Last night's episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey looked at the tiniest elements of our universe, exploring plant and animal cells and the role they play in our lives. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson took us inside plants, water, and our brains and reminded us, once again, that the laws of nature both constrict and expand our understanding of life. At the end of the episode we were again confronted with the beginning of our cosmic calendar and the impenetrable Wall of Forever. But before that, he gave us quite a bit to consider.
The universe fits inside a drop of water
Danielle: I don’t even know where to start with last night’s episode. Tyson covered particle physics, the periodic table, chlorophyl and photosynthesis, olfactory memory, and more. He somehow managed to pull together topics across the scientific field with grace, and I think that’s thanks to some of the legwork done earlier in the series. For instance, bringing back the tardigrade was a good way to remind us that a size does not make an animal (or atom, or element) any less formidable -- a weirdly comforting thing for humans talking about the universe.
Abby: Right. Here we had the storyline of the boy, picking fragrant flowers in a dew-covered field, approaching a girl he likes. But instead of going inside the familiar narrative of the emotions or human dynamics at play in such a scene, Tyson took us inside everything else: why does the smell of the flowers evoke a certain memory? How is that smell transmitted to our brain?
Danielle: I was totally fascinated by the idea of plant cells as containing a "molecular industrial complex," and the notion that we could possibly use photosynthesis as a model for green energy. Tyson used a rather wonky analogy to flesh out this idea, saying, "We're on an industrial espionage mission. If we can penetrate the trade secrets in the manufacturing process in that chloroplast, let's just say our whole future hangs in the balance." The representation of photosynthesis as an efficient manufacturing process lends credence to green energy as a viable option. I like this as a way to both make a case for sustainability that would appeal to financial skeptics, rather than science skeptics, while also delivering a rhetorical blow to climate change deniers by refusing to discuss global warming as anything other than a given.