The New Cosmos Series

A couple of years ago it was announced that there would be a new Cosmos series, patterned after the 1980 series by Carl Sagan, this time featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’m on record as being a huge fan of the original series — I would say that it’s one of the most influential TV series in my own personal history — and the new series was going to have Ann Druyan, Sagan’s wife, as a producer, so I was reasonably certain that the new version would stick to the basic concept of the original, gussied up with current effects and such. So I was looking forward it when it showed up.

The first episode aired last night on Fox (which is significant in itself — an unabashedly pro-science documentary show on commercial network TV? Even the original series could only manage PBS), and I have to say I was pretty content with what I saw. As someone who has written an astronomy book and is well steeped in science, I’m not the target audience for the show — there’s nothing that Neil deGrasse Tyson is going to say in the series that I’m not already very likely to know — but as I said last night, if I were ten years old, the age I was when the original series came out, my mind would be blown. The show is colorful and beautiful to look at, nicely-paced and edited and Tyson is a pleasant host. He’s not Sagan, but then why should he be? Being himself is sufficient.

But the main reason why the show works this time is the same reason why the show worked the first time — it’s unabashedly aimed at a popular audience. I’ve said before that one of the things I learned from the original series is that so much of science is understandable to the average person; I thumbnail it as “anyone can get 80% of any scientific topic.” That other 20% is what takes real attention — but if you can get most people 80% of the way there, just by speaking plain language and being engaging while you do so, the benefits can be enormous in the long run. This series is made to provide that 80%. 

This Cosmos series, like the one before it, doesn’t shy away from firmly establishing scientific principles and theory as factual and necessary; it’s even confident enough to point out the things we don’t know because the suggestion is that by adhering to the simple scientific principles of questioning, testing and observing, we might eventually learn more about them. I think presenting these things as desirable in themselves and not in conflict with any other sort of thinking is pretty smart.

Quibbles? I have a few. The tour of the solar system in the first episode featured an overly populated asteroid belt; the music by Alan Silvestri is decent but so far not on the same level as the iconic music of the original series, provided by Vangelis; I thought the animated bit about Giordano Bruno went on a bit long. I also note that these are thing the nearly-45-year-old John Scalzi would notice; I don’t know that the 10-year-old me would notice them, or care if he did.

Overall, I’m happy with the new series so far, and positively delighted that Fox is giving it the sort of play that it is — launching it on nine other of its networks aside from its flagship commercial network is not insignificant. Will it have the same impact that the original series had? I don’t know, although it would be nice. But even if it doesn’t, I don’t have any doubt that there are kids out there who will take to it like I took to the original. And what a gift that would be, to set into motion a new generation of scientists, writers and thinkers, lighting candles against the darkness of a demon-haunted world.

95 Comments on “The New Cosmos Series”

  1. I’m old enough, like you, John, to have seen the original Cosmos on its original run. I saw the first episode, and then the second was on my birthday (what a present) and I was hooked. Never managed to become a scientist, but a love of science and the natural world came with Cosmos’ help.

    I hope the new Cosmos can do the same.

  2. Loved the original and looking forward to falling in love with the new version – I’m thrilled to see a major network giving this so much airtime and hope we can jumpstart more young minds to travel the path of science…
    … and if not science, then science fiction. Because heck, why not?

  3. We watched the premiere as a family, and though it’s hardly a scientific sampling, my ten-year old son loved it, and is eager to both re-watch the first and see the rest of the series.

  4. Am I the only one who wishes it came on at 8 instead of 9? I think if it’s truly meant to be aimed at the family-friendly crowd too, it’d be nice to be able to watch it with my kids and still get them to bed by 9 on a school night.

  5. I liked it. It seemed like a good starting point for new viewers. And if you want to attract viewers who don’t spend their lives watching “Science” and “Discovery” and all that, then you need to start out with the basics like “where are we in the universe”.

    I did notice they spent a chunk of time on Giordano Bruno, but only mentioned Copernicus and Galileo in passing. At the same time, they burned Bruno at the stake, so I think it is worthwhile to point out “separation of church and state” as its own technological advancement, on par with the invention of the telescope.

    There were a couple times where they seemed to be trying a bit too hard with the CGI. But I look forward to the rest of the series.

  6. Jackie:

    The Simpsons and Family Guy (in particular) pay for Cosmos, is why, I suspect.

    My thinking there is if you let them stay up to watch the show, it will be extra special in their minds. This is not a bad thing.

  7. I am looking forward to showing it to my ten-year-old twins in the next couple days, and hope they are as impacted as 10-yr-old you were by the original.

  8. I too watched the original and was greatly touched and inspired by it. This new version (not for me, true) is, I think, a worthy successor except for one troubling note: the ditching of religious dogma (“thought police”) is a bit heavy-handed throughout (starting with d-T’s enumeration of the scientific method, through a long shot of the vatican followed by narration that talks about “growing up”, through the Bruno animation…etc). I’m afraid that the negative portrayal might turn off some with religious leanings who might otherwise have engaged with it. The original Cosmos managed to handle its issues in a completely positive way, and, yes, while it is true that various religious faiths can have suppression of knowledge and science laid at their feet and getting out from under that was an important milestone in our “cosmic journey”, I felt this version was a bit heavy-handed in this regard.

