Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Recap - Episode 101

"Standing Up in the Milky Way"

The Milky Way rising from Mount Shasta

 Brad Goldpaint / Getty Images

Almost 34 years ago, renowned scientist Carl Sagan produced and hosted a groundbreaking television series called "Cosmos: A Personal Journey" that started at the Big Bang and explained how the world as we knew it came to be. A lot more has been uncovered in the past three decades, so Fox Broadcasting Company has created an updated version of the show hosted by the brilliant and likable Neil deGrasse Tyson. The 13 episode series will take us on a journey through space and time, while explaining the science, including evolution, of how the universe has changed over the last 14 billion years. Keep reading for a recap of the first episode entitled "Standing Up in the Milky Way". 

Episode 1 Recap - Standing Up in the Milky Way

The first episode starts off with an introduction from President Barack Obama. He gives tribute to Carl Sagan and the original version of this show and asks the audience to open our imagination.

The first scene of the show starts with a clip from the original series and host Neil deGrasse Tyson standing in the same place as Carl Sagan did nearly 34 years ago. Tyson runs through a list of things we will learn about, including atoms, stars, and various life forms. He also tells us that we will learn the story of “us”. We will need imagination, he says, to take the journey.

A nice touch is next, when he lays out the main principles of scientific research that everyone who contributed to these discoveries followed -- including questioning everything. This leads to some stunning visual effects of the different scientific topics we will encounter throughout the series as the credits roll to a grand musical score.

Tyson is on a spaceship to help guide us through the Cosmos. We begin with a view of the Earth 250 million years ago and then it morphs into how it may look 250 years from now. Then we leave Earth behind and travel across the Cosmos to learn "Earth's address" within the Cosmos. The first thing we see is the moon, which is barren of life and atmosphere. Getting close to the Sun, Tyson tells us that it creates the wind and keeps our entire solar system in its gravitational clutches. 

We speed past Mercury on the way to Venus with its greenhouse gases. Skipping past Earth, we head to Mars that has as much land as Earth. Dodging the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, we finally make it to the largest planet. It has more mass than all other planets combined and is like its own solar system with its four large moons and its centuries old hurricane that is more than three times the size of our entire planet. Tyson’s ship pilots through the cold rings of Saturn and to Uranus and Neptune. These far out planets were discovered only after the invention of the telescope. Beyond the outermost planet, there is a whole slew of “frozen worlds”, which includes Pluto.

The Voyager I spacecraft appears on screen and Tyson tells the audience it has a message for any future beings it may encounter and it includes music of the time it was launched. This is the spacecraft that has traveled the farthest of any spacecraft we have launched from Earth.

After a commercial break, Tyson introduces the Oort Cloud. It is an enormous cloud of comets and pieces of debris from the origin of the universe. It encases the entire solar system.

There are so many planets in the solar system and many more than there are stars, even. Most are hostile for life, but some may have water on them and could possibly sustain life of some form.

We live about 30,000 light years from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is part of the “Local Group” of galaxies that include our neighbor, the spiraling Andromeda Galaxy. The Local Group is just a small part of the Virgo Supercluster. On this scale, the tiniest dots are entire galaxies and then even this Supercluster is just a very small part of the Cosmos as a whole.

There is a limit to how far we can see, so the Cosmos may just be the end of our sight for now. There very well may be a “multiverse” where there are universes everywhere we do not see because the light from those universes have not been able to reach us yet in the 13.8 billion years the Earth has been around.

Tyson gives a little bit of history of how ancients believed Earth was the center of a very small universe where the planets and stars revolved around us. It was not until the 16th Century that one man managed to imagine something much bigger, and he was in jail for these beliefs.

The show comes back from commercial with Tyson relaying the story of Copernicus suggesting the Earth was not the center of the universe and how he was opposed by Martin Luther and other religious leaders of the time. Next comes the story of Giordano Bruno, a Domincan Monk in Naples. He wanted to know everything about God’s creation so he even read books that had been banned by the Church. One of these forbidden books, written by a Roman named Lucretius, wanted the reader to imagine shooting an arrow off the “edge of the universe”. It will either hit a boundary or shoot out into the universe infinitely. Even if it hits a boundary, then you can stand at that boundary and shoot another arrow. Either way, the universe would be infinite. Bruno thought it made sense that an infinite God would create an infinite universe and he began to talk about these beliefs. It was not long before he was cast out by the Church.

