Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 1, Standing Up in the Milky Way

A brief history of the universe, from Big Bang to the present

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Logo for the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Fox Entertainment

In this first episode of the reboot/sequel to Carl Sagan's classic science series Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes viewers on a journey through the history of our scientific understanding of the universe.

The series has gotten some mixed responses, with some criticism of overly-cartoonish graphics and extremely rudimentary concepts that it covers. However, the point of the show is precisely to reach an audience that doesn't normally go out of their way to watch scientific programming, so you've got to start with the basics.

 

After going through the rundown of the planets in the solar system, Tyson then discusses the outer limits of our solar system: the Oort Cloud, representing all of the comets that are gravitationally bound to our sun. He points out an astounding fact, which is part of the reason why we don't see this Oort Cloud easily: each comet is as far away from the next comet as the Earth is from Saturn.

Covering the planets and the solar system, Dr. Tyson moves on to discussing the Milky Way and other galaxies, and then the greater groupings of these galaxies into groups and superclusters. He uses the analogy of lines in a cosmic address, with the lines as follows:

"This is the cosmos on the grandest scale we know, a network of a hundred billion galaxies."

From there, the series moves back into history, discussing how Nicholas Copernicus presented the idea of the heliocentric model of the solar system.

Copernicus gets kind of short shrift (largely because he didn't publish his heliocentric model until after his death, so there's not much drama in that tale). The narrative then goes on to relate the story and fate of one of my favorite historical figures: Giordano Bruno. If Cosmos achieves nothing beyond making this man's story more broadly known to the general public, it will have achieved a great thing!

The story moves along a decade to Galileo Galilei and his revolution of pointing the telescope toward the heavens. Though Galileo's story is dramatic enough in its own right, after the detailed rendition of Bruno's clash with religious orthodoxy, going into much about Galileo would seem anticlimactic.

With the Earthly historical segment of the episode seemingly over, Tyson moves on to discussing time on a grander scale, by compressing the entire history of the universe into a single calendar year, to provide some perspective on the time scale that cosmology presents to us over the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang. He discusses the evidence in support of this theory, including the cosmic microwave background radiation and evidence of nucleosynthesis.

Using his "history of the universe compressed into a year" model, Dr. Tyson does a great job of making it clear how much of cosmic history took place before we humans ever came on the scene:

  • Big Bang - January 1
  • First stars formed - January 10
  • First galaxies formed - January 13
  • Milky Way forms - March 15
  • Our Sun forms - August 31
  • Life forms on Earth - September 21
  • First land-based animals on Earth - December 17
  • First flower bloomed - December 28
  • Dinosaurs go extinct - December 30
  • Humans evolved - 11:00 pm, December 31
  • First cave paintings - 11:59, December 31
  • Invented writing (recorded history begins) - 11:59 and 46 seconds, December 31
  • Today - Midnight, December 31

With this perspective in place, Dr. Tyson spends the last few minutes of the episode discussing Carl Sagan. He even pulls out a copy of Carl Sagan's 1975 calendar, where there is a note indicating he had an appointment with a 17-year-old student named Neil Tyson. As Dr. Tyson recounts the event, he makes it clear that he was influenced by Carl Sagan not merely as a scientist, but as the sort of person he wanted to become.

In conclusion, I found the first episode to be a good one. Honestly, I was a little underwhelmed prior to the first commercial break, but once they hit the historical stuff about Bruno, the remainder of the episode had much better pacing.

I'm probably about as well versed on these subjects as it's possible to be without a doctorate, and even I learned a number of new facts through the course of the episode. I definitely look forward to the remaining episodes in the series.

Watch the Episode

The entire series is available on blu-ray and DVD.