  9. I too am at John’s age and am of the OG Cosmos cohort. I made my kids (14 and 12) watch last night — it didn’t take much prodding — and found it fairly satisfying. My 12 year-old daughter came away “disturbed” by having to contemplate both the enormity of the cosmos and the insignificance of human existence. Mission accomplished!

    I will say that the one thing I found annoying was, commercial television. So steeped am I now in time-shifted video watching where commercials can mostly be skipped that I found Fox’s very frequent commercial breaks really, really jarring. I counted six or seven three minute breaks. The jump from transcendent exploration of all existence to crass commercialism couldn’t have been more jarring. Enough that we might just wait it out and watch the whole thing on Netflix later. But we will watch. Definitely worthwhile.

  10. The original was an indelible part of my childhood, so much so that I searched out VHS tapes of it to show my children, in the I-must-pass-this-on-before-I-die vein. This reboot seems fine, but I have the same quibble about the music (for one thing, the original used varied bits of music during each episode). The presence of ads also really cuts down on run time, and as a consequence this first episode felt a tad thin. Very much enjoyed hearing about Neil de Grass Tyson’s personal connection to Carl Sagan; that was touching.

  11. As a scientist and someone of the same vintage as John, I was also not the target audience, but I thought they did a good job communicating the science they were presenting. The Giordano Bruno stuff could have been more succinct, but it was also the part that was new to me. I had heard of him, but didn’t know most of what was presented. I don’t remember watching the original as a kid, although I probably did. The Jacques Cousteau shows had a bigger impact on me–partly why I am an aquatic biologist. The part of the new show I liked best was the end, where Tyson talked about meeting Sagan at age 17 and the impact it had on him. In addition to better communicating our science to the general public, mentoring the next generation of scientists is also something that can have a great impact. I felt like that part was directed more to someone like me than to the general public. Also, it was very touching to hear him speak about it.

  12. –heh, the copy editor in me notes I left the final “e” off “Grasse” up there, and further research reveals that it should be closed up w/the “de.” Whoops…

  13. I love that Seth MacFarlane is a huge fan of the original “Cosmos” and really went to bat to get Fox to pick up the new “Cosmos”. It’s always nice when people you have preconceptions about reveal themselves to be more complex and multifaceted than you’d have expected.

  14. I just hope if this does well it will bring new versions of other shows as well… (I never saw Cosmos growing up, but I was a huge fan of any series hosted by James Burke!!!) or maybe the Science channel will finally go back to having “Science Classics Weekends” – unfortunately I missed a lot of the advertised ones while living in the dorm and not getting the channel, and while the one that happened when I was in grad school was great (The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke AND old black and white episodes of Mr Wizard) they never had another one again, or at least they didn’t advertise it… Was working last night and didn’t get a chance to watch the new Cosmos yet.

  15. My 14 year old daughter has seen the original (shown during lunch at her school) and watched the premiere with me last night. As soon as it finished, she said, “you do know that you have to get me this as soon as it’s released, right?” They have obviously done something right with this (although I agree about the Bruno segment).

  16. “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

    Carl Sagan ~ The Pale Blue Dot, 1994

    “Just look at it,” I said. “All our lives, it’s the only place we’ve ever been. Everyone we ever knew or loved was there.”

    John Scalzi ~ Old Man’s War, 2005

    Go on, John, let this one stand … or at least when you hammer it, say it was because someone had the temerity to point out your homage.

    Also, it’s not that I even actively dislike you—I’ve been reading your blog every day for a couple of years now. But for some reason the smugness has just reached critical mass. That, and the notion that this is a public forum, except when it’s not …

    That said, the C-word was probably uncalled for. Sorry.

  17. I am very happy about this, but find myself shamed that it airs on FOX, the home of the profoundly anti-science FOX News. At least it’s on the air.

  18. The original cosmos series was great. However, PBS has lately really dumbed down the science shows they do. There is a physics for the general public (or as I call it physics for us dummies) called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. As a lay person I found it fascinating and then when he got to the 6 dimensions and stuff like that it got confusing to me. PBS did a series on this book with Brian Greene hosting. They dumbed it down so much it was a waste of time. Most of it was a bunch of physicists laughing and making jokes. It was a waste of time to watch it.

    If you are interested in this Stephen Hawkings book is absolute the best one to get an idea of what these guys are studying. It is relatively short and he does a terrific job in simplifying what they do. I met a guy working on a PhD in Physics back in the 1990s and he thought the book was great. He was so deep in the weeds he had trouble seeing the big picture. That tells you that its not dumbed down at all. He has a newer version (and more expensive) that has alot more images and pictures in it, but the same material. Its probably available in most libraries in the US so you don’t have to buy it.

    If you like this stuff another place to look is the Teaching Company (I dont work for them so not advertising). They do college level lectures and condense them to 30 minutes. It is real professors. I have listened to or watched over 60 of them over the years. The science ones are only available on video because of the images. The quality is absolutely outstanding. These are expensive, however, sign up on their page 25% of their courses are on sale at any one time and all of them go on sale each year. Check with your library. They market to libraries. The fairfax county library has over 100 of their courses. My favorite one is ‘The Story of Human Languages’ because the guy is funny. I liked when he said the only time he understood Shakespeare was when he saw it in French. This is because the english language has changed in the last 500 years and its hard to figure out the dialogue in English. Wish that video was around when I was in High school so I could show it to my high school english teachers.

