The fourth episode of the Cosmos reboot aired last night, and as I said on Twitter it was a beautiful demonstration of why I’m finding this show intensely frustrating. There were flashes of brilliance, but also quite a few bits that left me shaking my head. Thus fitting the pattern of the previous episodes— I didn’t comment on last week’s, because I was taking a break, but it had the same sorts of issues, too– so I guess that’s just what this show is.
Again, there was some very good stuff– the opening framing device with William Herschel talking about ghosts was great, and Tyson’s tour through the scale of space was excellent. I had a few minor quibbles– they could’ve picked some intermediate objects that match famous events on Earth better– but it was a nice reminder of the power of great visual effects to dramatize points that otherwise would be kind of difficult to get across. The bit where he called out young-Earth creationism for the impoverished scale of its vision was cute, too, though I’m not sure it was all that necessary or useful (in that the people who believe that won’t be watching, and wouldn’t be convinced), but then the show has clearly established a pattern of throwing red meat to the anti-religious from time to time. There was even a bit that seemed to address one of my earlier complaints, showing an actual image of one of the most distant galaxies ever measured. It was a grainy little spot of pixels, much less awe-inspiring than the CGI effects that bracketed it, but it was real data, and I liked that.
The bulk of the show was about relativity, though, and here it kind of fell short. The visuals continued to be spectacular, but as with the first two episodes, it skimmed over a lot of material in the interest of glitzy animation and cheesy dramatics.
Admittedly, some of this is the sort of stuff that only bothers people who, you know, write books about relativity. The discussion of the origin of relativity was the usual mystical claptrap about Einstein’s great personal insight and inspiration, giving the impression that the whole business came out of nowhere. In fact, though, there was a lot of pre-Einstein work on these problems– the core equations of special relativity are the “Lorentz transformation” (or even “Lorentz-FitzGerald transformation”) for a reason: H.A. Lorentz had the math of relativity a decade or so before Einstein. Henri Poincaré very nearly had the whole package, but remained attached to the idea of an aether defining absolute time. There was also absolutely no discussion of the fact that there were good reasons to believe in a constant speed of light, from the experiments of Michelson and Morley. That omission particularly bugs me, as an experimental optics guy, but it’s in keeping with Einstein’s carefully managed image as a pure theoretician (I think it’s Pais who has a long discussion of the evolution of Einstein’s own descriptions of how he came up with relativity, getting more abstract over the years).
And that’s without even mentioning that the whole notion of relativity really originates with Galileo and his contemporaries noting that the laws of mechanics don’t depend on absolute motion. This was arguably implied in the discussion of how there’s no truly stationary frame of reference– Galileo was, after all, introducing the idea in defense of the Copernican theory– but I think it would’ve been nice to have an explicit mention.
The actual discussion of relativity was kind of a muddle, though. There were some callbacks to the original Cosmos (sigh) in the use of bikes in a European setting, but despite spending an inordinate amount of time talking about how light moves at the same speed regardless of the speed of the observer, there was basically nothing about the implications for space and time. Instead, there was a jump to the notion of “dark stars,” John Michell’s classical model of a body so massive that light couldn’t escape, and then to the modern notion of black holes. Where the idea of gravity as a bending of spacetime was brought up, without the idea of spacetime or how it follows from the constant speed of light ever being worked through.
Then, we got a CGI trip into a black hole, complete with shaking-ship effects and visual distortions that seemed to indicate massive tidal forces. Only, for a supermassive black hole– I think they were supposed to be going into the one at the center of the Milky Way– the tidal forces at the horizon would be pretty minimal. In fact, unless the firewall people are right, the equivalence principle tells us that an infalling observer shouldn’t see anything dramatic as they cross the event horizon. But that doesn’t allow pointlessly dramatic visuals. And the less said about the trippy end-of-2001 stuff on the interior of the black hole, the better.
So, like I said, frustrating. There was some really nice stuff that hinted at how great this imagery could be at teaching actual science, but in the end, the producers opted to be I Fucking Love Science instead: a few tidbits of real science buried in a lot of splashy graphics that don’t actually do much.
(There’s also the persistent problem of who exactly their audience is. Some of the simplifications are arguably lies-to-children, and the cartoon Herschel sequences could be pretty kid-friendly (SteelyKid has only watched the first episode— I thought about showing her the second yesterday, but we opted for playing Pokemon instead). But it’s on at 9pm on a school night, and the persistent Carl Sagan callbacks– in addition to the bikes in Italy, we got the bus in Ithaca story again– only really make sense to a much older audience. )
The hope here is that the trippy visuals will inspire some people to go beyond the Keanu “Whoa.” and dig into the real science via the tidbits of information scattered through the rest. But I can’t help thinking that given this platform and this technology they could’ve done a whole lot more to convey real, solid science. And the fact that they chose not to leaves me kind of disappointed.