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Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Skeptic magaine 19.1 (Did Jesus Exist? We Examine the Best Evidence), available in print and digital formats

Skeptic 19.1: Did Jesus Exist?
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The Awe Delusion

In Michael Shermer’s March 2014 ‘Skeptic’ column for Scientific American, he asks what the magnificence of the awe-inspiring universe has to do with God.

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Science Lecture this Sunday

Gregory Clark
The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the
History of Social Mobility

with Dr. Gregory Clark
Sun., Mar., 16, 2014 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

HOW MUCH OF OUR FATE is tied to the status of our parents and grandparents? How much does this influence our children? More than we wish to believe. While it has been argued that rigid class structures have eroded in favor of greater social equality, The Son Also Rises proves that movement on the social ladder has changed little over eight centuries. Using a novel technique—tracking family names over generations to measure social mobility across countries and periods—renowned economic historian Gregory Clark reveals that mobility rates are lower than conventionally estimated, do not vary across societies, and are resistant to social policies. Read more
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Follow Daniel Loxton on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog.

NEW ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG
Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)

In celebration of the premiere of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on March 9, 2014, Daniel Loxton shares a short excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50’s look back at Carl Sagan0’s life in skepticism.

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CBC Interview on Carl Sagan

Listen to a March 4th CBC interview with Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton about why astronomer Carl Sagan still matters.

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Rob Breakenridge Interview on Carl Sagan

Listen to a March 10th interview with Daniel Loxton on The Rob Breakenridge Show, News Talk 770 (Calgary) & 630CHED (Edmonton).

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey. Copyright 2014 FOX BROADCASTING. Credit: Patrick Eccelsine/FOX

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos: A Spactime Odyssey. Copyright 2014 FOX BROADCASTING.
Photo credit: Patrick Eccelsine/FOX

About this week’s eSkeptic

Pseudoscience runs rampant in much of the popular media, reducing science to stereotypes of evil mad scientists. With the recent reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary, we see the return of science popularization in a manner that inspires people (especially children) to be fascinated by science, to think about careers in science, and to pass Sagan’s mantle on to another generation. In this week’s eSkeptic, scientist and educator Donald Prothero reviews the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which premiered March 9, 2014.

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Cosmos Reboots

by Donald Prothero

Like many scientists, for over a year I’ve been anxiously awaiting the first episode of the new version of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. A reboot of the classic series originally hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980, this version is co-written and co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan (who co-authored the original Cosmos along with Steven Soter and Sagan). It is also co-produced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and by Jason Clark (producer of 42, Ted, and the newly released Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which premiered the same weekend; he’s married to former actress Kimberly Beck, a high-school classmate of mine). I figured with these people at the helm, and Tyson as the spokesperson, they would not disappoint. But I was not prepared for how amazing the first episode turned out, even given those high expectations.

Cosmos aired on Sunday, March 9, on Fox, which had me a bit concerned, given the political bent of their news network, but this was because MacFarlane has good connections at Fox thanks to the success of Family Guy. As the evening started, I was watching my Facebook feed and Twitter to see the reactions from those who saw it in all the time zones before I got my chance in Pacific Daylight Time. I was a bit worried to see a few of my Facebook friends didn’t like the show, but overall it seemed that most of them loved it. Finally, we got the kids to bed and it aired at 9:00 p.m. our time. This is mighty late if they wanted to reach anyone under the age of 12, or for early-to-bed, early-to-rise people like me who get up before 6:00 a.m. It is especially so since we had just gotten the change to Daylight Saving Time that same morning, and most of our biological clocks were out of whack.

But I needn’t have worried. The new Cosmos is amazing!!! In many ways, it hews strongly to the format of the Sagan original. It starts with Tyson on the same cliff in northern California where Sagan began his first episode, and talks about the impact of that amazing series, now almost 35 years ago. It uses a “Spaceship of the Imagination” to zoom through an animated version of the universe, although Tyson’s spaceship is much more high-tech than Sagan’s, and the stunning high-definition CG animation in this series reflects the huge advance in computer animation since 1980. The middle segment talks about an important episode in history and how it reflects on our understanding of the universe. Sagan talked about the Library of Alexandria, and its destruction, clearly a metaphor for how our society only valued science as a tool for mass destruction; he confidently felt that we would be still pushing the limits of space exploration for a long time to come. The new Cosmos, however, comes at a time of unprecedented religious and political attacks on science and its values, and at a time when we’ve all but abandoned space except for two Mars rovers and a few probes still passing the outer planets. The new Cosmos includes the story of Giordano Bruno and how the forces of religion and ignorance oppressed, tortured, and then martyred him. There is also a brief nostalgic mention of the Voyager probe that Sagan helped launch back in 1976, now at the outer limits of the solar system and still beaming signals back to us. It even mentions the recording that Sagan put together with a short sound bite from a blues singer on that record….