    Damn… I bet I really bored alot of people with this post.

  19. My quibble was Giordarno Bruno himself, especially when Tyson admits, seconds later, that Bruno had “a lucky guess.” He wouldn’t be my first choice for Leading Light of Scientific Thought. On he other hand, he’s an example of thinking of the time, and a name many haven’t heard, so that was good.

  20. Ditto – “The part of the new show I liked best was the end, where Tyson talked about meeting Sagan at age 17 and the impact it had on him.” Getting teary-eyed again…

  21. And… I watched it on FX. I didn’t know it was going to be on there, but that was a pleasant surprise since I don’t love FOX.

  22. I found it weird that they spent so much time on Giordano Bruno when his beliefs (according to the show) had little to do with the scientific method, and then one line for Galileo. It should have been the other way around—Bruno comes up with a hypothesis, then we see Galileo testing it.

    Other than that, I liked it and my kids thought it was great :)

  23. I’m trying to figure out if it’s appropriate for my three year-old daughter, who’s recently fallen in love with space travel. I’ll probably have to curate her viewing pretty closely.

  24. My wife and I, who have both taught and published about Astronomy and Cosmology, both worked in the space program, and half of us having worked with Carl Sagan, pretty much agree with you, John Scalzi.

    (1) Tyson is not Sagan, nor needs to be.

    (2) I think it was the Kuiper belt animated to look like the Star Wars Asteroid belt, but sheesh!

    (3) I’ve enjoyed teaching about Giordano Bruno, but maybe it went long (yet good for kids).

    (4) You, me, my wife did not expect to see anything that we did not know and had not taught, yet it was not FOR our demographic.

    (5) The Hayden Planetarium, now run by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s UV-light murals by Chesley Bonestell, helped make me the Quantum Cosmologist that I am today, and my life came full circle the first time I took my wife to New York City, went to the Hayden Planetarium, and saw them display behind glass photographs of the Uranian moon Miranda — which I had taken, as Mission Planning Engineer of Voyager (working with Carl Sagan. [* cue Vangelis music*]

  25. Egil:

    Dude, one of the main characters of OMW has the last name of Sagan. That there are homages to him in the book should be entirely unsurprising, don’t you think?

    Perhaps you should stop reading the site, Egil. It’s not actually any more smug than it’s ever been, and it’s not going to get any less smug as time goes on. And if you can’t control your commenting, you’ll just make both of us unhappy.

  26. I thought it was reverant to religion in an inrreverant way. Particularly in the tale of Giordarno Bruno, it showed that his vision of a universe with a “bigger God” was the correct one, or at least more correct than the one of his critics.

    I think they picked that story as a sort of pre-emptive strike for those who criticize the science presented in Cosmos. There was a fair amount of fundamentalist religious backlash on the original series because of its portrayal of the Big Bang and evolution (yes, I knew people who were vocal in that backlash). By dwelling on Bruno and showing that his religious views encompassed the larger Cosmos without damaging his faith (at least until the bitter end), but at the same time criticizing the small mindedness of his critics who put him to death just a few hundred years ago for reading and believing things that (most of us) know to be true, it sets up a trap of sorts for those who attack the science in the show – they will appear as close minded as the Inquisition that sentenced Bruno.

    I thought the show was great and I am also a major product of the original (I was 14 when it started airing and my friends and I taped it and watched it over and over). I was troubled by the asteroid belt and I missed the theme music as well, but the style and substance was there still and it triggered my sense of awe just like the original did. I loved the homage to Carl at the end, too.

    Definitely looking forward to the rest of the episodes!

  27. Dude, one of the main characters of OMW has the last name of Sagan.

    My God, you even plagiarized the last name of Cosmos’ original presenter. You bastard.

  28. I remember watching the original, but I was young enough that I don’t remember it in any detail. I do suspect its responsible for my general love of astronomy.

    Overall, I’m happy with the new show so far and I’m kind of glad to see it on commercial tv, since it might get a few viewers who view PBS as boring.

    I also ended up with this: (Warning:earworm) stuck in my head since last night.

  29. I turned it on last night with my 9 year old son in the room. He put down his DS and started watching. It was well presented for his age and I can only hope it leads him to follow exciting dreams in the future.

  30. Stever: the ditching of religious dogma (“thought police”) is a bit heavy-handed throughout

    Well, they did execute Bruno.

    I think the Bruno part was a bit longish, but I think it was important in that the only reason this show is even possible is because the scientific method was invented and managed to survive the church.

    Science isn’t really about what’s “out there”, it’s about our understanding of what’s out there. And our understanding of the cosmos has had major evolutions from hunter/gatherer and their verbal stories, to agricultural society and its written myths. The advent of agriculture allows the rise of cities, but the next major advancement in our understanding of the cosmos really doesn’t occur until the Renaissance, and its biggest opponent were people who followed those written myths.

  31. @Connor Anderson: Time shifting so as to skip ads is one of the main reasons I recorded this show and watched a bit later. ;)

  32. “PBS has lately really dumbed down the science shows they do. ”

    I have never once seen a case where a claim of “dumbing down” that did not boil down to a)the individual having more exposure to the material by the time of the later viewing, or b) the later presentation learned from the mistakes of the earlier

    E.g.: “There is a physics for the general public (or as I call it physics for us dummies) called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. As a lay person I found it fascinating and then when he got to the 6 dimensions and stuff like that it got confusing to me. PBS did a series on this book with Brian Greene hosting.”

