Neil deGrasse Tyson's 'Cosmos' Explains How we Got The Lead Out of Our Environment

On this week's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson looked at how we know that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

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On this week's Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson looked at how we know that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. It's an interesting story, but not quite as interesting as what that discovery lead to: a decades-long fight between industry, the government, and scientists over the dangers of emitting lead into the environment.

"Duck soup my ass"

Abby: Well, as has become a recurring theme, this episode directly contrasts a young-earth creationism theory with the major scientific achievements that disprove it. This time, it's Archbishop Ussher's chronology of the earth's age based on a literal reading of the Bible. Basically, Ussher added up all the lives and generations as written in scripture and concluded that the Earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC, just around 6 pm.

Danielle: I love how elegantly he dismisses this theory. The last time Tyson alluded to young-earth creationism on the show, he explained that for a young-earth timeline to be true the edges of the visible universe would be have to be much closer to Earth -- and wondered who would want to believe in a smaller universe. Zing. 

Abby: Right. Tyson has more or less provided us with a simple visual of what a young-earth universe would have to look like. That universe is just a fraction of the size of the Milky Way alone, and otherwise is much less wondrous than what we have observed to be the reality. There's no room for all those Kepler earth-like planets in a young universe.


Danielle: I liked how Tyson quickly explained the origins of the young earth theory, and then — with the help of a deconstructed Grand Canyon — explained why it’s impossible. Without ever allowing that a young earth is possible, as Bill Nye arguably did when he participated in a creationism debate a few months ago, Tyson simultaneously presents and destroys the possibly of a 6,000 year old earth.

Abby:  See, this is so much more effective than Bill Nye's well-intentioned decision to debate Ken Ham. Debates work well as a format for Ham et al., in part because young-earth creationism relies on the certainty, no matter what scientific evidence says, of a particular set of conclusions from one authoritative book (see: Ussher's ability to "identify" the time of day the earth began with just the Biblical genealogies to back him up). Science, however, leaves room for previous theories to turn out to be incorrect, and for unintended discoveries from seemingly unrelated work.

Tyson addressed this when standing at the Grand Canyon. "Instead of counting the begats," he says, "add up all the layers" of the Earth to find its age. While counting layers of rock would certainly get you closer to our planet's true age, Tyson spends much of the rest of the episode outlining why that won't work. And, just how complicated it was — scientifically and politically — to actually get an accurate answer. I could have actually done with a little more time spent on previous scientific attempts to date the Earth. It wasn't as if we went straight from Ussher's number to Patterson's.

Danielle:  Incidentally, zircon has been in the news lately. In February, scientists identified a tiny zircon crystal as being the oldest gem in the world, dating back to 4.4 billion years — only one billion years after the earth was formed, per Patterson’s calculations.

I find it interesting that so far, most of the influential scientists discussed by Cosmos have been challenged by religious institutions. Patterson is the first to have been thwarted by other scientists, which is a more complex dynamic than what we’ve seen so far. Still, there was a clear narrative —Patterson was presented as a follower of his moral compass, whose willingness to stand up to corruption made the world a safer place, while Kehoe was portrayed as a corporate lackey more concerned with General Motors’ image than human life. It’s a good way to represent the dangers of corporations funding scientific research — and illustrate the crass results of corporate greed — but I wonder how fair it is to Kehoe himself, who did seem to have some reservations about lead. I did, however, like that Patterson brought up having worked on the Manhattan Project. It at least alluded to what must have been Patterson’s own struggles with morality in science.

Abby: It's fair to say that those interested in the history of science presented in Cosmos should bring some skepticism to the table when it comes to some of the more dramatic moments on the show. So putting aside whether Patterson wandered California streets like a hero in a 1950s horror movie aside, it's important to note that his later work on lead poisoning did meet the sort of opposition outlined by Tyson's narrative. In fact, a World Health Organization conference of 15 nations also agreed with Kehoe early on that there'd been no significant changes in environmental lead content. In 1971, six years after Patterson first appeared before Congress to present his findings (and one year after the passage of the Clean Air Act), the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines on lead pollution still relied on the arguments from industrial scientists, cited in a report form the National Research Council. NASA has a good primer on his career, here.

Danielle: At least there's some history to back up the intense drama of this episode. To be clear, I was for some reason totally into the weird noir style of telling the story. Harrison Brown, the senior scientist who brought Patterson onto his team early in his career, told Patterson that figuring out the age of the earth would be simple once he figured out the lead content in the zircon crystal. "Duck soup," is how he explained the ease of the task, according to the episode. After two years of nothing Patterson gets desperate. "Duck soup my ass," he said. How salty! And then there were those GM goons, who weren't even really threatening him, but were ominously suggesting he take up another course of study. Kudos to Cosmos for making a lead scientists look like a hard-boiled detective.

Abby: Yes, and can we talk about the lead nightmares? This episode is certainly making the case for a lead-based horror movie. While some of the individual scenes might indeed owe more to horror and film noir than they do to fact, the central drama of Patterson's work seems to be based in reality.

Danielle: How crazy, and terrifying, were those old-timey lead ads?

via Fox

Abby: Answer: so crazy. I was also happy to see Cosmos put some primary historical sources on air, like these ads!

But what does the Internet think?

Abby: So Cosmos fans — admittedly a self-selecting group — are still pretty into the show. This week was particularly interesting because of the timing: Cosmos chose Easter Sunday to take on the earth's age, young earthers, and industrial interference in scientific conclusions.

Obviously, NASA was on point:

Then there was this grumpy twitter response :(

(Sorry, Jason. This show still has a long way to go.)

What we learned:

Abby: I really didn't know anything about Clair Patterson until I started digging around after this episode for more context. I was also really interested in how Patterson's work on lead ultimately produced the first "clean room." 

Danielle: Ditto, I had never heard of Patterson until I watched the episode, and also liked how his obsessive-compulsive search for a clean room resulted in a major scientific breakthrough. That type of ode to diligence is in line with Tyson's call for young scientists who might be intimidated by the idea of entering the field. I also learned that Richard Gere is totally unrecognizable as a voice actor (he did Patterson, if you couldn't tell). 

Check out our discussions of previous Cosmos episodes below: 

Episode one: What Does Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos Say About Religion?

Episode two: Neil deGrasse Tyson Addresses Creationists' Evolution Fears in Cosmos

Episode three: Neil deGrasse Tyson Makes Us Feel Inadequate on This Week’s Cosmos

Episode four: Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Time Travel Is All Around Us on This Week’s Cosmos

Episode five: Neil deGrasse Tyson Shows Us How to See Sounds on This Week's Cosmos

Episode six: Neil deGrasse Tyson Shrinks the Scale on This Week's Cosmos

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