This week’s Cosmos was all about the evolution of life, and was viewed by millions of people outside of Oklahoma, where they presumably got an hour-long local news promo, or analysis of the Oklahoma State’s chances in the NCAA Tournament. As such, it was a bit outside my area of expertise, but that never stopped a blogger before…
There were a couple of things about this that I thought were great, and two things that bothered me. The episode opened with a very nice discussion of the history of dogs and humans, demonstrating how dramatically untold generations of human selection have modified dogs from their wolf-like ancestors. It’s a very nice and convincing visual showing the power of artificial selection (for good or ill). The scenes of Neil deGrasse Tyson being menaced by wolves in the woods were maybe a touch over-the-top, but the whole sequence was well done.
Following in Darwin’s footsteps, the show moved on to natural selection, and made the bold choice to go directly at one of the classic examples of structures that are supposedly too complex to have evolved through random mutations, the eye. This was the other really great sequence, as they went split-screen with an animation of evolving ocean life on the left side of the screen, and a “Creature’s Eye View” on the right, starting with an initial flicker of light and dark, and slowing building up a better and better visual image as each successive modification of the structure of the eye came along. I thought this was a brilliant use of the CGI capabilities of the show, giving a wonderful illustration of the benefit of various fractions of an eye.
The one thing I thought was missing was an explanation of how we know what the world would look like to these various creatures, which was mentioned only in passing at the end of the sequence: we can piece this sort of thing together because a lot of organisms with “eyes” at the different stages are still around. By studying their light-sensing apparatus, we can get a sense of what kind of image resolution they might be able to produce, and use that information to make spiffy animations.
That was a minor quibble (for me, very much not a biologist), but plays into the first thing that bothered me as it was running, which was the Titan sequence. They had a very cool animation of the mirror-y “spaceship of the imagination” plunging through Titan’s atmosphere down into a methane lake. It was really nice, very SF-cover-art sort of stuff, but somehow never managed to mention the Cassini-Huygens mission that landed on titan and took a whole bunch of real pictures of the process (including the “featured image” up top, which was clearly part of the inspiration for the animated Titan sequence).
These two bits are really the same problem, namely an soft-pedaling of process in favor of flashy animation. There’s not much of a way to distinguish between what’s really real and what’s just animated speculation. Which both undersells the awesomeness of modern science, and leaves an opening for cranks and denialists. Without an in-show explanation of how we know this stuff, people who don’t want to accept it can just wave it off as Hollywood deception.
Now, it might be that the oft-plugged Cosmos app contains this– despite being repeatedly badgered to download it during the too-frequent commercial breaks, I haven’t bothered. Maybe I’ll put it on the iPad and have a look tonight. But I think you could fix both of these with a couple of sentences here and there in the show, and maybe a few publicity images from the Huygens mission. I’m particularly surprised by the lack of a mention of Huygens, given that this would be an obvious place to sneak in the “Space exploration is awesome! Give us money!” themes of Tyson’s last book.
The other thing that bothered me was the inclusion of a compressed version of the animated evolution sequence from the original Cosmos. I thought the episode-opening and -closing Sagan shoutouts in the first episode were a nice an appropriate touch, but I’m less enthused by the idea of a weekly Carl Sagan tribute moment. Presented without the explanatory narration, the animation in question doesn’t really illuminate much, and is kind of anticlimactic after all the modern flash that has preceded it. And this tips toward an excess of reverence– if the goal is to reach and inspire the next generation of scientists, I’m not sure that much is gained by ending every episode talking about stuff that happened when their parents were kids (assuming their parents were even born). There’s a little bit of a “Hoo, boy, here goes Grandpa with one of his stories again…” to it.
It wasn’t bad exactly, but given that a big chunk of the hour has already been hacked out for commercials, I’d rather see those extra minutes given to more awesome modern science (or, better yet, explaining the process behind the animated sequences), rather than a Gen X nostalgia break. And there’s an anticipatory element to this as well– if this is going to be an every-week element of the show, I’m going to pull a muscle rolling my highly evolved eyes before the series runs its course.
So, there you go: Two bravura sequences, two quibbles. On the whole, I thought this one was better than the first, in that it had some real depth, and wasn’t just surveying stuff my kindergartener already knew. The show continues to be gorgeous, and Tyson is a terrific host. I’m not sure when or if I’ll watch this episode with SteelyKid, but if I do, you can be sure I’ll post her review.