    Guess saw the material in print, and found parts of it confusing. Guess then saw *the same material* in video and found it to be old hat. Rather than dumbing down, it sounds like the presentation got better for the confusing portion. Yet somehow this is bad.

  33. I enjoyed it a lot. NdT is one our foremost science communicators. He came to Houston a few years back to deliver a talk, and it’s a treat watching him. Not only is he knowledgeable, but he has wonderful stage presence.

    That said, I longed for the original a bit because at least with PBS you weren’t assaulted with all FREAKING COMMERCIALS!.

  34. Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series on PBS was one of the best things I remember watching as a young man. And, you’re right, it was the accessibility of the science, the great pains Sagan took to put forth analogies that would resonate with the average person, that made it work. I still remember the ‘calendar’ of Earth’s age up to this point when referencing our species’ sojourn on the planet. Something like the last 10 minutes of the last day of the year. And the dinosaur lived for 15 days.

    Interesting development for Fox to host this show. If they can leave it be for 13 episodes then we’re good.

  35. I was in my 20’s and relatively scientifically knowledgeable for the Sagan series. It still moved me, but I had the space race to light the passion when I was a kid, something sadly missing today.

    My wife at one point asked me “How do they know that?” and as I tried to sort through my crude understandings it occurred to me that a great concept for a science show would be “We We Know What We Know”. Each episode would be a single topic, say how we estimate the age of the earth and how all the various sciences have tested and what they say. I think it would be eye-opening to the unschooled & antiscienced.

    It would be perfect for someone like NDT or Bill Nye, someone that understand the science and can explain it in popular terms. It could play on the learning channel or discovery if they could wedge it in between scripted shows pretending to show us the lives of morons you wouldn’t want to spend 5 minutes stuck next to on a plane.

  36. Frankly: a great concept for a science show would be “[How] We We Know What We Know”.

    There are some shows like “How the Universe Works” and others that will pick a single topic, like black holes, and go through what we know about them with occaisional short sidetracks into explaining the weird way we came to know it to be true.

    There was a thing on YouTube a few years ago called “Physics for Future Presidents”. Not sure if its still there. But it was video of all the class lectures at an Berkeley class of the same name. Something like 20 hours of lectures geared towards people in college who aren’t getting a technical degree but should know this stuff anyway. Great stuff.

    I still haven’t really gotten a grasp of quantum physics yet though. I remember reading about some experiment where they put some quantum-level particles through two different alterations in sequence and the mere existence of teh second alteration would change what would happen in the first one. That kind of thing just boggles me.

  37. Feynman was of the same opinion as Bruno:

    It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.

  38. I never got to see the original “Cosmos” (I’m old enough, but it wasn’t available) so I am DVRing this version even though I don’t expect to be surprised by any of the content. Am still astonished that Fox is airing it.

  39. While I generally enjoyed the show, I had one minor quibble. In the original series, Sagan was listed as a co-writer, and I remember feeling, at the time, that (in both a good and bad way) many of the words were Sagan’s own. Tyson is not listed as being a co-writer in the new series and, in a few instances, I thought it was apparent that he was reading words that were not his own.

  40. I saw the new COSMOS last night and aside from some quibbles (largely the same as John’s) loved it to bits. I think it’s a worthy successor to the original.

    For those who want to revisit the original but can’t afford to order the boxed set, there’s an official YouTube playlist showing the episodes in low resolution: (In this case, “low resolution” probably matches the viewing quality of 35-year-old cable broadcast standards on 35-year-old TVs that didn’t have stereo speakers.) The series still holds up well, I think.

    — Steve

  41. Sat down last night to watch this with my 10 and 8 year old. I’ve read a couple of comments saying that the Bruno part was a bit long. However, that was the part of the show that really engaged my 10 year old. I remember being a little annoyed with how long it was taking and wondering if it would hold their interest. Then, when Bruno was imprisoned and questioned by the inquisition, she said “wow, that’s really interesting.” I think that story was what got her hooked.

    We had to pause a few times to talk about what was going on. The big one was to stop and talk about compressing the entire life of the universe down into one year. It took a little while for it to sink in but I think they got it. My son’s mind was blown once he understood the concept that all of human history fit into the last 14 seconds of that year.

    They were both still thinking about the show when they woke up this morning. Kudos to NDT and everyone else involved in making such a fantastic show!

  42. Looking forward to seeing this as I’m old enough to remember the original; series. For those in the UK, the first episode is this coming Sunday from 10-11PM on the National Geographic Channel. (Sky channel 526).

  43. Am still astonished that Fox is airing it.”
    I think you’re witnessing Seth McFarlane using his clout, basically. I never knew he was a big Sagan fan, but he is. I suspect Fox is willing to take this risk because they have so many channels to defer the cost (as well as the rights in many different directions). After the premiere, it’s going to be available on several channels and streaming online, so Fox is putting it anywhere they think it will get eyeballs.

    I mean, they promoted it during the Superbowl: you can’t say they didn’t put it out there. Whether it suceeds or fails is irrelevant at this point: it has been made and will be there for those who want it. I expect this will make its way to many schools and elsewhere in an enhanced form.

    Mostly it’s great because SCIENCE.

