This is my review of Episodes 5-9 of the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. See my review of Episodes 1-4 here.
The middle third of the new Cosmos series branches out more from the original, tackling many new topics, although it still hearkens back to earlier concepts like the Cosmic Calendar and the Tree of Life.
Episode 5, “Hiding in the Light,” is an all new story describing the nature of light, the history of cameras and optics, and the discovery of absorption lines in the spectrum of the Sun by Joseph von Fraunhofer. Thus, we explore a dimension of our knowledge of the universe that was skipped over in the original. The near-fairy tale story of Fraunhofer delightfully takes center stage, but his discovery will be very important in a few episodes.
Episode 6, “Deeper, Deeper, Deeper Still,” explores the world of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles, from the atomic theory of Democritus to Wolfgang Pauli’s prediction of the existence of the neutrino–a whirlwind tour of the very small right up to the development of modern neutrino detectors. This episode draws a little on Episode 9 of the original series, “The Lives of Stars”.
Episode 7, “The Clean Room”, focuses in and tells the story of one man: Clair Patterson. Patterson’s many achievements include inventing the clean room, determining the age of the Earth, and, finally, his multi-year crusade against the powerful Ethyl Corporation to remove lead from gasoline. Patterson’s story is compelling and highlights the best of Dr. Tyson and Co.’s storytelling skills.
Episodes 8, “Sisters of the Sun”, again draws upon “The Lives of Stars”–more thoroughly, in fact, than any of the episodes, describing the life cycles of stars in detail, but it also particular tells the story of the women pioneers of modern astronomy: Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who developed the science of stellar classification, a way to measure the distances to distant stars and galaxies, and discovered the mostly-hydrogen composition of the stars, respectively. Once again, the stories are told well, and as an astrophysicist, I definitely appreciate the mainstream attention these women are getting.
Episode 9, “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth”, tells of Earth’s geological history from the Carboniferous Period to the present. The formation of fossil fuels, continental drift, mass extinctions, the evolution of mammals, and ice ages are explored. Personally, I felt that the focus on climate change toward the end was a bit heavy handed, but no more so than the anti-nuclear stance of the original.
Overall, while I felt that the first few episodes had some weak spots, once the show gave itself room to strike out on its own, the content has been very good, and I think it does hold up to the original Cosmos. I am excited to see what the final four episodes have in store.