Distraction Free Reading

Cosmos: A Spacetime Conversation

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a ‘reboot’ of Carl Sagan’s series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today’s Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan’s series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the science is portrayed. I recently had a conversation with two historians of science who have been engaged with the Cosmos conversation, Ben Gross (@bhgross144, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Audra Wolfe (@ColdWarScience, an independent scholar), to discuss how Cosmos can offer insight into the current state of science and society.

BEN: When comparing Sagan’s Cosmos to the new series, you immediately notice a different way that science is being presented between the two series. When Sagan’s Cosmos aired in 1980, NASA’s Viking and Voyager programs were in full force and Sagan’s involvement with these missions to Mars and beyond led to his excitement of showing off what he and his fellow scientists were doing. In Sagan’s series, there is an episode that highlights the recent pictures the Voyager satellite had taken of Jupiter. Sagan actually goes to JPL and is there when they are getting the first pictures back of, I think, Europa. You actually see what the inside of a working NASA lab looks like. It is collaborative. They really play up the team aspect in a way that they haven’t as much yet in Tyson’s series.

AUDRA: That’s so interesting that you say that because I was thinking that given how long this thing has been in production, they should have been hanging out at CERN. Instead, in Episode 7, there is a scene in which Tyson is sitting in this neutrino chamber, but there aren’t any scientists. It’s just the instrument and him. There were no people! That could have been a great opportunity to look at contemporary big science and how this stuff works, but it’s just Neil in his boat.

LISA: Collaboration does seem to be missing. Though the activities of scientists are richly presented in every episode, scientists are almost always presented as heroic individuals.

BEN: There is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the representation. The current Cosmos relies on rhetoric from the old series which describes science as a collaborative enterprise. The kind of collaboration we’ve been given examples of, though, is across time, it is diachronic. It is not synchronic in the way Sagan’s series portrayed science as happening in these very real, very populated laboratories like JPL.

In the current series, one might be inclined to call the depiction of science almost Mertonian. For example, in Episode 5, which draws heavily from the history of science to recount 2,000 years in the study of light, there was a very clear notion of how good science should work. Good science was conducted in public; the results were freely communicated. Good science adhered to a well-defined error correcting method that was laid out clearly. If these norms were followed, scientists produced great things. Also in this episode is a weird, almost Whiggish moment where it seems as if Isaac Newton was about to do an experiment that would offer a breakthrough concerning the nature of light, but he is interrupted and called away for dinner. Tyson bemoans this fictional moment as being symbolic of Newton not pushing his science far enough such that it would be another 150 years before someone picked up where he had presumably left off. As a historian, my reaction was that this was an incredibly unfair reading of Newton’s work; but it shows how there is an assumption throughout this series of science proceeding in a logical, stepwise narrative direction.

All of this adds up to a different overall feel between the two Cosmos series. Sagan’s Cosmos really feels like it is celebrating science, and while that is of course present in Tyson’s Cosmos, there is a more pressing need to justify science, or more acutely the scientific method. The show is driving home the point that the scientific method works and should be treated with more respect in public discourse.

AUDRA: This speaks to the different political climate of the two series. A couple of weekends ago, I was at a conference on Science for the People, hosted by UMass Amherst and one of the themes of that conference was that in the 60s and 70s, the critics of science were still often to be found within the scientific community. Today, the so-called critics of science or the scientific method are located outside of science. This is one of the things you see in the difference between these two shows. Sagan still would have been in conversation with people who called themselves scientists who were involved in critiquing what was happening in science. That was part of what being a lefty scientist was about in the 70s and 80s. At some point a wall went up, and many scientists today feel that they are defending their practice from forces outside, maybe even including scholars in STS and history of science who are perceived of as being critical of science.

I tried to get at this complicated relationship between science and its publics in my Atlantic article, and specifically the relationship between science and funding. But I was writing before seeing the show, and mostly reacting to interviews Tyson had done where he says fairly ridiculous things about science and the military…

BEN: “You will never find scientists leading armies into battle”

AUDRA: There’s something about that amnesia regarding the relationship between science and the military that is critical to how people remember the original Cosmos and also the depiction of science in this series. And I think a lot of the episodes have been pushing this disinterestedness. That amnesia about scientists’ relationship to the military is really much more problematic than just an ellipsis.

LISA: Amnesia is a great word, especially because Sagan’s work and activism and perhaps even a motivating force behind Cosmos was a reaction to the relationship between science and the military. That this motivation is totally forgotten about or overlooked in this series is notable. I imagine that part of this amnesia has to do with who the audience of this show is and the overall goal of this show to be a piece of science boosterism.

AUDRA: Tyson has said in interviews on multiple occasions that the audience is the “electorate.” His choice of this word is fascinating. Obviously I cannot speak for Tyson, but he has certainly said in multiple public forums that he really does want to change public opinion. And he’s doing so in a more sophisticated way than some of the public understanding of science people are giving him credit for, because he’s actually talking about the electorate, and these are the people who influence or have some interaction with policy makers. Putting aside his idealized model of how democracy works, he’s been pretty clear that the audience is the electorate.

Of course, when I saw the first episode I thought the show was up to something else. The series began with a feeling of recruitment. He reflected on how Sagan offered to be his mentor, suggesting that this show was going to be about the STEM pipeline and specifically showing people of color that you can be a scientist and that there are career pathways. I felt like that fell off quickly, and began to be a defense of the scientific method to ward off public skepticism about science. It wasn’t what I was expecting.

BEN: I agree with this sense of who the audience is and this shift in tone, but there has at the same time been a conscious emphasis of showing groups that are underrepresented in science, broadening beyond the standard Western European story, which the original Cosmos centered on. In the episode about light I mentioned earlier, before Newton was introduced, an ancient Chinese philosopher, Mozi, was featured before presenting the work in optics performed by the Arabic natural philosopher al-Hazen.

LISA: This inclusion probably gets back to the relationship between progress and science that this series ultimately argues for. The last episode, titled “Unafraid of the Dark,” and not airing until June, seems like it is going to be about dark matter, and the humility that comes with knowing that what we can see in the universe only accounts for four percent of the hypothesized mass of the universe. Showcasing the insignificance of not only Earth but the visible universe emphasizes an implicit undercurrent of the whole series; that it is Science not God that will offer meaningful understanding of our place in the universe.

BEN: And how that last episode is framed also offers a moral character to science: science doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, unlike religion.***

AUDRA: And the show explicitly uses the phrase “forces of darkness” to characterize the threat of the unenlightened or unscientific.

BEN: In fairness, Sagan does a similar thing with “light” and “enlightenment,” but it doesn’t strike me as relevant to 1970s early 80s science as it does to current science. The political environment for scientists is so different now. Maybe this language is an artifact that reveals how persecuted many scientists think they are.

AUDRA: That comes across loud and clear in this show.

BEN: The feeling they are being persecuted and they need to defend themselves against the forces of darkness, whatever those are.

Have you watched the series? Leave your thoughts in the comments on what you think this show tells us about the relationship between science and society! And check out the weekly #CosmosChat hosted by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (@ChemHeritage) on Tuesdays, 2 PM EDT during which people discuss the previous Sunday’s episode of Cosmos on Twitter.

*For more on the writing of Cosmos, listen to Tyson’s interview with Soter on Tyson’s podcast Startalk Radio.

**Historian Patrick McCray has an excellent blog post on this topic.

***For more on religion, science, and Cosmos, see Elizabeth Yale’s “What the Show Cosmos Gets Wrong about Religion—and Science

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