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Casey DreierDecember 17, 2013

Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 8: Journeys Through Space and Time

Are we imprisoned in both?

Cosmos with Cosmos was a weekly series that encouraged Society members to re-watch Cosmos with a shared group, a cosmo(politan), or other drink of their choice. The Planetary Society published weekly episode discussion pieces to complement the original series before the Neil deGrasse Tyson-led 2nd season in 2014. You can currently watch the original Cosmos streaming on twitch.

« Episode 7: The Backbone
of night

Episode 9: The Lives of
the Stars »

We see only a smattering of stars in our night sky. The few that we see appear to be flattened on a plane, shimmering in two dimensions instead of three. The brevity of our lives ensures that we see these stars frozen in place, not as the swarming bee hive of motion that I imagine plays out over billions of years.

These stars are so far away that we will never visit them. Even fast ships that use exotic technology we haven't invented yet will tax the limits of our endurance. We can increase our speed, but we pay a heavy price: we leave behind our former lives and perhaps even our civilization. The faster we go, the more remote we are in time from our origins. That seems to be an inescapable law of nature. Not that it really matters to us in the here and now–with our technology even the nearest stars are hopelessly distant.

We seem condemned to experience the cosmos through a sliver of space and time. We are severely limited by our own brief lifetimes and the incomprehensible distances between the stars. So how can we truly journey through either?

Cosmos episode 8, Journeys in Space and Time, provides us with a partial answer: science and our intellect allows us this journey. Despite our short lives, we've developed ways to preserve information over thousands of years, building a collective human understanding of the cosmos that hints at the richness of the natural world. We can use advanced instrumentation and clever techniques to visualize distant places and past and future events, but the journey there will be made within.

I've always felt that to be an unsatisfying answer. But we don't have much else. As Sagan says in this episode, the universe rarely accommodates our desires. Despite this somewhat dour idea, the journeys we are able to have with our intellect are reasonably satisfying.

This episode excels at showing how much of our everyday views of the cosmos are like looking upon that flat, two-dimensional sky. The sequence highlighting the stellar motion of stars in our favorite constellations remains one of my all-time favorite scenes in the series. We can't emphasize the arbitrary nature of constellations enough, in my opinion. Likewise, spinning around stars of the constellations themselves reinforces the tempting slip into an Earth-centric view of the cosmos. It's a humbling tour of the impermanence of what was once thought permanent and immutable.

The sequence with poor Vincenzo humming along near the speed of light not hold up well. This is one of the ideas I can't wait to see re-interpreted for the new series of Cosmos, which the assistance of CG providing the tools missing to the creative team in 1979. Einstein's ideas of relativity are difficult and excel at defying our commonsense notions of reality. They are difficult to explain and visualize, though I think Cosmos does a pretty good job of the first part.

And once again we see the great animation of evolution, which I believe is the fourth time we walk through the concept of evolution in this series. In line with Sagan's continuing desire to humble us, this step through of our evolution emphasizes the random nature of our adaptations. We are not an inevitable product of evolution. We are the result of a multitude of forgotten accidents, set in a sequence that would never happen again. For anyone who has read Stephen Jay Gould's great book, Wonderful Life, this concept is a familiar one. Through a process of decimation, death, coincidence, and catastrophe, humans are now able to ponder their own limitations before the immensity that surrounds us.

I'm reminded of something said by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker – that it's astonishing that the brains molded by blind evolution in the savannahs of Africa are able to understand even some of the patterns that underlie nature. There's no reason to expect that accidental biological adaptations millions of years ago would allow us to intellectually journey through space and time. We should be grateful for our frustrations.

Loren Eiseley, in his book The Invisible Pyramid, writes about the prisons that cage humanity: our short lifetime is one; the vast distances of space another. The study of astronomy provides us hints to the magnificence further out, but we will never personally explore those ourselves. Maybe, if we can travel close to the speed of light, but the price we pay for that is banishment – gone are the homes, families, and friends we left behind. Gone is the society that sent us. Gone, maybe, is humanity itself. Mortality still imprisons those left behind.

But the caged bird still sings. Our intellect allows us to see beyond our cell walls into the great cosmos that surrounds us. What we've learned humbles and moves us. There is beauty and mystery that calls out to us, and we can make our plans for escape even if we may never see them come to fruition. That's the optimism that drives us and that Sagan understood. The desire to explore and see beyond the horizon is a deep part of being human. That even caged within the great prison of biology and immensity, we still yearn to break free.

Stray observations


« Episode 7: The Backbone
of night

Episode 9: The Lives of
the Stars »

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Casey Dreier

Chief Advocate & Senior Space Policy Adviser for The Planetary Society
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