Neil deGrasse Tyson Makes Us Feel Inadequate on This Week’s ‘Cosmos’

This week, 'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey taught us about comets by offering a lesson on the men who, tangentially and directly, figured out what they are. 

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This week, 'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey taught us about comets by offering a lesson on the men who, tangentially and directly, figured out what they are. The stars (so to speak) of the show are Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley (of Halley's comet), Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke. And, as always, the wonderful host, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Why do we know the names of mass murderers, but not scientists?

Danielle: This episode opens with Neil deGrasse Tyson cradling a baby, and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the show. Essentially, as far as I can tell, this episode is arguing that scientists can be sexy (because what is sexier than Neil deGrasse Tyson talking astronomy while holding a baby?) and that we have the potential to be so, so much more productive than we tend to be. Tyson asks us why we know the names of mass murderers and not the names of scientists. Because we fill our minds with sensationalist, fearful information that is basically useless, is the implied -- and essentially correct -- answer.

Abby: Right. I felt a bit scolded when Tyson had an image of Dutch astronomer Jan Oort staring directly into the camera as he explained the Oort cloud — why didn’t I know about this guy? And why do I know all of the lyrics to the Gummi Bears TV show theme song instead? So wrong.

However: it should be noted that the episode itself was not without its own sensationalism. In this week's episode, I also learned that if you, like Robert Hooke, end up dying without getting an image of yourself preserved for future generations, a science show will turn you into an evil, balding hunchback to increase the drama of a history lesson. So take selfies forever, I guess.

Danielle: Right. Although no likeness of Hooke survives, others have felt perfectly comfortable portraying him as a typical, bewigged, 17th century scientist, so it seems most people did not think he was physically deformed. I think it’s a little weird that Hooke would be depicted in such an obviously villainous way -- aside from the plagiarism snafu that apparently turned Newton into a recluse, he contributed a huge amount to the scientific community. And Tyson already told us that Newton was abandoned as a toddler by his mother, who returned after several years with a new family. So it probably didn’t take all that much to push him over the edge.

Abby: Speaking of Newton, I kind of felt like he got a bit of the Bronte sisters male-love-interest treatment. As far as anyone can tell, Newton was an enormous asshole. In this, he’s kind of an appealing brooding hero guy. I'd probably get this version of him in the inevitable Buzzfeed quiz, "Which Dreamy Scientist From History Is Your Secret Crush?"

Danielle: Buzzfeed, take note please. An yes, I think the downside of introducing these scientists as a batch of historical badasses is that they each takes on a defined persona -- which is a compelling narrative tool but, perhaps, a bit intellectually dishonest. The story of Edmond Halley sticking by his downtrodden pal and standing up to those idiots at the Royal Society who spent all of their money on 'The History of Fishes' (!) makes for good television. But Tyson is good at teasing out the nuances and complexities in complicated ideas, and I wish there was more of that in his treatment of history. Also, can we please talk about The History of Fishes?

Abby: I thought you’d never ask. So I looked it up, and basically Cosmos got this weird, entertaining story correct. Historia Piscium was the Gigli of the Royal Society, and it was such a flop that it almost prevented the publication of Principia Mathematica. Its lavish illustrations ate up the annual budget of the organization, bringing it perilously close to financial ruin. If you want to take a look for yourself, there are a bunch of images (of quite nice-looking fish) online at the Royal Society’s site.

Danielle: That was absolutely my favorite part of the episode, and I'm glad the writers and producers had as much fun with it as they did. And I think that it managed to bring a bit of subtlety to Tyson's audience-directed criticism. If that lingering shot of Oort was direct censure, this was a bit more tongue-in-cheek -- without saying so directly, Tyson illustrated the notion that if we spend so much time, energy and pure capital on nonsense, we may very well actively hurt our wider community by neglecting important work.

