Have you been watching the new “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” series with Neil deGrasse Tyson? I have. Hey, it’s “Cosmos”, and I’d watch Tyson talk about digging dandelions. The man can talk science and people will listen, and even make TV shows about science. So, more power to him. I’m glad “Cosmos” is on. I’ve seen three episodes now—the opening “double header” of episodes 1-2 (September 22), and the “third” episode (September 29)—and while I like this science show, I am going to criticize it.
“Cosmos” gives a misleading picture of the universe. The show is loaded with computer animation. Things go boom. Things crash together. Things flash. From opening credits to closing credits, the universe is one big fireworks show. Processes that would take longer than all of recorded human history flash across the screen in mere moments. The universe of “Cosmos” is far zippier, flashier, and more colorful than the universe you might see with your eyes or through a telescope. This is rarely, if ever, explained in the show. “Cosmos” will certainly spawn a new generation of people who buy telescopes and find themselves very disappointed with what they see. They are going to look through the eyepiece at the real universe and say, “that’s it?!?” Don’t look to “Cosmos” to see an accurate picture of what the universe looks like.
Do look to “Cosmos” for lame philosophizing. Consider Tyson’s discussion on insects, people, and souls, from the second half of the double-header premier (at about the 15:00 mark):
We might be willing to grant the proposition that insects or even geese are mindless machines, but what about us? What, if anything, do the other animals think? What might they have to say to us if we could only communicate? When we observe them carefully, don't we find evidence of spontaneous decision-making? When we consider the genetic kinship of all life on Earth, is it plausible that humans have immortal souls and all other animals do not?...
Consider our friend the beetle again. It can see, walk, run, smell, taste, fly, mate, eat, excrete, and lay eggs. It has internal programs for accomplishing these functions—contained in a brain with a mass of only a milligram—and specialized, dedicated organs for carrying the programs out. But is that all? Is there anyone in charge, anyone inside, anyone controlling all these functions? What do we mean by “anyone”? Or is the beetle just the sum of its functions, and nothing else, with no executive authority, no insect soul?...
Some scientists get nervous if you ask about the consciousness of a housefly. On the inside, within its tiny brain, does it have no perception of making choices, no awareness of its own existence? Not a milligram’s worth of self-consciousness? Not a hint of a hope for the future? Not even a little satisfaction at a day’s work well done? If its brain is one millionth the mass of ours, shall we deny it one millionth of our feelings and our thoughts? And if, after carefully weighing such matters, we insist it is still “only” a robot, how sure are we that this judgment does not apply as well to us?
There is much that is wrong here, but to choose one thing: does Tyson really want to suggest that brain mass reflects anything? What is the difference in brain mass between a big person and a small one—between a towering basketball star on one hand, and a diminutive Olympic gymnast on the other? Does anyone think that size connects to self-consciousness, hope for the future, and satisfaction at a day’s work well done? No. So why is someone as obviously intelligent as Tyson making this connection? In fact, the above discussion on insects is taken directly from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1992 book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Why did they, smart people both, write this? What is it doing in a science show?
Happily, the “third” episode left such things behind and focused on providing a nice tour of ideas about the formation of life on Earth and about the possibility of life on other planets. It had a nice segment about John Herschel, his father William and Aunt Caroline. Still, for a science show from 2020, “Cosmos” could sound a lot like that 2000-year-old poem by Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things. The episode opened with this—
This was our Milky Way when the galaxy was young and more fertile than it is today. Back then, she birthed 30 times as many stars as she does now—a firestorm of star creation.... Our own star was a child of the galaxy's later years, and that may be one of the reasons we exist.
The episode was full of references to “Nature” in the feminine, and to “Mother Earth”, and to pores in rocks that became “incubators” for the first life. Lucretius referred to “wombs” in the ground that formed the first life, rather than incubating pores in the rocks, but the language is the same:
And therefore Parent Earth does justly bear
The Name of Mother, since all rose from her...
Then who can wonder now, that then She bore
Far stronger, bulky Animals, and more,
When both were young, when both in Nature’s Pride;
A lusty Bridegroom He, and She a buxom Bride?...
For then much vital Heat in Mother Earth,
Much moisture lay: And where fit Place was found,
There Wombs were form’d, and fastend to the Ground:
In these, the yet imperfect Embryo’s lay,
Thro’ these, when grown Mature, they forc’d their way,
Broke forth from Night, and saw the cheerful Day...
The Earth, when new, produc’d no raging Cold,
No Heats, nor Storms: These grew, as she grew old.
Therefore our Parent Earth deserves to bear
The Name of Mother, since All rose from Her....
But weary’d now, and tir’d by length of Time,
The Earth grows old, and weak; as Women past their Prime....
Thus alt’ring Age leads on the World to Fate:
The Earth is diff’rent from her former State:
And what in former Times with Ease She bore,
Grown feeble now, and weak, She bears no more,
And now does that She could not do before.
Furthermore, Tyson presents these ideas with no mention of how ideas about life formation and life on other worlds have been, historically speaking, a fiasco. Since Aristotle in ancient times scientists have assumed that life arises spontaneously from inanimate matter; since at least Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century astronomers have assumed that other planets would be like Earth and would have life—but again and again science has shown those assumptions to have been wrong. History shows us that scientists have consistently expected the universe to be like Earth; we have expected other stars to be like our sun, other planetary systems to be like our planetary system, and other worlds to be like our world. We have expected homogeneity in the universe, but we have found diversity; most stars are not just like our sun, most planetary systems are not just like our solar system, most worlds are not just like Earth. And spontaneous generation has never been shown to work (and not for lack of effort in trying on the part of scientists).
“Cosmos” overlooks this history completely. The “third” episode of “Cosmos” keeps speaking of life as an “escape artist” that “will not be contained”, but what the science of the past two centuries has shown is that, as far as we can tell today, life is indeed “contained”—to Earth and only to Earth. Astronomers from 1820 widely believed that the whole solar system would be full of life, and they would have been shocked to see how lifeless the other worlds of the solar system really are. After all, as Kepler put it, speaking of the Jovian moons Galileo had discovered—
Our moon exists for us on the earth, not for the other globes. Those four little moons exist for Jupiter, not for us. Each planet in turn, together with its occupants, is served by its own satellites. From this line of reasoning we deduce with the highest degree of probability that Jupiter is inhabited.
Of course, we might yet find some life on the worlds Tyson discussed—on Mars or Europa or Enceladus. After all, just because the historical trend on this does not look good, that does not mean that trend can’t change; “past performance does not guarantee future results”. But those worlds are all very different than Earth (were you to be teleported to any one of them you would very shortly be dead) and science has never found life arising from inanimate matter (the incubating pores idea is merely that—an idea). Given all this, and given the fiasco of past performance, don’t bet any money on life on Mars or Europa or Enceladus, unless you have money to lose. Of course, who wants to watch a science show and hear “don’t bet on life”?
So, watch “Cosmos”. Enjoy the spectacle of all the flashing lights and things blowing up and crashing together. Enjoy the lame philosophizing and the lack of historical perspective. After all, a science show is still a “show”.