  44. Greg: “Frankly: a great concept for a science show would be ‘[How] We We Know What We Know’.”

    I have several times taught a college level Epistemology, and History of Scientific Revolution, course entitled “How Do We Know what we Know?” – key question” “And what if what we DO NOT KNOW is more than we knew?”

    Theophylact was right on target in quoting Feynman, another fellow Brooklyn Boy Made Good, who kindly mentored me.

    Eager for 2nd episode, in any case.

  45. I enjoyed it thoroughly – most of NDT’s comments in articles building up to the premiere emphasize the because SCIENCE slant. HE is pretty open about his beliefs and wanted to be upfront about the POV of the show. I certainly had no objection to that. I actually enjoyed the Bruno section since I was only slightly familiar with his name, and had almost no knowledge of his details.

    I watched it on Nat Geo, thinking their commercials would be more tolerable – they weren’t bad. Nat Geo will be putting replays in heavy rotation at various times, including earlier replays on Monday nights for the younger/sleepier crowd. They also have hosted a couple of Cosmos original series marathons this weekend (which unfortunately cut the music from the original credits to include the new credits for the re-digitizing). The original music is part of Vangelis’ “Heaven and Hell (part 1). Twenty minutes long and available on iTunes, if anyone wants.

    The original soundtrack to Cosmos is also available if anyone has a serious jones for it.

  46. “Physics for Future Presidents,” by Richard Muller (the fellow who did the Berkeley class mentioned above), is now available as a book. If you can add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and handle scientific notation, you can learn enough to have an informed opinion on physics-related issues that affect us all.

  47. The tour of the solar system in the first episode featured an overly populated asteroid belt; the music by Alan Silvestri is decent but so far not on the same level as the iconic music of the original series, provided by Vangelis; I thought the animated bit about Giordano Bruno went on a bit long. I also note that these are thing the nearly-45-year-old John Scalzi would notice; I don’t know that the 10-year-old me would notice them, or care if he did.

    It’s difficult to assess what 10-year-old me would have though of the show. The most moving parts for me were the snippets of Sagan; which I assume wouldn’t mean much to a 10-year-old. I’m glad to see the positive reports from the parents commenting on this list.

    The music, on the other hand, I did find disappointing. I was also 10 when Cosmos: a Personal Voyage aired, and 10-year-old me definitely noticed the Vangelis music. There was plenty of non-Vangelis music in Cosmos as well, but it was the Vangelis that I noticed when I was 10. I doubt that 10-year-old me would have found the music last night to be very interesting.

  48. @wizardru – I was one of those kids that was too young for the original Cosmos to be on TV when I was growing up, but oh my goodness did I have to watch it over and over again at school.

    I sincerely hope that if this new version makes it to the schools, it’s in a different way than the original featured in my education. Definitely the magic got diluted by having it be the droning voice lecturing you when you had a substitute teacher. In that setting it went from accessible to kind of patronizing, since the very class you viewed it for had already taught you a fair chunk of that key 80 percent. Sorry to say, my original experience with Cosmos was more of trying to read under my desk in the dark, but I wish only the best for the new version.

  49. The original soundtrack to Cosmos is also available if anyone has a serious jones for it.

    That had better be a serious jones. The CD of selections from the series isn’t cheap. I think most of the material can be had from other sources, but it would take energy to track it all down. There is a webpage that has a track listing for every episode.

  50. I liked it although when my wife looked up during the longish Bruno section, she asked, “Why are those people throwing stuff at George Harrison?” Yep, the early Bruno was pretty much the Here Comes the Sun Harrison.

  51. As to *science vs religion* I came upon a new (probably) post-doctoral book on the subject: “Warriors of the Cloisters: the central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World.” It’s about impartial analysis, and how it was developed in cloisters, yet coming from the Far East through the Muslims. Now, I’m not supposed to voice opinions as per my stupid Lenten vow I took; but I will observe that we people, when we are being people, create mixed bags with things. When not in Lent I might harangue somebody for something. Now I’ll just leave *religion vs science* as us people being people all the time. (Well yes, dammit, that’s still an opinion; but at least I’m watering things down.)

    As to *dumbing down science* I discovered another interesting read: “Big Questions from Little People and simple answers from Great Minds.” Purchased it for daily quiet times, lost it as usual. In it, experts answer questions like “Why is the sky blue?” for kindergartner types (well, me) yet with all the integrity they can muster. Fascinating.

    Loved Cosmos but must admit that with that word ‘Cosmos’ I get an ‘earworm moment,’ where Sagan says, “millions and billions” as per Johnny Carson.

  52. One of my all time favorite things about my Dad — and there are many — is that when this series first aired, he had already obliged himself to be a chaperone on a field trip of my fourth grade class to the Chabot Observatory in Oakland on one of the nights the show was airing. Well, he didn’t want to miss (or have me miss) Cosmos, so he went out and bought a VCR — a fifty-odd pound thing — so we could record it. I imagine that was the equivalent of $3,000 or $4,000 today. Now, while we were pretty well off, but even that was a stretch. But he liked that show and he wanted us to see it.

    So we did.

  53. I was a high-schooler when the original “Cosmos” aired, and I had to fight my brother for the TV to watch it (he wanted to watch “C.H.I.P.s”, which I also liked, but…. SCIENCE!) I agree with probably everybody on the planet that the commercials are a pain, and I look forward to watching this on DVD later.

