Cosmos and Communicating Science
Tonight I had the pleasure to watch the new Cosmos featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, all the while playing Scrabble (with my friend who decided to play “Qis” as a word, even though it’s basically an invented word for board games–but I’m not bitter at all, Jeff). I wasn’t especially surprised by the content, given that I’ve spent countless hours watching scientific shows on television and reading about science on the web. Still, I was seriously impressed by the way the producers created the show to engage audiences on various levels. In short, the new Cosmos is a shining example of what can happen when science focuses on communicating with the public.
First of all, the choice to have Neil DeGrasse Tyson host was a fantastic decision. On many of those science shows I watched in my teenage years, I waited for Tyson to come on, because I was captivated by his energy and his presence (not to mention his smarts when it comes to complex science, such as string theory). He’s brilliant and passionate–what more could producers want? Oh yeah, he’s actually fantastically charismatic. His presence is the foundation for what could be an incredible series.
The show’s graphics also lured me in. All of the images were sharp, crisp, and beautiful. The CGI was surprisingly well-done, bringing the cosmos to life. Aesthetically, it’s one of the most pleasing science shows I’ve ever watched. For audience members maybe not captivated initially by the content, the show frankly gives them something shiny to look at. In the process, they just might learn something.
I also thought the show’s breakdown of content was particularly easy to hang on to. Granted, I could hold on to much more complex explanations given my previous experiences with learning about astronomy and physics, but the analogies were excellent in particular. I’m surprised I’ve never seen a calendar metaphor to explain the age of the cosmos and Earth, but this was the first time. The show compared the age of the universe to 365 days, with the end of dinosaurs coming in late December (the 28th) and humans coming just before 10:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. Kind of breathtaking to think about the age of the universe in that way.
Rhetorically, the show suggests something vital: science is worth studying. Understanding the universe, even beyond the confines of Earth, is important. The host’s excitement and the show’s high production value give audiences reason to pause and consider the role of science in modern society. What’s more, FOX felt free to place it in the 9:00 pm slot on Sunday, the slot normally reserved for the end of animation domination (Family Guy and American Dad, usually). The simplicity, while sometimes leveling important nuances, creates the vision that science is something everyone can participate in. And, to some extent, I think that’s a noble thought.
The show leaves on a powerful note, with DeGrasse Tyson recounting his experiences with Carl Sagan. I’ll close this blog in a similar way, though I have no personal experiences with meeting him, as Tyson did in 1974. My favorite novel and its film version come from Sagan’s brilliant mind. I am captivated by Contact. It explores the philosophical, moral, and personal elements of discovering life outside the Earth, gracefully threading deep thinking into science fiction. Contact, as does much science fiction, inspires me. While I’m not going to be a scientist exploring the cosmos, I will continue to hold an interest. Is there life outside the Earth? Well, I suppose I don’t know–but, as Dr. Arroway’s father remarks in the story, it would be a mighty big waste of space if not. Perhaps someday in my lifetime we will know the answer to that question. In the mean time, Cosmos should keep us wondering about the universe around us.