious and exotic? But none of that is covered in today’s episode because, as usual, Venus’ only interest to the pop science prophet-of-doom community is as a cautionary tale for earth. Note that I’m not saying they’re WRONG (or right), I’m just saying that between hearing the same damn argument again, I’d have much rather actually learned about Venus.

Instead, we mostly talk about earth in predictable fashion. Most of the major arguments against global warming are hauled out and debunked, and even the “Global Warming” part of the Sagan quote I used above is used in the episode, but they omitted the “Global Cooling” part because, I presume, that’s not fashionable anymore.

There was some talk about solar power in the 1870s and in 1913 which did, indeed, sound promising, but was abandoned due to plain bad luck and innocent mistakes.

Finally we get to the cold war, which is over-simplistically described in a way that makes a Bazooka Joe comic strip look complex. It was the kind of description that probably could only really be properly misrepresented by a fawning disciple (Tyson) of a guy who boldfaced lied to Congress (Sagan) in the ‘80s with the deliberately-bad-science “Nuclear Winter” paper, which Sagan himself admitted (After the cold war ended) was just shock tactics to manipulate congress into supporting his own agenda.

From this we kinda’ badmouth the Apollo program, which was the part of the episode that really bothered me. The vast scientific and engineering leap forward is diminished as nothing more than a test of our ability to make really big, accurate, deadly ICBMs. It was the greatest space project man ever undertook (And I was there for several of the launches), the likes of which we haven’t even attempted in 40 years, and he blows it off as though it were nothing.

Instead he goes into the hackneyed “We are all one” song and dance about how there are no borders from space and we are citizens of earth and all that touchy-feely crap people with no real understanding of how society works have been slinging since the first pictures came back from space in 1961.


So basically this was the climax of the series. Next week will be the finale, and I assume its main function will be denouement.



Kevin Long is a very, very sleepy, and very, very sad, yet well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who’s wife is out of the hospital and apparently doing fine. His fourth book came out just recently, and is called “The Bones of an Angel.” He’s got medical bills to pay, and he certainly wouldn’t object to you buying a cop if it for $1.99, you know, should you feel generous or whatever. You can find copies here https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/433927 and here http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K348VGI ) He’s also written three full-length anthologies. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page is here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his older books are here, here, and here. Finally, he’s recently given in to peer pressure, and has a facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100008371740774  You could do worse than to follow him.