    The statement, at least once, that some of the things being presented are well thought out theories and not irrefutable facts was a welcome addition. Good science follows the scientific method (also explained here in ep. 1), but sometimes the scientific community is more like that kangaroo court going after Bruno, balking at new ideas and attacking anybody who questions the established facts. Those attacks on Bruno, and later Galileo and others, were very political, by the way, not so much “religious”. The Catholic church was in full flower as a political entity and did NOT want its authority questioned in any way. Real Christianity is not “anti-science”, most of the big names of science (in the West, anyway) in history were Christian. Big Religion can be very problematic in any area, and when it gets tied up in the muck of politics it can get very ugly indeed.

    Glad to hear that many of you who watched “Cosmos” as kids are now watching it with your kids. Now if they’d just bring back “Connections” and “The Secret Life of Machines” they’d have the trifecta of awesome.

  54. The bit on Bruno is not accurate. He was not a martyr to science. He wasn’t martyred for his scientific beliefs.

    Read Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths for a good chapter on how the Bruno Myth got started and why it is wrong. Essentially, it stems from a man named Andrew Draper White in the late 1800s as part of the now discredited Conflict Thesis. (

    Some references for the Bruno story:

  55. This is really, really bad. My first thought when the email title came up was that you had stumbled across a really innovative no alcohol cocktail creator on your recent cruise, and were embarking on a mission to pass on the fruits of your experience.

    And then I read the rest and was really, really embarrassed…

  56. On the other hand, I was not completely wrong about cruise related hi jinks; for this relief, much thanks…

  57. My first thought has always been “Fox? The network that panders to the anti-science crowd?” But I then think that this is going to be a strong commercial draw so there’s a buck to be made (no problem with that) and that what better place to hit the people who need to see this kind of thing now than Fox?

    I’m really, really, really happy to see the new version.

  58. It appears ratings wise that it did decent. Getting a 2.1 18-49 adult demo, which was just .1 below Family Guy (with 1.3 million more viewers). Once all the cable ratings are added on as well as all the repeats (FOX is repeating it on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon), it will definitely have reached a large number of people.

  59. I’ve always enjoyed Dr. Tyson’s media work; in spite of his role in Pluto’s demotion, and after watching this episode I have hopes that this version of Cosmos will be as moving for today’s youth as the original was for so many of us old farts.

  60. @nebbo

    Glad to hear that many of you who watched “Cosmos” as kids are now watching it with your kids. Now if they’d just bring back “Connections” and “The Secret Life of Machines” they’d have the trifecta of awesome.

    Connections is awesome, but I think the more ambitious James Burke series was The Day the Universe Changed.

    The secret life of machines appears to be here:

  61. There’s already significant pushback against the series on social media. Claims that it infringes on Religious Freedom and creates a hostile environment for those of Faith.
    The original was boycotted by several churches. It looks like the backlash will be much stronger this time, and with more political overtones.

    “Immediately following President Obama’s endorsement, the show replayed Carl Sagan’s famous materialistic credo from the opening of the original Cosmos series, stating: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Does it violate the separation of church and state for the President of the United States to be portrayed seemingly officially endorsing Sagan’s materialistic philosophy? Is this what President Obama intended when he promised in his first inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place”? –

  62. If this were a science textbook for 10 year olds in Texas, I would probably cheer. If the series as a whole does better than the Bible miniseries I will be overjoyed. I won’t say I loved it. But considering the absolute lack of popular science education, it is better that most- and anything that has graced an American television network besides the science ghetto of PBS. For that I am very thankful.

    I am happy that others were bothered by the Asteroids. That was an unforced error.

    It also felt to me that the imaginary spaceship had a widely varying scale as to its size. I felt I would have been better off with a Banana for scale.

    I also agree that the Bruno part was a poor choice. Bruno not being a scientist, his trial being over far more than his cosmology. It is horrific that he was burned at the stake, and says a lot about the church at his time, but not really about science. Galileo is the better story- which is why everyone knows it. If it is just about religion then most people don’t know that Monsignor George Lemaitre was a major contributor to the theory of the Big Bang. I hate religion in general and am not generally impressed with today’s catholicism but I realize that the Catholic church has a complex relationship with science. Further to put words into people’s mouths is poor creative non-fiction, and demeans the study of history.There is no surviving text of Bruno’s trial, only a small report from two years later. This part of the Bruno story is historical fiction- no more, no less. It is what might have happened.

    Also the multiverse really is an interesting theory, as well as life elsewhere in the universe. There could have been a little more skepticism shown when presenting those ideas.

    I readily admit that I would have preferred more real imagery- like from the Hubble and Space Probes we have sent around the solar system, than CGI recreations of their stunning research, and physical presence. That reality really is in this case far more amazing than the CGI imagination. The real pictures from the moon. The pale blue dot. Etc. The rovers on Mars. The pictures of the planets from probes…

    Further promoting the real pictures, promotes their future collection. A scientific endeavor which takes Billions upon Billions of dollars. It is hard to justify that expense when they are replaced by CGI, or photo-shopped to almost as extreme as a fashion magazine.

    Considering his Neil Degrasse Tyson’s takes on Gravity, and Titanic. I think he fully understands the value of nitpicking popular media. Further, To nitpick really is what science depends upon. Falsification is nitpicking. Constant nitpicking. It is nitpicking with love ultimately.

