SINN: ‘Cosmos’ revives television as education

March has brought the relief of milder weather to West Michigan. At my apartment complex near Grand Valley State University, the entrance marquis is lettered with a joke from these past freezing months: “A little global warming, please!”
Mar 25, 2014

This little quip calling for warm weather is a reminder that climate change is still a misunderstood concept in the public eye. It’s treated as little more than humor and casual irony.

Although climate change and energy are the most vital of today’s environmental concerns, the challenge they present to the general public is not limited to these specific issues. It is a much more fundamental lack of interest in and understanding of the process and established facts of science.

In 1980, astrophysicist Carl Sagan hosted the television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” It brought science — and its most troubling concepts — into the living room in a captivating learning experience. Sagan died in 1996, and left behind a legacy that is still lost on many deaf ears.

Cue Neil deGrasse Tyson. An astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, he is today’s most amiable and eloquent advocate for understanding our complex world through the lens of science. He is the essential successor to Sagan. 

This month, Tyson hosts a new series — the follow-up to Sagan’s original voyage — called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” It airs Sunday nights on Fox, and aims to rekindle conversation and curiosity about our world.

But it stands to do more than that. It brings science education to a medium, and a public, that need it now more than ever.

Sure, “Cosmos” is typical television, designed to entertain. But it goes beyond stunning visuals and compelling storytelling to match what the public wants with what it needs: a fresh and moving examination of the world, the universe and ourselves.

In the second episode of “Cosmos,” Tyson lays down the accepted premise that is at the root of understanding our existence: “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.” This is a statement that rides a history of controversy, debated as recently as this February in the CNN-hosted showdown between another popular science icon, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, curator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the debate took place.

Unfortunately, Nye did not wallop Ham’s argument like he should have. He is my generation’s childhood hero, and yet he could not fully defend what the global scientific community has already agreed upon: the relative age of Earth and the theory of evolution.

It wasn’t Nye’s fault; it was the platform. This isn’t a man-to-man debate. Our culture is not simply divided into Darwinians and theologians. It is pared down a much more jagged line between those who are scientifically educated and those who are not.

It isn’t a war between scientists and average Joes, either. Again, these specific issues are not the underlying problem. It’s bigger than even the questions of who we are and where we come from.

There is an education and culture barrier that boxes science into university classes, to which only a fraction of the voting public has access.

That is what makes “Cosmos” important. It tells the story of the universe in a way that anyone can understand and, surprisingly, enjoy. Learning science in this light is what Tyson calls “a soaring, spiritual experience.”

One of the most uplifting classes I have taken in my first three years of college was an anthropology course called Human Origins. The premise for this class was that evolution is not just a unit of science; it is the very brickwork. All other knowledge is built upon the understanding of where we come from and what connects us as humans. Certain science is not detached from other science.

Knowledge is a cosmic umbrella. Many of its spokes are still invisible, but together they support established facts, and the quest to discover more.

“Cosmos” attempts to dip and dive into these various areas of science, but it is whole under one cabana of universal knowledge.

I have touched little on the actual show. That’s the point. Watch it.

As a public who still reads newspapers, I believe we can all extend the same sensibility and curiosity to our television choices. It’s fundamental. Taking this journey is crucial — for the environment; for our ability to logically relate to one another; and to break down the barriers of class, culture and education.

It’s about time we took that leap, stepping back to step forward.

— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist

Comments

BabaYaga

Do you know how many people need to watch this new "Cosmos" series? A recent National Science Foundation poll found that 1 in 4, that's 25%, of Americans, think that the sun revolves around the Earth. Wow! That is elementary school science. The problem with this new series is that the people that need to watch it the most, the people that believe that some supreme being created this planet in 6 days, 6000 years ago, will not watch it. The folks that need the education the most, will not watch it. Their religions teach them that this science is wrong and their minds are closed. But thank you Seth MacFarlane, the self professed geek producer, Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, and Neil deGrasse Tyson for bringing us this inspired science remake of the best educational show ever on TV. A lot to be learned here folks.

Barry Soetoro

When they finally find the center of the universe I imagine there will be a good number of folks shocked to find out that it's not them.

Vladtheimp

Ka Ching - 5 stars!

Lanivan

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it". Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Barry Soetoro

I'll drink to that. *clink*

Wolverine49457

It's titillation for the mind for a nation that crows about its technical ability after spending trillions and trillions of dollars learning where comets come from or how big the universe might be but what have we accomplished other than stimulating the intellect?
Could the time be better spent calling on shut-ins or volunteering at a pantry or shelter? Could the money have gone to better use uplifting and feeding the poor and caring for the sick? It is all useless knowledge that tickles ears and egos while doing nothing but burn through massive resources that could be used to help our fellow man…Enjoy the show!

LessThanAmused

I'll bet you're a member of the Flat Earth Society aren't you?

lol125

I think that many things can be learned through science and that there are scientific discoveries that have definitely been beneficial to man. But to suggest that science holds the answers to our origin and somehow may provide answers to our problems is in serious error. I believe what the "public wants" is ultimately not what they need. The Bible clearly provides the answer to the origin of the world and mankind (Genesis 1:1). Of coarse a Biblical view of creation is going to be subject to criticism by our culture. God's word actually predicts that. Christians are accused of being narrow minded and ignorant because of their belief in a creator that can't be physically scene, and that they operate on this thing called "faith". Matt:7:13-14 talks about the "narrow" path. The Bible teaches that what man ultimately
needs is salvation through Jesus Christ (Romans 10:9). Science provides many scientific "facts", that is for sure. But there is one thing that science can't promise us....hope for eternity, only Jesus can provide that.

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