TV Review: Cosmos: Possible Worlds

Cosmos Possible Worlds title card.jpg

Last fall, I posted about the newest season of Cosmos, “Possible Worlds.” That post only covered the first two episodes, since it was the premier night (on broadcast). I was going to update every couple weeks, but with all the chaos of the election season and November being the busiest month of the year in my line of work, it just never happened. Then, I was waiting for the last episodes so I could do the whole season, but they never aired.

Except they did. I didn’t figure out until weeks after the fact that they changed up the schedule on me. (Cough. Firefly. Cough.) Episodes 10, 11, and 13 were aired on Mondays instead of the usual Tuesdays, and I never heard about the change because I rarely watch TV outside of a few specific shows. It was especially confusing because Episode 12 still aired on a Tuesday. Something about holiday scheduling, maybe?

Anyway, after having watched the remaining episodes, I can finally post my review of Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

Episode 3 is “Lost City of Life.” To some extent, it mirrors Episode 3 of both previous series, both of which were about evolution. However, “Lost City of Life” is more about the origin of life, which is a distinct scientific theory. It also showcases Victor Goldschmidt, the geologist who made the connection between physics, chemistry, geology, and the origin of life, and whose name graces a version of the periodic table to this day.

There were a couple of oddities here. I might have missed it, but I Dr. Tyson he left out the fact that the Sun was dimmer in the past, which is why Earth froze over despite still having a fair amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. Also, I’d never heard of NASA’s “five categories” of planetary protection (the rules about not contaminating other planets with Earth life), although they apparently are real.

Episode 4, “Vavilov,” is about Nikolai Vavilov, the Russian scientist who collected the world’s largest repository of seeds at the time, searching for the genetic origin of our crops and trying to stop the famines that gripped the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Vavilov’s protege, Trofim Lysenko, seeking political power and support for his rival theories, wormed his way into Stalin’s sphere of influence and embarked on a campaign against Vavilov that ultimately saw Vavilov dying in a Soviet prison.

This episode is unusual in that it’s the only episode of any of the three series that is titled with a person’s name. I was interested enough to double check, and Carl Sagan’s version had titles that all referenced the science, and almost all referencing space. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s version seems to focus more on the biographies, which is fine, but even then, they found more poetic names: “The Electric Boy” for Michael Faraday and “The Man of a Trillion Worlds” for Sagan himself. You’d think they could come up with a better name for this one.

Also, the sudden jump from animation to stop-motion was kind of weird. I’m pretty sure they haven’t done that before.

Episode 5, “The Cosmic Connectome,” talks about how we came to understand the human brain over the years, gradually bringing it from superstition to scientific rigor. There are hints here of Episode 11 of the original series, “The Persistence of Memory,” but it’s more about the development of neurology.

Episode 6, “The Man of a Trillion Worlds,” is a tribute to Carl Sagan himself, and his two great mentors, astronomer Gerard Kuiper and chemist Harold Urey—and the new field of planetary science they helped build.

Episode 7, “The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth,” asks the question about whether first contact with an alien race could go well, but Dr. Tyson comes at it from a different angle, talking about the mycelium network in forest and the symbolic language of bees as examples of humans meeting beings with complex language that is very alien to ours. It’s an interesting perspective, but I’m not sure he really answered the question.

Episode 8, “The Sacrifice of Cassini,” is not just about the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, but about the exploration of the Solar System, from Giovanni Cassini’s telescope observations, to Yuri Kondratyuk’s 1925 book about rocketry, which detailed the gravity assist maneuvers used by NASA for the Apollo mission and later to steer Cassini around Saturn’s moons.

Again, they changed up the format. Addressing a live-action, but silent Galileo, Christian Huygens, and Édouard Roche in the second person instead of making it an animated skit like usual was kind of weird. (The live-action characters reappeared as holograms in the last episode.) Also, the personification of the doomed Cassini spacecraft was really over the top.

Episode 9, “Magic Without Lies,” is about the paradoxical and seemingly “magical” properties of quantum physics, and the people all the way from Newton to Einstein who teased them out.

Episode 10, “A Tale of Two Atoms,” is about the history of the atomic bomb, and a cautionary tale of being aware of the danger around us. This episode was actually based on a story co-written by Carl Sagan himself. The two atoms, created in far different parts of the galaxy, are a carbon atom in the DNA of Marie Curie and a uranium atom that decays, mutating a cell in…the wing of a butterfly. I was really expecting there to be a closer connection there. And it wasn’t obvious from the summary, but there are echoes here of the final episode of the original series, “Who Speaks for Earth?” with its strong message against nuclear proliferation.

Episode 11, “The Fleeting Grace of the Habitable Zone” (the one transplanted to Episode 2 in the National Geographic run) is about the fate of our Solar System, and how we might one day colonize other worlds.

I was disappointed that Dr. Tyson made two errors here. First, contrary to his narration, during the Sun’s red giant phase, the Sun may well get too bright even for Neptune’s moon Triton to be habitable. And second, that doesn’t matter anyway because Triton won’t be there. Triton orbits backwards, and that means, while our own Moon is slowly spiraling outward, the backward Triton is slowly spiraling inward. In about 3.6 billion years, it will crash into Neptune, forming a massive ring system, so it won’t be available for future colonization.

(Also, Dr. Tyson did what almost every popular science show and book seems to do and glossed over the horizontal branch stage of the Sun, which will last much longer, and where Jupiter’s moons would be the most habitable part of the Solar System–if there’s still anything left there. Red giants are not friendly to life even if it migrates with the habitable zone.)

Next was Episode 12, “Coming of Age in the Anthropocene.” The episode is framed as a story of the history of the Earth and the human race told to a baby born in 2019 (or more likely 2018 when the show was filmed). Dr. Tyson contrasts the myth of Cassandra, who prophesied the fall of Troy, but was ignored, with the successful effort to limit CFCs to protect the ozone layer.

And I know that Cosmos has always been on the political bandwagon, with its anti-nuclear message in the original and its environmental message today, but predicting that the world will literally look like Mad Max[1] by 2039 if we don’t address climate change was really over-the-top.

Finally, Episode 13, “Seven Wonders of the New World,” shows the same young woman in a vision of a potential better future at the 2039 World’s Fair, 100 years after the World’s Fair that inspired Carl Sagan’s interest in science. It also brings back Sagan’s idea of the “Encyclopedia Galactica” from the original Cosmos.

Overall, this was a pretty good season, which was marred by multiple instances of getting completely screwed up in the release. I won’t speculate on why that happened, but I do hope that they get things straightened out for Ann Druyan’s anticipated fourth season in the future.

[1] OG Mel Gibson Mad Max; not Fury Road.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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