While watching the first episode of Cosmos last night, I found myself wanting to scribble down notes each time Neil deGrasse Tyson effortlessly rattled off an amazing fact about the universe. That, my friends, is the sign of a good show. I’m sure there are more comprehensive reviews of the first episode elsewhere on the interwebs, but I figured I’d offer my own reaction before sifting through all the others.
Despite boasting much better graphics, this new version of Cosmos shares several similarities with the original. For example, last night’s episode borrowed Sagan’s concept of a “spaceship of the imagination” to guide viewers on a tour of the universe. (Click on these links to compare the original spaceship to the new one.) Pedagogically, this was a useful way to help viewers contextualize their place in the cosmos, and a smart way to begin the series. I note that the new series has also retained Sagan’s concept of the cosmic calendar, and has employed it very effectively. This led to one of last night’s coolest images, as Dr. Tyson donned shades and watched the Big Bang in all its glory.
In addition to the similarities, there were also substantive differences between the two inaugural episodes. In the original, Dr. Sagan spent much of the first episode wandering through the computer-generated halls of the ancient Library of Alexandria. He highlighted the library’s destruction to remind viewers that knowledge needs to be protected and preserved for the good of humankind. Last night’s episode ditched the Library of Alexandria storyline (though I’ve read it might appear in another episode) in favor of one about Giordano Bruno, one of the greatest martyrs in the long history of science. This was a wise decision. Bruno is not widely known among the lay public, but his tragic story rather perfectly encapsulates the tension between science and authority. To learn more about this ill-fated wanderer, check out Ingrid Rowland’s recent biography.
Speaking of Bruno, I was thrilled to see that the show’s creators incorporated one of my all-time favorite images when illustrating Bruno’s dreamscape. Ever since Giant Step Design first helped me launch this website some months back, I have used the Flammarion engraving as the site’s primary banner. The engraving first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book about popular meteorology entitled L’atmosphère, but I first learned about its existence from the cover of Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers. I’ve always thought that the image depicts a beautiful metaphor for the scientific enterprise, and I’m clearly not alone. If you missed last night’s animated portrayal of the Flammarion engraving, it’s definitely worth checking out.
All in all, I was thoroughly impressed with the first episode of the Cosmos reboot. If it’s true that last night’s episode will serve as a thesis statement of sorts (a la Colbert) for the rest of the series, then this promises to be a television event for the ages.