Ending the Tyranny of Knowledge. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

It’s funny; I didn’t expect to be the wrong audience for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

I love space. It’s vast and full of dramatic extremes and it contains every story there is to tell. All you have to do is get me in the right mood (re: brunch) and I’ll relay how we could build a warp drive right now if we only had a type of matter that doesn’t exist, or how disappointed I’ll be if we don’t find evidence before I die of an exoplanet actively harboring life.

To be sure, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s renewed Cosmos mini-series conveys that same awe and excitement clearly and gorgeously. But its debut episode “Standing Up In the Milky Way” certainly made me feel alone in the universe, in ways both intended and not.

That was definitely the desired effect of Tyson’s “cosmic address” sequence, which introduced our narrator, his ship of the imagination, and the dazzling visuals that we all hoped a 21st century Cosmos could provide. As readers and fans of science fiction, we’ve grown up with interstellar vistas by Ron Miller, Ludek Pesek, Chesley Bonestell, and so many more facing out at us from our bookshelves. These vibrant windows of possibility join images from the Hubble telescope and other probes in showing us a universe that surrounds us with color and texture. And now, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey gives us a way to sail through these static images in a way that we will never get to realize in our lifetime. Jupiter’s cliff-faces of clouds soaring higher than the Earth itself… The moon assembling from bits of our own planet… The eternal blizzard of Saturn’s rings… This new Cosmos can make the sheer audacity of our stellar backyard real in a way that Sagan himself could not.

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey

But even as we the viewer learned what our cosmic address is, I felt a growing frustration with the sequence. The show zips furiously through our solar system and into the universe beyond it, and at every stop I kept waiting for Tyson to drop one more tidbit of knowledge, one more extra something that would make me want to explore further on my own. Wasn’t he going to explain why Mercury doesn’t simply drop into the sun? Would he let us know that mankind is unable to construct a probe that can last on Venus for more than a few minutes before it melts? We see the moon forming from the Earth, but how do we know that’s what happened? He zips right by Uranus and Neptune, then sits pensively while he approaches Pluto, the very planet he demoted. (Okay, not really.)

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey

Tyson didn’t need to explain everything, of course, but there was an element of excitement missing for me as he recited facts that I already knew. The facts are astonishingly visualized, but aside from little bits about rogue planets and the first animal to walk on the surface of the Earth, the generalized overview we receive in “Standing Up In the Milky Way” isn’t all that different from one of the shows at Tyson’s own Hayden Planetarium.

It’s this reaction that gave me pause, however. Just because I know this doesn’t mean that everyone else does. Worse yet, part of my assumption that everyone around me already has this knowledge is driven by the personal frustration that I feel when this becomes apparent. I recently took a college science course where I discovered that the majority of the students didn’t even know how many planets we had in our solar system, or what they were called. This is such an important thing to know, I wanted to scream. Did you never wonder where you are? It’s times like this when you feel truly (and somewhat pedantically) alone in the universe.

Thankfully, I didn’t scream that (or anything at all) and the class continued onwards. The students left with a wider understanding of Earth, our solar system, and their place within the universe, unencumbered by any of my unthinking outrage.

Wanting to be tyrannical about knowledge is a weird place to find yourself in. Your own urge to tear down boundaries to learning suddenly becomes more destructive than constructive, and you end up turning away those who yearn to discover more. You become a hoarder, a barrier, the very thing you’d been striving to move past. Those who are just beginning to test their curiosity look to you for guidance and see a face that judges instead of a welcoming smile. It’s a situation not all that uncommon from the animated depiction of Giordano Bruno that the episode presents.

Cosmos A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos’ real brilliance lays in avoiding this trap and Spacetime Odyssey does so gloriously in its premiere episode. Before we can really dig into the universe around us, we need to know what it is, and how long it took for us to get here, and that’s exactly what “Standing Up In the Milky Way” provides. Without judgment. Without cynicism. Without weirdos like me yelling, “BUT TELL THEM HOW WE KNOW ROGUE PLANETS EXIST BECAUSE IT IS TEH AWESOM!!!”

That striving for inclusivity is what makes A Spacetime Odyssey a truly worthy successor to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It honors Sagan’s life in showing you that knowledge you may have always thought was out of reach is actually a part of your day to day life. That you know more than you think. That you can choose to believe that you’re alone in the universe, but that you’re very much not.

We’re all on this journey together. And thanks to Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, we’re on our way again.


Dwarf planets:

  • President Obama taped an intro for the show! That’s quite a “get” for the universe. You can watch it here:

  • I go back and forth on the animation style in the show. It looked like a puppet show in comparison to the CONSTANT HD BEAUTY of the cosmos, but the more I think back on it the more I like it. The “bowl of stars” in particular was so fittingly dreamy.
  • Point Lobos! I just went there for the first time over this past Christmas so I’m jazzed to have possibly scampered over the same rocks as Neil and Carl.
  • If our awareness of our own cosmos lasts only 14 seconds on the cosmic calendar it makes you wonder if that’s just how it goes in a universe this big. (If we only get 14 seconds, that is.) As if the timeline of all existence is patched together with a billion billion instances of 14 second windows casting about for their neighbors and always finding themselves too late or too early…
  • Check out the upcoming episode titles. I want to read every single one of those novels.
  • How amazing was Neil’s story of going to Carl Sagan’s house as a boy?

Chris Lough wouldn’t one-way it to Mars but would drop his life savings to take a trip into space. But first he has to get life savings. Find him on Twitter.


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