Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired its fourth episode this week. The long-awaited follow-up to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage may only be enjoying modest ratings in our modern 500-channels-with-DVR-and-Internet media, but it continues to keep pace with the original.
I recently started watching the original Cosmos for the first time, so that I could compare with the new series. Here is what I’ve found so far.
Tyson’s Cosmos actually follows Sagan’s pretty closely. Episode 1 of A Spacetime Odyssey draws heavily on Episode 1 of A Personal Voyage, showing our place in the universe. However, this episode seemed like a weak point of the new series for me, being too fast paced. And the controversial choice of Giordano Bruno for its historical narrative in contrast with Eratosthenes in the original was, admittedly, a questionable move.
Episode 2 followed the second episode of the original series very closely, talking about evolution and the history of life on Earth. And why not? The science on evolution hasn’t changed nearly as much as astronomy–at least not yet. The coming biotech wave is still in its infancy.
I’d like to note at this point that for all the hype about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dismissal of Creationism in the new series, Carl Sagan was not a man to shy away from criticism of fundamentalist religion. After all, this was the man who wrote The Demon-Haunted World. And the man who spent quite a bit of screen time talk about the highly speculative (then and now) theories about the origin of life. Even Dr. Tyson’s most in-your-face assertion, that evolution is not a theory, but a fact, was taken straight from the original.
But, sadly, mentioning evolution at all draws heat from Creationists, as the latest round of criticism shows.
Episode 3 of the new series again draws heavily on the original, but here, Dr. Tyson actually backs off from Dr. Sagan’s confrontational script. Both episodes talk about how we came to understand the motions of the heavens, overcoming the mythology and superstition of the past, but while Dr. Sagan uses the opportunity to mount a full-frontal assault on astrology, Dr. Tyson talks about the old superstition of comets being harbingers of doom. I have absolutely no problem with this. Both are great stories, and I enjoyed Dr. Tyson’s account of Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley easily as much as Dr. Sagan’s story of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. In fact I would call this episode the best of the new series so far.
The most recent episode mixes things up and draws most heavily on Episode 8 of the original series, discussing the time it takes for light to travel around the universe, telescopes as time machines, and the Theory of Relativity, with black holes borrowed from Episode 9. This episode is a reminder, perhaps more so than the others, that CGI technology has come a long way since 1980. The episode is certainly visually impressive, although given the leaps that have been made in cosmology in the past 34 years, the science content was surprisingly similar to the original.
Overall, I’d say that the new Cosmos series continues to deliver. While it’s had its ups and downs, it has been a solid followup to the original. I do, however, have one consistent complaint about the new series: the music just isn’t as good. The original Cosmos had a theme song that really carried it well, and its soundtrack is laced with classics like Vivaldi, Mozart, Stravinsky, and, of course, Holst’s The Planets. Dr. Tyson’s Cosmos would have done well to have taken that page from its predecessor.