Mar 19 2014 11:00am

SUPER CORN! The Science of 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

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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...

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


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.

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I believe the other dead species glimpsed in the Permian extinction "hall" was some kind of gorgonopsid. Both they and the Dimetrodon were synapsids, actually a closer ancestor of mammals than of reptiles/dinosaurs/birds.

Unfortunately we've been brainwashed into seeing all vaguely reptilian extinct animals as "dinosaurs" even though many of them were not. The TV series Primeval, about extinct prehistoric creatures coming through time rifts, was a major offender. Their first season admirably avoided showing any actual dinosaurs at all (though it had a couple of contemporaries like ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs), but it routinely referred to various non-dinosaur creatures including gorgonopsids as "dinosaurs."

And yeah, I recognized Anomalocaris from Walking with Monsters, aka Before the Dinosaurs, one of the pseudo-documentary specials from the same company that later made Primeval. I based an alien species in a Star Trek novelette on them.

On the twin-DNA thing, are these differences enough to be detectable by a test? Is every cop-show episode about DNA tests mistaking people for their twins -- or for their clones if it's an SF story -- now obsolete?
2. WillR
Hmm, I'm not sure if I'd call it "brainwashed" so much as that all of these creatures do look a lot like what we've come to know as "dinosaurs," to the point that a layperson can't distinguish them. And it's easier to just refer to them that way than "this thing that looks like a dinosaur but I'm not quite sure because I'm not an expert in paleontology."
Chris Lough
3. TorChris
Chris, my understanding is that the differences can be detected, but you really have to dig. Here's an article about a case like that from last year.

In general, the mechanism of DNA (and RNA and so on) is extremely complex and the more we understand of it the more fluid it seems to be. Author Sam Kean recently put out a great introductory book about this called The Violinist's Thumb that goes into more detail.
Shelly wb
4. shellywb
I have to say I was really impressed with the explanations offered in this week's Cosmos. They neatly took apart all the arguments the intelligent design crowd uses, and they presented evolution in such a manner as to make it easier to understand for people with less scientific background. My husband said he finally got how cool molecular genetics is, maybe because he sees the machine-like quality of it now, the geek.

That study with foxes is just fascinating.
Thomas Thatcher
5. StrongDreams
I'm finding the new Cosmos to be oversimplified and over-CGI. Lately I've been re-watching James Burke's series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. Still brilliant, and much more engaging to see Burke walking around in the mud of a (pretend) medieval village than to see Tyson in his sterile green screen ship of the imagination.
Thomas Thatcher
6. StrongDreams
Possibly in the future, your "identical twin" problem will be a thing of the past, but not quite yet. For example, it is possible (in fact, likely) that there will be epigenetic differences between different tissues of the same person, as well as differences between twins. There's a lot of research that would have to be done to qualify epigenetics for forensic purposes.
Mahesh Banavar
7. maheshkb
A few thoughts:

TorChris: I like the direction you are taking this "recap".

I liked this much better than the previous episode.

I am still not liking the CGI, but the sequence describing the evolution of the eye was really well done.

When he talked about the dog evolution, all I was thinking of was the study with the foxes. Mentioning the fox study is probably too much detail for the show, but I was hoping for some discussion about change in legs, jaw shape, etc.

When talking about cell replication and DNA, look up the Telomere. That is why cell replication does not go on forever, making us mortal.

Not just super corn, this can be seen in almost everthing we eat/use. Think GM Rice, Bt cotton, so many more.
8. Michael E. Rubin
I thought it was a bit cheeky and brilliant to not only take apart the arguments for intelligent design and creationism using logic and evidence, but by co-opting their use of language as well. For example, NDT calling evolution a powerful spiritual act was brilliant. Also, by specifically stating that a theory isn't just someone's "opinion," he clearly and eloquently debunked the willful ignorance that critics of Darwinism sometimes disolay when making their counterarguments.

And lastly, I must admit I got teary when they showed the 40-second animation of evolution at the end. I was 6 years old when I watched the original Cosmos, and that animation is still one of my most vivid recollections.
9. JamesPadraicR
On a snowy evening last April, Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave a talk at a local college. I was sitting in the back seat of a friend's car with my mother's service dog, Chaim, an Old English Sheepdog. While we were trying to find a parking spot we ended up behind the main buildings, just as guess who came out a back door along with some handlers guiding him to the next building. The driver opened her window to say Hi, and ask someone were to park. Tyson came over and shook her hand. I was trying to figure out how to open the window, while he had seen Chaim poke his head up, and he tapped on the window (curses! I couldn't get it open in time).

After the talk, which was excellent, my mother, and our friend made a quick exit and took Chaim to the next building where the book signing was. I was caught up in the crowd, making my way there. My mother was resting near the entrance when Tyson came in and as he passed gave Chaim a pat on the head.

I choose to believe that the grey and white dog at the end of the animated segment of this episode was not a coincidence. Though Chaim would never snarl like that.
Steven Lyle Jordan
10. Futurisk
Well, let's face it: James Burke is a hard act to follow. He was more polished and engaging than Tyson is, and even more than Sagan was in my book. Cosmos could try to capture that, if they hadn't blown so much money on the SFX that they couldn't use actors in scenes for Tyson to walk around in (the cartoons are the weakest part of Cosmos).
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
@10: The assumption you're making there is that animation is cheaper than live action, and I'm not sure that's the case. After all, animation is itself a visual effect. It's certainly a lot more time-consuming to create than live action, and time is money. Its inclusion is a creative choice, not a budgetary compromise.

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