Want to know more about the Really Cool Things behind the science and history revealed in this week’s episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey? This must be the place!
This week we’ll dig deeper into episode 3, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear” and look at the constellations of Middle-earth, galaxies that SHOOT LASERS, how awesome-not-awesome Isaac Newton was, and the galactic cataclysm pinwheeling towards us right now.
In the order that these concepts are explored in the episode:
- Tyson is not fucking around when he states that pattern recognition is key to our current level of intelligence. Your comprehension of these sentences is you literally recognizing the pattern of the language I’m using. My writing of these sentences is me acting by altering stored patterns that I have learned. We build ceaselessly on the patterns that we recognize, resulting in advances in science, culture, and in our personal growth. We are so aware of the patterns of our lives that we sense when they’re off, even if we don’t actually know what’s gone wrong. This field is so vast that Cosmos could spend the entire series digging into the various ways that it emerges in our lives.
- So when Robert Jordan posits in his hugenormous epic fantasy The Wheel of Time that the entirety of reality is essentially a Pattern being woven, he’s not incorrect. This is how we perceive reality.
- We recognize the potency of pattern recognition so immediately that we’re imbuing that ability into our machines. The device you’re reading this on possesses similar recognition skills (Damn you, auto-correct!) and Ray “Singularity” Kurzweil himself has spoken and written at length about how artificial intelligence will emerge from this ability in the same manner that our intelligence cohered millions of years ago.
- Our pattern recognition abilities are so aggressive that we often take to heart false patterns, from mundane shapes in clouds to conspiracy theories to obsessive-compulsive disorders. To put it in the form of an XKCD comic strip: correlation does not imply causation! But even false recognition benefits by promoting our imaginations. Long ago, we saw the shapes from our world in the stars above us, making them more recognizable and allowing us to track time and the seasons.
- And we saw these constellations from a myriad of different perspectives, as the show points out. The Chinese constellations are divided into houses and courts (The Silver River is a nice name for our galaxy, wouldn’t you say?) while ours and India’s get divvied up amongst mythological beings.
- Even with this cultural variation, the most recognizable constellations in the sky tend to inspire similar interpretations across cultural and geographical barriers. Orion inspires thoughts of the hunt.
- Orion makes such an impression that he even exists in the sky of Middle-earth under the Quenya name Menelmacar. It is “said to represent Turin Turambar, and told of his eventual return in the Dagor Dagorath to kill Morgoth. Another of the early stars made by Varda.”
- Which means the Battle of Helm’s Deep, which began on March 3rd, was fought under Orion!
- Our solar system is ridiculously big. Remember when we celebrated that Voyager 1 had finally left the solar system and entered interstellar space? It’s still got hundred of years before it reaches our Oort Cloud.
The scale in this diagram is of AUs, which is the distance between Earth and the Sun, which is 93 million miles. It’s taken Voyager I decades to cover 100 AUs and it will take ten times that long for it to reach the Oort Cloud. There’s every possibility that we’ll get there in manned spacecraft before Voyager does. Full power to the deflectors!
- Also, that tilt that the solar system has in the episode? That’s how we look from the perspective of the galactic plane.
- One of the theories behind why Earth has sustained life for such long unbroken periods is that we’re protected by Jupiter and the outer gas giants in our solar system, which act as gravitational shields that fling incoming comets away from us. For a long time we thought this was how most solar systems form, so once our search for exoplanets began in earnest we were surprised to find that gas giants actually tend to stay much closer to their stars than ours do. We’re the weird ones.
- Tyson kind of skips over the supermassive black holes at the center of our galaxy, which is unfortunate because they’re so weird. We’ve spotted them at the center of other galaxies and we suspect that most galaxies might have black holes that gravitate towards their center, although contrary to how it may seems, black holes themselves aren’t massive enough to hold a galaxy together. But they also constantly shoot out jets of pure energy as big as our solar system and that’s pretty cool!
- This week’s episode gave us some seriously awesome lowdown on Halley and Newton, which makes even more sense when you find out that Newton is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite scientist ever. He not-drunkenly explains why:
- Edmund Halley repeatedly exclaiming “Hell’s bells” is an anachronism, as the phrase can’t be traced back earlier than the 19th century.
- 17th century coffeehouses charged admission alongside the charge for coffee. And the coffee was weak, syrupy, and often reheated from the previous day. Still, it was a brand new confection for the people of England to experience and they loved it. Well, guys loved it. Because caffeine is awesome but also because it was touted as a sexual aid, adding “spiritual ascendancy to the sperm.”
- Isaac Newton was as put-upon as he appeared in the show, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t also a dick. Even Kitty Pryde agrees!
- Alchemy was a fascination of amateur scientists for centuries and eventually gave birth to the vast but more ordered field of chemistry. Are you a fan of the Harry Potter series? You’ve been exposed to more alchemical history than you know.
- Cosmos is unclear in this regard, but Isaac Newton did not write De Historia piscium (The History of Fish). The author, an ornithologist and ichthyologist by the name of Francis Willughby, wasn’t even alive when his groundbreaking debut work Ornithologia libri tres was published. The History of Fish was perhaps intended to be a follow-up to Willughby’s bestselling work, but as Cosmos points out, it didn’t quite set the world on fire. (Perhaps it should have been called Finding Nemo?)
- We know how far away the Sun is thanks to the magic of PARALLAX! The math behind using the transit of Venus to measure the distance of our home star is actually fairly easy to pull off these days. You can do it yourself right now!
- Halley’s Comet last zoomed by us in 1986, nearly 30 years ago. So where is it now? Way past Neptune and almost on its way back.
- The episode mentions that Hooke died from abuse of opium and wormwood, but what the hell is wormwood? It’s a hallucinatory/toxic plant that was used in the brewing of beer and absinthe in the middle ages! (And now, actually.)
- Exciting that the huge neighboring Andromeda galaxy is going to smash into us, right? KABLAMMO! End of life on Earth! Except not. The “collision” is going to be so gradual that there’s only a 12% chance we’ll be thrown wide from the Milky Way. (And even then, we’d still be anchored to our star.) Also, the collision is not going to occur for four billion years, near the end of our Sun’s life and long after the Earth becomes incapable of supporting life. (But after the events of Doctor Who episode “The End of the World.” Weird, right?)
- Finally, this isn’t in the show, but I can’t help but think about it any time I see the title of this past weekend’s episode:
Want more questions answered? Check out the Ask A Scientist Cosmos thread on Reddit.
You can watch the episode itself on Hulu.
If you’ve got something to add or correct, post away in the comments below!