    For me this Cosmos was not ground breaking. It was not as good as the first episode by Sagan which is a hard act to follow. I will watch the next one though, and I hope others do to. It is a vast improvement that there is a science show on FOX.

  63. Does it violate the separation of church and state for the President of the United States to be portrayed seemingly officially endorsing Sagan’s materialistic philosophy? Is this what President Obama intended when he promised in his first inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place”? –

    No. Yes.

    This is another in the series of “Easy Answers to Easy Questions.” Good evening.

  64. Saith Greg: “I still haven’t really gotten a grasp of quantum physics yet though.”

    I believe it was Feynman who said something like, “If anyone tells you they have an intuitive grasp of quantum physics, they’re lying.”

  65. I thought it was neat when the Tiktaalik walked up out of the water. That’s something that wasn’t in the original series — because it hadn’t been discovered yet. Science marches on. And that’s a good thing.

  66. Wasn’t it an overly populated Oort cloud? I’m not a fan of Tyson, and would have preferred Brian Cox, but they could have done worse. and why not use Galileo instead of Bruno? had Bruno said NOTHING about astronomy he still would have been an uber-heretic and gotten himself roasted.

  67. And next year?
    Christopher Eccleston is going to remake “Connections” and “The Day The Universe Changed”

  68. Those who keep harping on ‘why wasn’t Galileo talked about more, instead of Bruno’ should keep in mind that there are 13 episodes and not everything about the beginnings of astronomy can be crammed into the first one. I’m sure Galileo will get his due, as will Copernicus, and Brahe, and lots of other people.

    I was thrilled to pieces to watch it. We had horrible reception for the UHF channels (PBS being one of those when and where I grew up), so I didn’t watch the original ‘Cosmos.’ I fell in love with science as a kid through the Cousteau programs (and Star Trek, of course) and all kinds of authors, from Ernest Thompson Seton through Steven Jay Gould (and many, many more), and while I don’t ‘grok’ as much of physics and its closest cousins as I do of biology and its side of science, I appreciate it all, and loved seeing the new ‘Cosmos.’

    I greatly admire Dr. Tyson, and am so happy he’s doing the program. I can’t wait to watch more episodes, especially next week’s on evolution. I think I saw a tadigrade in the promo and made my dogs wake up when I yelled, “Oh, cool, a water bear!”

  69. I discovered Vangelis through the original Cosmos too, but for what it’s worth, Vangelis didn’t compose for that series; the series used existing tracks from his albums (coincidentally, the earliest Vangelis were soundtracks for French nature films). I also discovered Dmitri Shostakovitch from Cosmos. And Alan Hovhaness.

  70. I really didn’t have a good excuse to take one of Carl Sagan’s courses during college (but Bill Nye, who I didn’t know but was a year ahead of me in school, did, which has been a Good Thing for Science.) Unfortunately, both my TV and Tivo are still packed away, so I’ll have to catch up with the new series later.

    Neil Tyson is a great guy, and great TV host, even though I still think he gets some of the blame for Pluto not being a planet any more.

  71. @Bill Stewart he actually did a fun little documentary, for NOVA IIRC, called “The Pluto Files” where he talks about his part in demoting Pluto. He then goes out to Clyde Tombaugh’s hometown and interviews his surviving relatives, as well as local townspeople, and then interviews several astronomers, in both camps of the “Is Pluto a planet” question.

    He makes it pretty clear where he stands on the question (“no”), but he does a great job of not condescending to the other side. It’s available on Netflix streaming, probably Hulu plus as well.

    I dunno, maybe I’m biased because I agree with him, but i think it’s well worth watching.

  72. Zoe: Claims that it infringes on Religious Freedom and creates a hostile environment for those of Faith.

    Well, ya gotta admit, it’s not as hostile as the environment the Catholic Church created for people proposing the heliocentric view of the solar system back in the day. Yes?

    the original was boycotted by several churches. It looks like the backlash will be much stronger this time, and with more political overtones.

    boycotted by churches… political overtones… hm. Tell you what. If you’re so concerned about the separation of church and state, maybe you should go back to these churches and tell them to stop politicking.

  73. Regarding the music – Brannon Braga (ST:TNG, Voyager, etc.) is the director. Probably not a coincidence that the music felt extremely similar to 90’s Star Trek to me.

  74. Greg suggested –
    “maybe you should go back to these churches and tell them to stop politicking.”

    You think they’d listen?

    The speaker in that video, Paul Collins Broun, Jr. is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 10th congressional district, serving since 2007. He is a member of the Republican Party and the Tea Party Caucus. He is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

    I think it fairly obvious that that strain of political thought is incompatible with Cosmos and all it stands for.

  75. small comment here, since you’ve pretty much covered what I thought, too. One poster on the series’ Facebook page complained that there were too many commercials. I wonder how riveted they are to the TV when it’s the last minute of an NBA or NCAA basketball game….time out every time someone scores, fouls, etc. BTW, I do NOT watch basketball, I find it boring outside of high school.

  76. Bill Stewart:

    Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted: “For those who don’t remember when they last saw a TV show on a TV: The full COSMOS premiere on line:

    So you should be able to see it even without your TV.

  77. Thanks to everyone who posted links and descriptions of other nerdy science shows and books. These kinds of discussions make this site fun. I actually missed the Cosmos series. I need to DVR it. Im glad john posted about this.

