Dawn of a New Cosmos

Can the reincarnation of Carl Sagan's iconic masterwork deliver the societal impact of the original series? This weekend viewers in 174 countries get a chance to see the first of 13 hour-long prime-time episodes.

Sunday will be a red-letter day for me — and not because the United States is switching to Daylight Savings Time. (Hardly!)

Cosmos logo
Instead, that evening will be the culmination of 2½ years of anticipation for the debut of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I've been following this show's progress closely since the project's start-up was announced in 2011.

The hour-long premiere, the first of 13 episodes, airs at 9 p.m. on Fox stations and on Monday at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic cable channel. All told, it'll debut in 174 countries and 47 languages — arguably the most global rollout of any series in television history.

Thanks to the involvement of Fox Broadcasting and entertainment wunderkind Seth MacFarlane, this new incarnation should be a visual treat. The host, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is the obvious choice — at least for American audiences. He's a well-known popularizer of all things astronomical, and thanks to his day job (director of New York's Hayden Planetarium) the charming and irrepressible Tyson oozes credibility.

Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane
Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane have teamed up to create Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Cosmos Studios (left); Bob Charlotte / PR Photos (right)
Many of you know that the original Cosmos, which first aired in 1980, set the bar very high for all of the prime-time science programming that would follow. It made Carl Sagan a household name, and his unique, measured delivery was seen by an estimated 800 million viewers worldwide, making it the Public Broadcasting Service's most-watched series of all time.

Tyson acknowledges this legacy in the first episode, describing how he met the esteemed Cornell astronomer while still a high-school student and how that encounter changed Tyson's life. But this weekend's debut will not be an homage to Sagan, who died in 1996 at age 62, despite the fact that it's been scripted by Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, who had teamed with him to write the first series. (Sagan and Druyan later married.)

Instead, it attempts to bring the breadth of scientific discovery — and the underpinnings of science itself — to the widest possible audience. By that, I don't mean your typical Nova watcher. Instead, I'm referring to the vast slice of modern citizenry who don't give much thought to even major scientific discoveries or, worse, carry an anti-science bias.

"When Cosmos was first broadcast, the attitude toward science was much friendlier," Druyan told me during an interview last August. She regrets that so many people have become uninformed about and even openly hostile toward fact-based thinking. But she senses that the "pendulum is swinging back our way. We're ready to explore again."

To this point I've seen only snippets of the show. I can tell you that two key visual elements from the original series are back. One is the "Ship of the Imagination," which Tyson navigates from the very micro (an atom's nucleus) to the very macro (the edge of the observable universe). Sagan's SOTI was a stylized dandelion of light, but its new iteration is a sleek, bubble-domed sliver of futuristic design.

Neil Tyson with "Cosmic Calendar"
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the host for Cosmos, perches at the very end of the show's "Cosmic Calendar."
The second returnee is the "Cosmic Calendar". Sagan used this clever visualization to compress the entire history of the universe (15 billion years back then, 13.8 billion now) into a single year. By this reckoning, our solar system formed in early September — and humans didn't make their appearance until the last hour of December 31st.

Sorry, that's all I'm going to tell you — you're just going to have to watch the premiere yourself. After viewing it, jump back here to leave your comments and impressions. (And be sure to check out my feature article on the series in Sky & Telescope's April issue.)

26 thoughts on “Dawn of a New Cosmos

  1. Anthony Barreiro

    I saw a special premiere screening of the first episode at the California Academy of Sciences on Tuesday March 4. It was awesome. The show pulls no punches in telling the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th century mystic who was burned at the stake for heresy, among other things believing that the universe is infinite, and that there are planets orbiting the stars. Tyson’s story of meeting Sagan was moving. Highly recommended. (I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers.)

  2. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Carl Sagan [in the book Cosmos] said that the idea of an infinite fractal cosmos was: “haunting, evocative…perhaps the most exquisite idea in science or religion…”

    Why do theoretical physicists totally ignore this beautiful and highly unified alternative to the old and failing paradigm?

    The ignore-ance is more egregious when you consider that the idea was developed scientifically via a very large amount of observational data, has made a host of definitive predictions, and has successfully predicted pulsar/planets, trillions of unbound planetary-mass “nomad” objects, the peak of the exoplanet mass spectrum, and the lack of planets orbiting the lowest mass M dwarf stars.

    The new discrete fractal paradigm also is able to elegantly retrodict more than 35 fundamental parameters from the subatomic to the galactic scales.

    Details at http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw
    Definitive predictions at http://www.academia.edu/2042222/Predictions_of_Discrete_Scale_Relativity

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity

  3. John Persichilli

    Having a box set of the original Cosmos and having watched it many times and having not seen even a snip it of the new program I am wary of any program affiliated with the network FOX. I mean in light of the right wing views machine at FOX news. I only hope that this program does not pull punches with cosmic or any other form of evolution.

  4. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Dr. Tyson wants very much to make this a fitting tribute to Sagan. I do not think he would let the right-leaning forces at FOX dictate content.