After the cliff-top opening and the zoom through the universe in the new “Spaceship of the Imagination,” however, Tyson goes further than did Sagan. He goes all the way back in space-time to the Big Bang, and the cruise through our “cosmic address” more strongly emphasizes the insignificance of earth and humans on the scale of the cosmos, much more so than Sagan did. At the end of the first episode, he gives us an analogy of the 13.8 billion years of cosmic history as Sagan did, squeezed into a single 365-day calendar year. This is the exact same analogy I use at the start of every geology course I teach (although I only squeeze the 4.6 billion years of earth history into 365 days). Both of these analogies and descriptions have a powerful effect of humbling our cosmic arrogance and giving people the sense that scientists have always had: that humans and human history are insignificant when viewed in this perspective. The final few seconds has a powerful, emotionally satisfying ending as Tyson reveals his own connection to Sagan, and how Sagan changed his life, and how scientists pay it forward, and pass on their inspiration and dedication to future scientists.

As a scientist and educator, I loved the approach and found nothing about the first episode that I could nit-pick about. The main drawback of having it on a commercial network, however, is that the frequent cuts to commercials disrupts the continuity of the episode. But I recognize the reality as well: most households (especially lower-income households) may not be able to get basic cable channels or premium pay channels, and this is a necessary sacrifice to make it available to the widest possible audience on a major network instead. After all, the goal is to reach people who know little about science or the cosmos, as Sagan did so well (even though his show was on PBS, with even less reach). Most of the critical comments I read on my Facebook page before my air-time were about this problem. Or they were from people who expected new, ground-breaking science in the first episode, which is ridiculous: this show is intended for an audience that isn’t science literate or even interested in science, and the producers must keep it simple and flashy to reach them—especially in the first episode, which is really just a teaser and scene-setter, anyway.

About the only negative reviews I’ve been able to find since the first episode aired are from the religious folk who don’t like the implications and tone of the series and how it offends their theistic fantasies. This is indeed an important difference between this version and Sagan’s version of Cosmos: the approach to religion. The Sagan quotes about “we are all starstuff” and “the cosmos is all there ever was, there is, and there ever will be” are repeated, which certainly does not sit well with religious folks. And the humbling effect of “the cosmic zoom” and the cosmic calendar analogy, and how they make humans look insignificant, are still there as well. But their choice of Bruno’s martyrdom says loud and clear their message about how religion and other received dogmas should never interfere with science and the progress of human knowledge, while Sagan tiptoed around that issue. Even the deliberate choice of the style in which the Bruno story was animated, with its low-budget, harsh, simplistic animation (in contrast to the amazing CG animation of the universe) sends an even more subtle message. Clearly, the producers and Tyson are not going to kowtow to bigots who want the harsh reality of our cosmic insignificance hidden from their faithful flocks. Given the current hostile climate where religion and politics have made horrific inroads not only into our science literacy, but especially into the public attitude toward science and scientists, this is no time to tone it down and let them claim victory over scientific reality.

Indeed, that is the real message of Cosmos: science is fun, inspiring—but also humbling and life-changing. As Sagan’s original captured the wonder of the universe without sugarcoating the real implications, so Tyson’s version is equally strong in that regard. As we watch science in most media reduced to stereotypes of evil mad scientists, and outside forces attacking science education, and the general culture idolizing celebrities and athletes rather than scholars, and pseudoscience running rampant through basic cable channels that used to be dedicated to documentaries and education, we need Cosmos now, more than ever. We need shows that inspire people (especially kids) to be fascinated by science, and thinking about careers about science, so that Tyson can “pay it forward” to them and pass Sagan’s mantle on to another generation. Almost 99% of TV now is mind-numbingly bad or outright false and misleading. We need at least one hour a week where people can get scientific reality with a big dose of fun. Fortunately, with Cosmos, and with Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish due in another month, we are getting the first big media push back against pseudoscience and ignorance in a long time. That, along with Bill Nye’s victory over Ken Ham and his creationist claptrap, gives me some hope that the media can be used for good, rather than for spreading ignorance and pseudoscience. It’s about time! END


MonsterTalk logo
MonsterTalk # 79
Plesiosaur Parenting

In this episode of MonsterTalk, Blake interviews Junior Skeptic author/artist Daniel Loxton on the final book in his prehistoric animal thrillogy, Plesiosaur Peril. We talk about dinosaur names, raising kids with science literacy, and the reboot of Cosmos.

