Neil deGrasse Tyson in ‘The Inexplicable Universe’

If you’re enjoying the Cosmos series, you might enjoy these lectures by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I discovered yesterday is now on Netflix.  The lectures are fairly far ranging covering things like string theory, dark matter, dark energy, gravitational anomalies, and many other things.

If you’re well read in science, a lot of this might be basic stuff, but Tyson has a way of describing things that keeps it novel and fresh.  Unlike Cosmos, this is mostly just Tyson sitting in a room talking, with an occasional visual aid interjected.  I enjoyed them enough that I watched the whole thing straight through last night.

Battle of the “Cosmos,” Round 3 – Out There |

Corey Powell, and editor at Discover Magazine, and Steven Sotor, co-writer of the new Cosmos series, have been having a back and forth about Giordano Bruno, who was highlighted in the first Cosmos episode.

Your suggestion that Giordano Bruno was not the first to realize that the stars are suns is mistaken. You cited his predecessor Nicolas of Cusa, who referred in one passage to “the earth, the sun, or another star.” But Cusa did not mean that the sun is another star as we understand the term. Throughout his book, he used the word “star” indifferently to refer to the earth, the moon, the sun and the planets, as was common in his time. He also distinguished them from the “fixed stars” on the surface of the eighth celestial sphere. His pre-Copernican conception of the solar system was antithetical to any notion of the stars as other suns.

more at Battle of the “Cosmos,” Round 3 – Out There |

I wonder if there will be any controversial historical figures in tonight’s episode.

Defending Giordano Bruno: A Response from the Co-Writer of “Cosmos” – Out There |

Cosmos co-writer Steven Sotor has responded to Corey Powell’s criticism of Cosmos’s highlighting of Giordano Bruno on its opening episode.  Powell published the response on his blog, and responded in turn.

Powell writes that the new Cosmos is “downright wrong” because “Bruno was not the first to link the idea of infinite space with the infinite glory of God.” But the script never says that. Bruno got the idea of infinite space from Lucretius, but he also read Nicolas of Cusa, who related the concept to an infinite God.

Bruno’s originality lay elsewhere. He was indisputably the first person to grasp that the Sun is a star and the stars are other suns with their own planets. That is arguably the greatest idea in the history of astronomy. Before Bruno, none of the other Copernicans ever imagined it.

more at Defending Giordano Bruno: A Response from the Co-Writer of “Cosmos” – Out There |

I’ve had a few debates with people this week on this, and I’m glad to find that my side of the argument generally echoed Sotor’s.  (Although I didn’t realize the certainty of Bruno being the first to realize the Sun was a star.)

One person asked me why I thought Cosmos writers were intentionally alienating Christians.  I don’t think they were.  I do think that they don’t plan to compromise on the message, and that will mean offending some people.  If the new Cosmos follows the plan of the old one, the next episode will be about evolution, and many fundamentalists will likely ask why the show had to offend them instead of just skipping that part.  I’m sure some conservatives will be also be unhappy when climate change is covered.

On Bruno, I do think the cartoon oversimplified and dramatized some pretty complex dynamics, particularly at the trial, but it was only a ten minute cartoon and nuance is hard to work into something like that.  It’s also worth remembering that the church was sending people to fiery deaths for holding the wrong ideas.  The grounds for complaining about them being portrayed as villainous in these events seem a bit weak to me.

One thing I’ve heard over and over was that Bruno was only condemned for his religious beliefs, not his cosmology.  My response has been to link to the charges, asking that they note the third to last one.  Yes, the theology was the main contention, but the multiple worlds charge wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t cared about it.

Anyway, it should also be remembered that a lot of Christians were persecuted in the inquisition.  I’m pretty sure that the beliefs of the average Christian today would have been heresy back then.  I don’t know many believers who think the inquisition was a good thing.

What the Bruno sequence was actually about was an important development in cosmology, and a demonstration of why rigid dogmatism, along with suppression of ideas, is bad.  As Sotor stated in his last paragraph, free thinking is the life blood of science.

Did “Cosmos” Pick the Wrong Hero?

As I suspected, there’s consternation about Cosmos’s highlighting of Giordano Bruno, and not all of it is coming from religious apologists.

In Cosmos, Tyson does carefully say that Bruno was not a scientist, and instead describes that picture of infinite worlds as a “guess.” But Bruno was not guessing. He was advancing his own, heretical theology, which goes a long way to understanding the real reason that he was burned at the stake.

The Roman Inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno. His belief in the plurality of worlds was just one. The others involved denying the divinity of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, denying transubstantiation, practicing magic, and believing that animals and objects (including the Earth) possessed souls. You could fairly call Bruno a martyr to the cause of religious freedom, but his cosmic worldview was neither a deduction nor a guess. It was a philosophical corollary of his heterodox belief that God and souls filled all of the universe.

more at Did “Cosmos” Pick the Wrong Hero? – Out There |

From what I’ve read, the idea of infinite space goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  Nicolas of Cusa had the insight that other stars might be worlds.  What Bruno appears to have added was that they were suns with worlds circling them, where other beings might live.

Was he the first person to think of this? Probably not.  And his writing were definitely not scientific.  But they were among the earliest on these ideas.  And while, as Powell notes, it wasn’t the main basis of his condemnation, one of the charges was “claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity.”  If the church didn’t care about that part, they would have omitted it.

