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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Everyone knows the familiar sight of DNA’s double helix, that ladder that twists around and around and around and around, but what you may not know is that simply determining the shape of DNA was a bit of an arms race within the scientific community itself and that the three men awarded the Nobel Prize for determining the double helix, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins, would not have confirmed DNA’s shape without the x-ray crystallography work of Rosalind Franklin. Sadly, Franklin was ineligible for the Nobel, having died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37, five years before the award was given. In fact, it is likely she was never aware that her work was used to bolster Watson and Crick’s work. Google noted her contribution in 2013.
- We actually only recently photographed DNA using an electron microscope. How’d we do it? An Italian scientist essentially hung some DNA out to dry.
- Do you have an identical twin? You both started out the same from a genetic standpoint, but you won’t end up the same. Your DNA alters over time based on what kind of environments and microorganisms you encounter. You are the sum total of all the punches with which you roll.
- When Tyson is discussing the slow evolution of the eye, he eventually gets to a point where a flatworm evolves sharp sight just in time to spot a creepy sea monster with two tusks.
- 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.
- 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!