I should update my thoughts about the new version of the TV series Cosmos, since earlier I posted a mild critique about it needing to explain the background of scientific discovery – presenting not just the grandiose conclusions humanity has reached about the size and age of the universe, but the reasoning that went into these conclusions.
After seven weeks, on this count, I think the show is doing just fine. This past week’s episode, “The Clean Room”, was especially good, focusing as it did on a single scientist, Clair Patterson, and his decades-long quest to apply observations about radioactive decay to ancient samples of actual rocks, including meteorite fragments, his inconsistent results and therefore quest to remove sources of contamination, and his arrival at a conclusion about the age of the Earth. It was the first of many chains of evidence that support our understanding of the age of the Earth, and the universe.
At the same time, the episode ties this discovery to political pushback. The idea that lead was contaminating the environment was resisted by the petroleum industry (of course! It threatened their profits!), with their own hired ‘scientists’ to dispute any such accusations. It’s a pattern that’s been repeated again and again, by the tobacco industry, and lately by corporations who in their own interest need to dispute climate change science. (The lesson is, as in so many other issues, especially political: follow the money.)
Ironically, the pushback against this episode by creationists, who can’t believe the Earth is any older than some 6000 years because Bible, is that the fact that scientists hired to defend corporate interests disagree with non-affiliated scientists somehow proves that science is inherently unreliable, and therefore you can’t trust anything scientists conclude about anything.
(See this Alternet article:
Each week’s episode drives creationists like Ken Ham and his band of pseudoscientific faith-heads to the brink of insanity. They rush every week to find what things they can find to dispute in each episode. They never actually offer up their own evidence to the contrary, but instead simply attack Tyson for not using the Bible as the source of all science.
I also give credit to Cosmos — perhaps not to deGrasse Tyson himself, but to the scriptwriters, led by Carl Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, though I have no idea to what extent they collaborated – to confronting the myths of creationism and science-denial, almost in every episode. In this one, dismissing the Bible’s many “begats” as an early guess but ultimately a discredited method of determining the Earth’s age. Naturally, these episodes drive the creationists crazy.
Here is a link to a a review of episode 7 by a better writer than me, Adam Lee.
If I still have a slight reservation about this new Cosmos series, it is that while each individual episode is very interesting, I don’t see a progression, in the way I thought I remembered the original series had – though I haven’t rewatched that show, or more than glanced at Sagan’s book, in 30 years.