SUPER CORN! The Science of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Episode 2: “Some of the Things That Molecules Do”

As a mostly educational program Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is meant to inspire a sense of wonder in its viewers, regardless of their background, along with a desire to explore the worlds around them in the same curious manner as host Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Ship of the Imagination.

Towards that end, instead of simply recapping and reviewing each episode, I’ll be assembling a list of Really Cool Things behind the science. Want to learn more about what you saw in the program? Come this way!

This week we’ll dig deeper into episode 2, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do” and meet some adorable foxes, raise an eyebrow at What We’ve Done To Corn, and see a map of Titan that could double as an epic fantasy world.

“Some of the Things That Molecules Do” dug into our understanding of artificial and natural selection, how that leads to the theory of evolution, how that gives us an understanding of how life has evolved on Earth over the course of hundreds of millions of years, and how it might evolve on other planets.


In the order that these concepts are explored in the episode:

  • The show’s explanation of how the dog became domesticated is eye-opening, but you might be surprised at how quickly canines can become domesticated! A 40-year experiment in Russia studied how a separate population of silver foxes went from being feral and aggressive to being human-friendly just by changing their environment over the course of a handful of generations.


Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 2: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

Photo by Lyudmila N. Trut

  • It’s not all cute faces and floofy tails, though. Our domestication of the dog is so successful that we’re actually damaging some of them genetically through artificially selective breeding practices.
  • Mankind’s shaping of its environment isn’t just limited to domesticating wild animals, though. We shape everything in ways that we feel will better suit us, from animals, to plants, to the land around us. That corn on the cob? That is not corn. That is SUPER CORN.
  • We live in the paused breath of an ice age, one that enjoyed a small resurgence as North America was colonized by Europe, that is called an “interglacial period.” The planet has undergone runaway ice ages many times before, some so extreme that any aliens coming to visit millions of years ago would have seen nothing but an entirely frozen world.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 2: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

Wouldn't want to live there but the skiing is…endless.

  • P.S.—We figured out that the Earth had become a giant snowball in the past at about the same time we were rocking out to A Hard Day’s Night.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson mentions proteins called “kinesins” in his explanation of DNA and what we see are these creepy bobble-headed dandelion things with two tiny feet. Artistic license? No, that’s actually how they function. They look alive, but their movement is automatic and caused by the attraction and repulsion that their little feetsies cause in the microtubules they’re crawling on.

    So you’re full of creepers is what I’m saying.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 2: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 2: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

  • That’s an Anomalocaris! They were one of the planet’s first top sea predators, well before the dinosaurs. They’re also arthropods, just like crabs, spiders, and pretty much everything else that creeps me out big time. For millions of years, arthropods were the best they were at what they did, and that’s why they are just the worst. Blerrrgh!
  • Want to know more about these five great extinctions? You should, because they’re pretty insane. io9’s Annalee Newitz wrote a great book about it called Scatter, Adapt, and Remember.
  • You know who isn’t an arthropod? Dimetrodons! These precursors to the dinosaurs we know and love and want to ride down Fifth Avenue are the skeletons that Tyson kept staring at as he was discussing the Great Dying that closed the Permian Period. FACT. Dimetrodons are not dinosaurs. FACT. They’re still awesome.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey episode 2: Some of the Things That Molecules Do

In or out of the original packaging.

  • We seem to know a lot about Saturn’s moon Titan, which sports the most dense atmosphere of any moon in the solar system. That’s because we sent both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to look at it, diverting Voyager 1 from its originally intended fly-bys of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. In 2004 we sent Cassini-Huygens to really give Saturn and its moons the attention they deserve, resulting in a ton of new information about the gas giant, its rings, and its moons.
  • In fact, here’s a colorized version of what we’ve mapped thus far on Titan’s surface. It looks like a fantasy world! Especially that ominous “Kraken Mare” area…


If you’ve got something to add or correct, post away in the comments below!

Chris Lough must be living in some kind of particle accelerator because he is excited. Study his collisions on Twitter.


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