Back when the first episode of the Cosmos reboot aired, somebody put together a composite of the cartoon people who flashed on screen, and we played a guessing game on Twitter. The image above is from a blog post by Meg at True Anomalies, and I think it was probably her, but the ephemeral nature of Twitter makes it annoying to track down the original discussion.
Anyway, we collectively got four of the five right: ibn al-Haytham in the upper left, Annie Jump Cannon in the middle top, Isaac Newton on the lower left, and William Herschel on the lower right. Well, five of six, if you include young cartoon John Herschel. Nobody got the woman on the upper right, though (at least not that I recall– at the time, the glamour-shot framing of that image made people guess Hedy Lamarr). She turned out to be Cecelia Payne-Gaposchkin (though the Gaposchkin wasn’t there at the time of the story they used in the episode), who with Cannon was one of the women highlighted in last night’s Very Special Episode.
As it happens, I recently did a bunch of reading about the third woman mentioned, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who didn’t get as much screen time as the other two, because I wrote up her story for the book-in-progress. Along the way, I read about Cannon and Payne-Gaposchkin as well, though they didn’t get much more than a name-check in the final draft. As a result, I have a somewhat better idea of the history than usual, and I didn’t notice any major gaffes. All three women undeniably made critical contributions to modern astronomy, and deserve greater recognition. It was nice to see their stories told on screen.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cosmos reboot recap without a “But…,” and I have two complaints about this, both sort of similar. One is that I’m not wild about the fact that the only stories to date about women in astronomy are split off into a special episode about women in astronomy, rather than worked into the regular flow. This is kind of a provisional gripe, though, as the series isn’t complete– if these turn out to be the only stories highlighting women, that will be a major problem. If women like Leavitt and Jocelyn Bell and Vera Rubin turn up as they go on through the remaining episodes, though, this won’t end up being that big a deal. (To me, anyway; others might reasonably find it more problematic than I do.)
I was more bothered, though, by the split within the episode, which was divided roughly in half, with the first part being a set of cartoons telling the stories of Cannon classifying stars by spectral type and Payne determining their composition, and the second part being a CGI tour of the life and death of stars of various sizes. And I thought they missed some opportunities here to better integrate the two. Specifically, they talked about how Cannon classified different types of stars into bins by color, and how Payne demonstrated that these classifications are related to the temperature of the star. That discussion was never brought up again, though, even as Tyson ran through the size and color changes of an aging star, and different types of stars. It would’ve been great to have some callbacks in there to the historical cartoons– the Sun at present would look like a Type mumble star to an extraterrestrial Annie Jump Cannon (Naavr Whzc Pnaaba, let’s call her), and a billion years from now, it would look like a Type different mumble. Or some such.
But then, I say this partly because I don’t really know how this stuff works– I’ve never taken an astronomy class, so the classification and evolution of stars remains somewhat mysterious to me. It’s the biology of the physical sciences, with a complicated taxonomy of types and subtypes and terminology that’s mostly historical accident. I thought the latter half of this episode could’ve been a chance to clarify that a little bit, by bringing Cannon’s classification system back again. Instead, they were basically dropped until the final toast at the end of the episode.
But, you know, pretty pictures! And reasonably accurate history of women whose contributions should be better known! So, on the whole, a pretty good episode.