    My only concern will be how much of the pseudo-science that is so fashionable now (holographic universe, multiverse of anything-you-want physics, anthropic pretzel logic, dark matter killed the dinosaurs, infinite Brian Greene doppelgangers, etc.) will pollute the science of our most beautiful and wondrous cosmos. Who needs Aristotelian metaphysics when the real world is so much more interesting.

    We shall see.

  5. Frank Reed

    John, you wrote that you’re worried about the Fox television connection. You shouldn’t be. While Fox NEWS is certainly right-wing, Fox network programming includes some of the most liberal (left) programming available for mass consumption. You have seen "Family Guy", haven’t you? Fox news has no control over the network’s other programming, and you can be assured that the producers would have balked at any attempt to influence content. These are tough, intelligent people. In any case, if you have ever read or listened to anything Tyson has done, he is a major advocate of modern science and has little patience for anything that dilutes it. He’s also a very nice guy and a skilled communicator -the sort of person who is in touch with pop culture as well as the latest advances in astrophysics. He’s thoroughly unpretentious, and he lets the science speak for itself and the scientists speak for themselves. He also picks great guests for his radio show (Ha! Sorry, couldn’t resist).

  6. Mack

    The real problem here is having a scumbag like Seth MacFarlane associated with this production. He produces some of the most vile and gutter images ever seen on the screen. Some of the other posts here worried about any "right-leaning forces" affecting the production of Cosmos. Well, here you have a "left leaning force" producing the piece! How about that John P. and Robert O.?

  7. Robert L. Oldershaw

    In science observational evidence is the key.

    Let’s see the program tonight and make our judgments after we have some empirical evidence.

    The NY Times review was positive but not without quibbles.

    The end of the review piece has Tyson stating a basic principle of science: "QUESTION EVERYTHING"!

  8. Mike W. Herberich

    Interesting posts, everybody: FOX, right and left etc., for me as a Non-American. Robert: interesting to hear what Sagan said about fractals … in religion? Did he really say that? I mean, where did he see fractals coming into or being in religion? Or am I getting something wrong here? By the way, Robert: did you see my question about Mr. Wetterich’s model of the infinite universe? Could you comment on that theory? Just a little? Thanks in advance.

  9. Mike W. Herberich

    I like that basic principle of science of questioning, or, at least, scrutinizing everything. And I like your stressing it, Robert. If I’m not mistaken it was Descartes who posited that, maybe not as a first, though. His "I think therefore I am" should rather be translated "I scrutinize/ question, therefore I am".
    What’s so bad about Seth MacFarlane, Mack? Can you elaborate on that, please? As I mentioned, I’m not in the US and thus do not get what’s going on over there.

  10. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Sagan was not trying to associate fractal cosmology with religion.

    He meant that an infinite fractal cosmos was the most exquisite idea he had ever considered.

    I have no idea who Wetterich is or what his theory is about.

  11. Robert L. Oldershaw

    I thought the new Cosmos was good and very entertaining.

    However, the barrage of ads every 15 minutes was unacceptably intrusive and off-putting.

    PBS should have been the only reasonable choice for this show, and now it is too late. Pity.

  12. Mike W. Herberich

    Dear Robert, for "Wetterich", etc., please consult blog "New Record for Oldest Earth Rock" from days ago (February 28). I’d be interested to hear your opinion. It would suffice if you read only the abstracts there, not necessarily the entire article(s). Thanks in advance for your commenting. —
    Sagan: I obviously misunderstood the word "religion", mentioned in the phrase "… most exquisite idea in science or religion". That’s why I asked. I can only second the thought that fractals are a phenomenon that lends itself to be considered universal. I am looking forward to how your theory is going to prove true further.

  13. Gret Dicey

    I thought the broadcast was fabulous. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the episodes. I’m not a scientist, just very interested in knowing what they know, and grateful to them for the work they do from which the rest of us benefit. To have a science program on network TV during prime time is wonderful. I’m thankful to everyone involved. Very savvy approach to making the information palatable to the general public with the stunning images and great choice of narrator.

  14. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Sorry, but I took a look at Wetterich’s paper posted to arXiv.org and I find it just more untestable metaphysics.

    We are already awash in untestable just-so stories.

    Increasing Planck mass, shrinking atoms, shrinking universe, … is there any physical evidence for any of this? I seriously doubt it.

    We can do MUCH better!

  15. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    String theory was introduced, among other reasons, to avoid the divide-by-zero problem implied by point-mass particles. Using energy conservation, however, it is fairly easy to show there is a minimum distance of separation, r(min), below which it is meaningless consider quanta getting any closer. For two quanta of charge +/- q(0) and mass m initially at rest: r(min) = q(0)^2*mu(0)/(2*pi*m) + G*m/(2*c^2). For quanta of unequal mass, e.g. a proton and electron, the formula is more complicated, but there is no divide-by-zero problem in Nature, because r(min) can never reduce to zero.