    @Egil: I have trouble understanding how a post about a TV science show can get you annoyed. This is coming from someone who doesn’t agree with any of John’s politics.

    @Jay Lake: Im the guy who told you how to get through the NYT paywall on your site. I don’t like MSNBC or any of their politics, but I still watch shows I like on NBC. I don’t see what Foxnews has to do with this. I’m not going to skip sunday night football because I don’t like MSNBC commentaries…

  78. @theophylact

    For me, the thrilling series was Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, and the Burke is a feeble imitation.

    Cool, I hope to look in to those.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one of them, but I was too young to remember.

  79. The depiction of the instruments of torture had the biggest impact on me. Man’s inhumanity to man is impressive, and torture and suffering seem to me to be glossed over, or mentioned in passing, if at all, in history or news. It is abhorent that anyone had to suffer for ideas that could and/or will be proved or disproved, and I think the camera lingering on a few of those instruments was a reminder that some things come to us at a price we should appreciate.

  80. My feeling about the same as yours re: asteroid belt an the Bruno bit. But that mirror ship-I’ll take that over a flying car any day !

  81. @Kris: “Man’s inhumanity to man is impressive, and torture and suffering seem to me to be glossed over, or mentioned in passing, if at all, in history or news.

    The use of some medieval torture devices appears to generally be overstated or pure myth, often dating back to the late 18th/early 19th centuries, when showing shocking historical torture devices was in vogue, even if they were totally made up, like the Iron Maiden. Torture was used, certainly, but I don’t think it’s ever been understated…more often than not it’s overstated or made to sound more lurid than the more banal (but equally vile) practices that were used. Breaking someone’s jaw or thumbs as a punishment or depriving them of food and water are not as shocking as inventing a horrible device for them to sit on, regardless of how horrible the act is.

    I really don’t think reporting on the inquisition glosses over the aspect of torture as a method. Quite frankly, I think if you asked anyone what the inquisition did, I’m pretty most people would point to torture as what they did. Well, that or make Monty Python references. Like you do.

  82. I’m a bit late to the party but I also want to say how wonderful that Neil deGrasse Tyson is hosting the show. Popular TV scientists are typically white (Bill Nye, Brian Greene, David Attenborough, et al you are all wonderful, but white boys already own STEM). While I’m sure Dr Tyson has been wearing the “Role Model” t-shirt for a long time now, it’s just fantastic that he has the chance to take popular culture by storm and reach a wider audience.

  83. I have to admit I really enjoyed the show. The original Cosmos was a little before my time but I’ve seen it since then and enjoyed it. The look backs to the original Cosmos were nice and Neil’s remembrance of Carl Sagan was touching. My only quibble was it seemed strange to discuss science and how it works to such a degree then go on about Bruno, who was not remotely scientific. He just had a vision.and decided it must be true.

  84. I thought about the Feynman/Bruno reference, and I still prefer Shakespeare’s. I don’t agree that “all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.” I’ll claim that “all the world’s a stage, and we are all mere players.”

    Good and evil is the only thing physics can’t address; it’s all that’s left. So my moral challenge to myself, daily, is can I succeed today at doing more good than evil? And how will I measure that?

  85. I too was about 10 when I found Cosmos (lots of us our there). The series influenced my scholastic choices (took every astrophysics course available on the way to a CE/EE),

    I have read everything Sagan ever wrote over and over. Still can’t grasp a Star for every grain of sand on Earth’s beaches! I still find Carl comforting. The world would be a LOT better if he was still with us.

    I found the first episode disappointing. It seems like the things they changed weren’t as good as Carl’s originals. Maybe it is because I am not 10. It almost is like watching one of the all time great movies remade today with current “stars”.

    After reading the comments, I will start over and give it a chance. Thanks to the writer and for all the comments that got me there.

  86. 5 Episodes in now and I continue to find the show to be incredibly illuminating, despite a a long physics and engineering background.

    It’s the reminders of things I technically know but do not work with daily, combined with gaps that have been filled since actively working within a given discipline. This is what intrigues me on a personal level.

    Secondary to that is the willingness of the show to shine a bright light upon the various social obsticals that have hampered our progress and understanding of the universe that surrounds us.

    And last, but not least, this is an amazing tool that facilitates well spent quality time with those young people I mentor. Entertaining and educational at the same time.

    I find criticism difficult on any front.

  87. I am a Theist and I am old enough to have enjoyed Carl Sagan and now Neil deGrasse Tyson. Science has only humbled me to just how awesome and vast the universe is. When I first started reading Sagan as a university student, I was delighted that here is a scientist that finally explains science to the lay person. At the same time, since those days I have been rising each day with these words……”Benevolent Creator; Exalted One, may I be mindful of your benevolent creativity. On this day I thank you for the gift of the universe and the interconnectedness of existence. May I be empowered to see within myself the goodness of self from the very moment of my life. May this goodness empower me to be a loving, compassionate and empathetic person to all that surrounds me. May I honour and respect the sovereignty of each person and all matter which is part of your great design. I am thankful and celebrate my participation in your creativity; the known and the not yet known universe.”
    I believe in Science and at the same time have a belief in a First Cause…I believe in the “stuff” of Science as the path to that First Cause. If Physics and Metaphysics should meet at the “wall of forever”, so be it and if not, so be it.

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