It's a broad criticism that becomes more specific in the context of the government's failure to commit to socially beneficial scientific pursuits, like dealing with global warming or funding NASA. I couldn't help but feel like Tyson's discussions of the Milky Way -- and the fact that the subject of comets was treated with this much care -- serve as allusions to NASA's recently publicized GLIMPSE360 project, the grand result of decades-worth of Milky Way photography, and call for programmers to help find and track asteroids. But mostly I'm just happy that I know that the Royal Society genuinely believed that The History of Fishes would be a commercial success.

Abby: In the first episode of Cosmos's reboot, the most controversial bit was an animated history lesson about Giordano Bruno. Although Tyson did accurately say that Bruno was not a scientist (instead, he was a visionary philosopher how had a "lucky" guess about the Cosmos, Tyson said), he is presented as a hero and martyr for scientific curiosity, leading to some confusion. And while I'd argue that Cosmos's use of Bruno was problematic but not irresponsibly wrong, it was rather simplified. So I'm curious about how last night's very history-heavy episode will go over with the segments of the audience already familiar with these stories.

Using history as parable is a common storytelling technique, as much as it irritates many actual historians. This is exactly what Tyson is doing: we are not learning history for history's sake on Cosmos. We are learning specific interpretations of stories in order to absorb a specific lesson or principle. Indirectly, Cosmos is also teaching us that science (and perhaps scientists) have their own parables.

Danielle: That's a good point. I thought it was interesting how much this episode equated acquisition of knowledge with suppression of fear -- a theme fit for a parable. There was that mass murderer comment, which was cutting but a bit out of place, and the introduction of comets as a source of fear for ancient peoples but one of curiosity today. The idea seems to be that the more we know the less we have to fear, which doesn't sound all that accurate to me -- unless we look at it as a direct challenge to the notion of original sin.

But what did the Internet think?

Abby: This week's internet reaction is roughly divided into the informative, the enthusiastic, and the outraged. Let's start with the first of the three. As always, NASA was livetweeting the episode with images from its archives and links to add more context to the show's content:

This week, others joined in, particularly in the historical sections:

Meanwhile, others are still finding the show captivating (or at least watching it with people who feel that way): 

Especially when Tyson talked about the presence of marijuana among some of Science's Finest: 

This episode also contained a line that fell flat for some Christians watching the show. This is important to note, in part because Tyson has made a point of redrawing the boundaries of the "science vs. religion" debate to include most non-fundamentalist believers on the side of science. In Cosmos, the opposing factions are ideas (no matter the religious beliefs of those from whom they originate) vs. dogma and oppression of intellectual freedom.

While discussing Newton's contribution to our understanding of the world, Tyson said that  the explanation that "God" simply created the universe the way it is was the "closing of a door. It doesn't lead to other questions." Newton's laws of gravity of motion "swept away the need for a master clockmaker" to explain the universe, Tyson added, "gravity is the clockmaker." While in context, this line fits with the room Tyson has made for religion in Cosmos's exploration of the universe, it didn't read that way for some viewers:

What did we learn?

Danielle: I knew who Newton was, of course, but I didn't know the extent of his brilliance. It's fascinating, and intimidating, to learn that our science heroes' bodies of work extend so far beyond what they're remembered for. Likewise, I knew of Halley's comet and presumed there was a Halley for which it was named, but didn't realize that the very same Halley invented weather maps. I ended up feeling a lot like this guy:

I also did not know that our galaxy is on a collision course with Andromeda, and I did not know about this billion-year-long light show. That sounds awesome, in the traditional sense of the word. I didn't know about Historia Piscium. And I didn't know that Dave Navarro loves Cosmos:

Abby: I didn't know what a high quality illustration of a fish looked like until last night's episode, to be sure. And while I knew what the Oort cloud  was in the most basic sense, I didn't know anything about the man for which it's named. I still like Tyson best in this show when he's diving deep into our understanding of the universe. So I was particularly interested in the section where he walks us through the different explanations for how comets are formed in the solar system.

Click here to read our recap of episode one, and here for episode two

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.