  16. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    In the Standard Model, local clumping–star, galaxy, and galaxy-cluster formation–is ignored, as well as the energy released in the process. The universe is treated as a uniform fluid of density rho, doing nothing but expanding (yawn). If you want a more realistic model, however, you have to include the clumping: the stars, the galaxies, etc. Doing so introduces two additional factors: the size of the largest clumps in the universe (the average distance between galaxy clusters), Ri; and the efficiency of energy coupling, eta, across that distance. Since neither of these factors, eta nor Ri, appear in the Standard Model, my guess is that dark energy equals eta divided by Ri, squared, because dark energy has to have dimensions of per-square-meter. In other words: lambda = eta/Ri^2. Both equations are falsifiable.

  17. Mike W. Herberich

    Dear Robert, dear Peter. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to comment. Robert: not to far from what I have judged Wetterich’s approach to be! The only interesting (meta-)issue could be: how MANY "… untestable just-so stories …" does HE posit (to cover everything), in comparison to standard or other accepted models. Given "Ockham’s razor", who is MORE in line with it or does violate it more? — Peter: very interesting and concise representation of what I think I had, at a certain point, understood already of your ideas. Is the mu(0) you mention THE mu(0)(vacuum permeability, magnetic constant with c^2=1/mu(0)*epsilon(0))? I think it IS, due to charge q(0) showing up in the equation.

  18. Alan

    I’m sure it will be a great series. Tyson makes it exciting to watch even for non astronomers. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t say anything about light pollution. Sagan didn’t :-(

  19. Robert L. Oldershaw

    Why not a new cosmological paradigm that can explain the basic properties of nature’s discrete hierarchy without untestable just-so stories, and in a highly unified way?

    Such a paradigm has been available for over 3 decades but the academic community ignores it. Over 50 publications, 35 fundamental retrodictions, 15 definitive predictions (some of which have already been verified).

    Why do we waste time with untestable string/brane theory, SUSY, holographic nonsense, multiverse pseudo-science, anthropic circular reasoning, and AWOL WIMPs?

    Why not acknowledge a new discrete fractal paradigm that was derived from STUDYING NATURE, not abstractions; that makes many retrodictions/predictions; that is highly testable, and that that offers unifying principles for all Scales of nature’s hierarchy?

    Could someone please answer the above two questions? I cannot fathom it.

    Robert L. Oldershaw — http://www3.amherst.edu/~rloldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

  20. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    That is correct. The equation can also be expressed using epsilon(0). For charge-less quanta (q=0): r(min) = G*m/(2*c^2), the Schwarzschild radius. This is what gives me confidence in the equation. If the same term shows up in two different calculations, it provides support for both. The dark energy equation is more speculative. Two parameters–eta and Ri–have been left out of the Standard Model, that much is certain. One parameter–lambda–has made a surprise appearance. Lambda could be eta and Ri combined, but it doesn’t have to be. Dark energy might be the coupled-energy that eta and Ri characterize; but it might be from another source. Yet, it would behoove the scientific community to at least check…unless you’re a working physicist. In that case, you might not want to know whether the oversight has anything to do with the unexpected.

  21. Mike W. Herberich

    Thanks, Anthony, for the link. I was hoping for something along those lines. Great. Thanks, Robert, for commenting; and Peter: do you two guys know of each other’s work at all? I had to research the "AWOL", by the way! What can I say: I can only join your lament, i. e., your two questions, Robert! Sure, if there IS a model that does NOT need ANY un-testable hypotheses, or, for that matter, merely LESS of those than anybody else, it should be considered Ockham’s favorite, i. e., more valid; given all other things being at least equal, of course. If it doesn’t have anything to do with the scientific contents of your model vs. its competitors, there must be other reasons like money (sponsors), or ignorance, or privileges, or mentality and education, at large. Etc., etc.; same for you, Peter, as for your work. As for lambda, Ri and eta … I remembered that one from reading your original paper. — I used to think that the Internet should (finally) make it possible for guys like you two (and anyone!) to create (or join) an audience or a forum in which to publicize and discuss your papers and ideas vividly and lively and have them "peer-reviewed"; as a viable alternative to the standard scientific publishing organs that seemingly are to hard to conquer for ideas as "subversive" as yours are. Maybe the only twist that is missing is the public relations or Internet expert lending you a hand?

  22. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    The former chief editor at Sky&Tel said it best in his rejection letter: “It’s impossible that thousands of physicists have overlooked anything.” On the one hand, I understand the sentiment; on the other, I’m taken aback at the lack of curiosity. Eta and Ri may or not account for dark energy, but shouldn’t someone at least check? And while QM may change its interpretation slightly, my equation for r(min) has profound implications. This is where an agent would be a big help, because me saying these things means nothing.

  23. Neal Lewis

    I was in my late 20′s when the original Cosmos program aired, and was a great fan. So I was curious to see how they would handle a remake, and I’ve been disappointed. Let’s face it, the feature of the program is the commercials; 7 minutes of program followed by 3 minutes of commercials, a 10 minute cycle during the entire program. The program content is fine; Dr. Tyson does a nice job, but the animation makes the program look cheap. The original had the captivating music of Vangelis, but the current program has symphonic muzak. After watching 2 shows, I’m not sure if I’ll watch a third. Just too many commercials.