I think the main point of the Bruno sequence on Cosmos was simply to show that repression of ideas is harmful.  Reading more into it, such as it being some kind of anti-religious statement, ignores Neal deGrasse Tyson’s public positions on these matters, or that many religious people deplore inquisitions as much as secular people.

Cosmos is a winner


I have to say I enjoyed it.

There’s some grousing online about all the glitz, but it should be remembered what the target audience is here, people who aren’t necessarily science literate yet.  You also have to remember that the original Cosmos had its share of glitz.  It might not look like it by today’s standards, but I can assure you when my 13 year old self saw the original, the glitz was there.

I think it was a good idea for them to do the historical reenactments as cartoons.  As an adult, I find the historical parts of the original Cosmos to be its most interesting parts, but as a young teenager in 1980, I found them deadly dull.  The show back then was most in danger of losing me during those sequences.  With all the competing sources of entertainment today, it’s critical that those sequences be as entertaining as possible, and I think making it animated helps tremendously.

The later of two Bruno portraits often uncriti...
Giordano Bruno (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was impressed that the show highlighted Giordano Bruno in its first episode.  It’s a gutsy move, and I’m sure it will be a controversial one.  I’ve already noticed some grumbling about it from certain quarters.  I got into an epic argument last year with a couple of people about Galileo, and I was surprised by how ferocious it became when I mentioned Bruno.

As Tyson admitted, Bruno was no scientist.  His insights were mostly luck.  Still, influenced by the philosophy of Lucretius and the Epicureans, he guessed right about the infinity of the universe and that stars were other suns, and his work probably influenced people like Galileo and Descartes, although they dared not admit to it at the time.  I think the main goal of that sequence on the show was to highlight how harmful repressing ideas can be.

All in all, I think the show is exactly what it aims to be, an outreach of science to the general public.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

If you missed the episode last night, it will be on the National Geographic channel tonight.

Why Revive ‘Cosmos?’ Neil DeGrasse Tyson Says Just About Everything We Know Has Changed

Neal DeGrasse Tyson did an interview with HuffPost on the upcoming Cosmos series.  I suspect we’ll see more of these before the weeks out.

Things are looking up for Neil deGrasse Tyson–way up. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium and the author of several popular books on space, Tyson is already one of the nation’s best-known scientists. And now his already-high profile is set for a big boost with the March 9 launch of “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” a new documentary television series that he hosts.

Tyson calls the 13-part series a continuation of “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” a 1980 PBS series narrated by Carl Sagan that is acclaimed as one of the most significant science-themed programs in television history.

In anticipation of the new series’ debut, Tyson, 55, sat down with HuffPost Science for a wide-ranging and surprisingly frank interview. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the discussion, which took place in the astrophysicist’s New York City office.

via Why Revive ‘Cosmos?’ Neil DeGrasse Tyson Says Just About Everything We Know Has Changed.

I’m getting pretty excited about Cosmos.  Tyson’s answers to the HuffPost questions were very interesting.  His answers on God and religion seemed far more frank than I’m used to hearing from him.  And he seems pretty bullish on multiverses; it’ll be interesting to see how that concept is covered in the show.

Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable

This article on Carl Sagan has been up for several days, so many of you might have seen it already, but I just got around to reading it today.  I was a Sagan fan, so I enjoyed it a great deal.  It’s an excellent profile of what he believed and accomplished.  It also gives a quick summary of the state of endeavors Sagan cared about, like the search for other intelligent life in the universe.

We live in Carl Sagan’s universe–awesomely vast, deeply humbling. It’s a universe that, as Sagan reminded us again and again, isn’t about us. We’re a granular element. Our presence may even be ephemeral—a flash of luminescence in a great dark ocean. Or perhaps we are here to stay, somehow finding a way to transcend our worst instincts and ancient hatreds, and eventually become a galactic species. We could even find others out there, the inhabitants of distant, highly advanced civilizations—the Old Ones, as Sagan might put it.

more at Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable | Science | Smithsonian.

No doubt, this article is out now to help publicize the Cosmos remake about to come out on Fox.  I do differ with this article on one point.  I think there are many excellent science communicators out there today, with Neal deGrasse Tyson being an excellent example.

But I do agree that they are at risk of being drowned out be a lot of nonsense that is also out there, with shows on mermaids, ancient aliens, and other silliness.  The Science Channel, for now, and PBS are still relatively good sources of science.  But it’s hard to find it elsewhere.

The new Cosmos will be shown on Fox TV (not Fox News).  A move that I hope will be the beginning of a new trend in trying to bring science into mainstream view.  I’m pretty sure Sagan would have approved.

A trailer for Cosmos

This is a trailer promo for the remake of ‘Cosmos’, the Carl Sagan classic from the early 80s.  I remember watching the original Cosmos on PBS.  It was, in many ways, a major eye opening event for me.  Sagan had a knack for communicating the sheer wonder of science.

I’m a fan of Neal deGrasse Tyson, and I can’t think of a better person to stand in Sagan’s shoes in this remake.  From what I understand, he’s doing this in collaboration with Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan.

There’s been a little surprise from some quarters that the new Cosmos will be on Fox (Entertainment not News).  But Tyson makes the point that the whole idea is outreach, to reach people who might not otherwise watch this kind of material.  I think that’s the right approach.  The original Cosmos was awesome, but running on PBS, you had to be something of a geek to even know it existed.  This version won’t have that problem.

I’m looking forward to this series.