Saturday, March 8, 2014

Space and Time


In a segment on natural selection, Carl Sagan offended Creationists by stating, “Evolution is a fact.”

Sunday night will mark the return of Cosmos to television, more than thirty-three years after the original aired on PBS.

For those of us who took the ride that fall in 1980, it will be an emotional experience.

According to the favorable Los Angeles Times review, the new series begins as Carl Sagan did in the original — on the shore of the cosmic ocean.

[Neil Degrasse Tyson] begins his journey on the same cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean that Sagan did — and ends the first episode there as well, with a tribute to his predecessor and role model who took an interest in him as a teenage astronomy prodigy. As in the original, he sets off in an imaginary spaceship to get a better view of things, locating the Earth within the vastness of space and time, overflying extraterrestrial vistas, passing by Voyager and establishing a cosmic address that should work for any mail headed your way from outside the solar system, galaxy, Virgo Supercluster or even the observable universe.

The political wonk in me keeps wondering if Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey will seek to stir the pot as Carl did. A confirmed non-believer in Creationism, he offended Creationists by stating in a Cosmos episode, “Evolution is a fact, not a theory. It really happened.”

We live today in a society where many deny climate change despite the overwhelming evidence, the vast consensus by scientists and the acceptance of the phenomenon by most civilized nations on the Earth. One major political party dedicates itself to banning abortion and equal rights for homosexuals based on their interpretation of Biblical scripture. And although the global nuclear holocaust posed by the Cold War is no longer an immediate threat, the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan and/or Iraq for almost thirteen years.

Unlike Sagan, Tyson to date has not been a political activist. Carl was arrested twice for protesting nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site. I doubt we'll see Neil chain himself to a pillar outside Congress to draw attention to chronic underfunding of the sciences.

But that might be about to change.

According to the Times review, Tyson uses the first episode to take on religious fundamentalism.

As a cautionary tale, the opening episode includes a long animated sequence about Giordano Bruno, a late 16th century Franciscan friar who came to see the universe as infinite and the sun as a star, and the stars as suns, orbited by other planets, for which he was excommunicated, and after a while, burned at the stake. In between were years of wandering, imprisonment and torture — “Cosmos” shows you the tools of the Inquisition, chillingly, and offers the words “thought police.”

The Fox Network isn't Fox News, but they're both owned by arch-conservative Rupert Murdoch. Many view Fox News as a propaganda organ for the Republican Party, while the Fox Network rarely offers biting commentary beyond its animated shows. The viewers for the two networks don't necessary overlap.

I find myself wondering if Fox News talking heads will savage the new Cosmos, creating the public perception of an internal conflict within the Fox broadcasting empire that will draw more viewers and drive up ratings.

If that leads to more people watching the new Cosmos and accepting Sagan's humanist philosophy, so much the better.

But it's also a very common political tactic to fire so much chaff into the air that casual viewers tune out, incapable of distinguishing what is fact and what is fiction.

Sagan at his core was about accepting factual evidence, and it appears Tyson will deliver the same message. It remains to be seen how many viewers will be open-minded enough to reconsider their positions, especially if Fox News and certain politicians start attacking the episodes with false and malicious smears.

I also realize that some of us tend to overestimate the reach of Fox News. The political reality, however, is that the Republican Party controls the majority in the House of Representatives and is fully capable of blocking any progressive legislation that might increase government funding for science, boost research on the International Space Station, accept the reality of climate change, protect the rights of homosexuals or the right of a woman to choose.

This is a Congressional election year. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey could awaken a new healthy respect for science, with voters holding their elected officials accountable for anti-science behavior. Just as easily, Cosmos could wind up another short-lived cult favorite such as Firefly or Futurama — “geek” shows that didn't last long on the Fox Network.

Two years ago, Tyson was invited to appear before the Senate Science Committee. To his dismay, he found only two Senators bothered to stick around — Bill Nelson (D-FL) and John Boozman (R-AR). Tyson's plea to increase NASA funding was met by Nelson's reassurance that he was “preaching to the choir” but otherwise it was a waste of Neil's time and talent.


Watch the March 7, 2012 appearance by Neil Degrasse Tyson before the Senate Science Committee.

I think it would be of great benefit to the nation if one Cosmos episode plays a clip of that sorry day, to show viewers how little Congress cares about science, and see if the voters will awaken out of their apathy.

Unlikely to happen but, like Carl, I can dream.

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