The Spirit of Cosmos

After watching the entirety of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and rewatching some episodes, I wanted to write about how it impacted me and what it accomplished.

I was hooked from the first episode. Having such a well-produced and overarching presentation of scientific discovery, scientists, and the scientific method on prime-time television was thrilling in and of itself. For the most part, every subsequent episode only reinforced this feeling.

What you can only see when considering the series as a whole is its main narrative arc, one I hoped would be highlighted, and arguably the most important topic for this show: climate change. Particularly from the second episode on, with the unnamed chamber in the "Halls of Extinction" left for the current mass extinction perpetuated by human activity, through to the final episode where Tyson's appeal for changing course is explicit, urgent, and heartfelt, global warming was addressed from all angles. Cosmos was broadcast on Fox on Sunday evenings and again on National Geographic on Mondays. It was a major cultural force with millions of viewers nationally and millions more worldwide. The explanation of climate change, our evidence for its human origin, and the steps that need to be taken to remediate its effects is a moral imperative that Cosmos addressed head on. Yet in taking climate change seriously, Tyson still managed a carefully-chosen hopeful tone for this and other issues.

That's the second theme that shines through each episode: hope and optimism for improvement. Really the entire series focuses on humanity's potential for advancement, both in our knowledge about the universe and our application of that knowledge for benevolent purposes. And remarkably, Cosmos manages this hopeful tone without shying away from our failures and mistakes: the persecution of scientists; corporate greed; personal spats; sexism. It is this presentation of humanity as mistaken but self-correcting--a metaphor perhaps for the scientific method itself--that imbues the show with a spiritual quality that I connected with deeply. This humanistic approach is in a way very scientific. We can only rely on our own ingenuity, our own innovation, our own purposeful application of scientific knowledge to save us, and the rest of the planet, from ourselves.

From a simple and clear explanation of evolution by natural selection to Sagan's Golden Record, Cosmos was a thrilling look at why we do science, how we do science, and what scientific inquiry can offer to humanity in our search for meaning and understanding in this world. I can only hope they consider another season or that future scientific documentaries study the lessons of Cosmos to make a meaningful impact.