Bruno had a dream he was trapped underneath a bowl of stars, but after summoning his courage, he flew out into the universe and he regarded this dream as his calling to teach the infinite universe idea along with his infinite God preachings. This was not well received by religious leaders and he was excommunicated and opposed by intellectuals and the Church. Even after this persecution, Bruno refused to keep his ideas to himself.


Back from commercial, Tyson begins the rest of Bruno's story by telling the audience there was no such thing as separation of Church and State in that time. Bruno returned to Italy despite the danger he was in with the Inquisition in full power during his time. He was caught and jailed for preaching his beliefs. Even though he was interrogated and tortured for more than eight years, he refused to renounce his ideas. He was found guilty of opposing God’s word and was told all of his writings would be gathered and burned in the town square. Bruno still refused to repent and stayed firm in his beliefs. 

An animated depiction of Bruno being burnt at the stake ends this story. As an epilogue, Tyson tells us 10 years after Bruno’s death, Galileo proved him right by looking through a telescope. Since Bruno was not a scientist and had no evidence to back up his claims, he paid with his life for ultimately being right.

The next segment begins with Tyson having us imagine all of the time the Cosmos has existed is compressed to one calendar year. The cosmic calendar begins January 1 when the universe begins. Every month is about a billion years and every day is about 40 million years. The Big Bang was on January 1st of this calendar. 

There is strong evidence for the Big Bang, including the amount of helium and the glow of radio waves. As it expanded, the universe cooled and it was dark for 200 million years until gravity pulled stars together and heated them until they gave off light. This happened on about January 10th of the cosmic calendar. The galaxies started to appear around January 13th and the Milky Way started to form around March 15th of the cosmic year. 

Our Sun had not been born at this time and it would take a supernova of a giant star to create the star we revolve around. Insides of stars are so hot, they fuse atoms to make elements like carbon, oxygen, and iron. The “star stuff” gets recycled and reused over and over to make everything in the universe. August 31st is our Sun’s birthday on the cosmic calendar. Earth was formed from debris coming together that was was orbiting the Sun. The Earth took a great beating in the first billion years and the Moon was made from these collisions. It was also 10 times closer than it is now, making the tides 1000 times higher. Eventually, the Moon was pushed farther away.

We are not sure how life got started, but the first life was formed about September 31st on the cosmic calendar. By November 9th, life was breathing, moving, eating, and responding to the environment. December 17th is when the Cambrian Explosion happened and shortly thereafter, life moved to land. The final week of December saw dinosaurs, birds, and flowering plants evolve. The death of these ancient plants created our fossil fuels we’re using today. On December 30th at about 6:34 AM, the asteroid that started the mass extinction of the dinosaurs hit the Earth. Human ancestors only evolved in the last hour of December 31st. All of recorded history is represented by the last 14 seconds of the cosmic calendar.

We return after commercial and it is 9:45 pm on New Year’s Eve. This is when time saw the first bipedal primates that could look up from the ground. These ancestors were making tools, hunting and gathering, and naming things all within the last hour of the cosmic year. At 11:59 on December 31st, the first paintings on cave walls would have appeared. It is when Astronomy was invented and necessary to learn for survival. Soon after, humans learned to cultivate plants, tame animals, and settle down rather than wander. About 14 seconds until midnight on the cosmic calendar, writing was invented as a way to communicate. As a point of reference, Tyson tells us Moses was born 7 seconds ago, Buddha 6 seconds ago, Jesus 5 seconds ago, Mohammed 3 seconds ago, and the two sides of the Earth only found each other 2 seconds ago on this cosmic calendar.

The show ends with a tribute to the great Carl Sagan and his ability to communicate science to the public. He was a pioneer for finding extraterrestrial life and space exploration and Tyson tells a personal anecdote of meeting Sagan when he was only 17 years old. He was personally invited to Sagan’s lab and he was inspired to become not only a scientist, but a great person that reached out to help others understand science as well. And now, here he is nearly 40 years later doing just that.

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Scoville, Heather. "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Recap - Episode 101." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Scoville, Heather. (2023, April 5). Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Recap - Episode 101. Retrieved from Scoville, Heather. "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Recap - Episode 101." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).