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes. Follow the RSS feed.


Linda & Thomas Spilker,
on Vimeo On Demand

How To Boldly Go into Space:
An Insider’s Look into Space Missions

Linda and Thomas Spilker

Drawing on their decades of work for NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Drs. Linda and Thomas Spilker give us an inside view of what goes into the unmanned space program, from the origin of a space mission, to how the funds are found to finance it, to how the spacecraft is designed and built, and to the launching and running of such a mission, often designed to last for years and even decades. How do you get a spacecraft to Saturn, anyway? Who decides what it should study when it gets there? What happens when something goes wrong? And, as a society, why do we explore the solar system (and beyond) and what do we learn from it? Don’t miss this revealing account of what rocket scientists do.… Read more

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9 Comments »

9 Comments

  1. Bob Pease says:

    I’m one of the unfortunate folks who was denied access to direct viewing
    of Cosmos because we only have antenna OTA.
    We are finding ways to download/borrow it from other sources.

    I shall be interested in the tone of the presentation regarding
    religion and especially of the Bruno incident.

    It is easy for the Target Audience to affirm ideas that they may
    have that “Dominionist ” religions ( Christianity and Islam in particular)
    are only practiced by morons, androids and clones.

    esperando..

    Bob Pease

  2. Donald Prothero says:

    There is a direct link to the entire episode WITHOUT commercials on the home site: http://www.cosmosontv.com/watch/183733315515

    • Rick Day says:

      I followed the hyperlink and watched all during lunch hour but I was bombarded with countless commercials, despite the claim otherwise………..

  3. Daniel Fischer says:

    “About the only negative reviews I’ve been able to find since the first episode aired are from the religious folk” – apparently you missted mine at https://www.facebook.com/dan.fischer.393/posts/10202258771165612 then …

  4. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    Very disappointed by the so-called “negative” review of Daniel Fischer.

    Not because of its negativity, but because he seems to forget the intended audience for this series. Most of the viewers have never seen the original Cosmos, they’ve never heard of Bruno, and most of the younger ones have never heard of Sagan either.

    This series is meant as an introduction to a lot of younger people who know very little about the subject matter, not for experts who’ve spent their lives ruminating about it. It’s a popularizing video, not a research one for elite scholars.
    It claims to break no new ground, except in the artistry and craftsmanship of its presentation.
    Its goal is to make an impact on young imaginations and elicit an interest, perhaps a passion for astronomy and science.

    Fischer misses the intent of the message (which he calls, naively, “preaching”), and sounds in places a bit like a disguised apologist.

  5. Liam McDaid says:

    The new Cosmos was underwhelming from an astronomer’s, with the first visual gaffe within the first five minutes (asteroids so close together that Tyson’s ship has to dodge them!). The fact that the theme is so deeply buried in the show that I have trouble finding it (and I’m sure my students will as well. Going into these issues is beyond my point here.

    The biggest problem, though, will be missed by astronomers and most scientists and that is the very story of Giordano Bruno that you like so much. Bruno was not killed because of his view of the Universe, nor was he in any way shape or form a scientist. Given so many worthy obscure figures that could be put into the role of “martyr for science”, Bruno was an odd and self-defeating choice. He was a mystic, straight out of the pythagorian mold. If anything, you should be troubled by this choice because Bruno is more a martyr for Newage types to look up to. And I’m sure you don’t support most crap coming from that direction.

    Finally Don, I’m disappointed that you think we have abandoned space, as we have probes orbiting EVERY PLANET between Mars and the Sun. Another around Saturn and ones on their way to: Jupiter, an asteroid, a comet and Pluto. Hardly a dark age of exploration!

    As for human exploration of space, I’m afraid that is a fantasy that is contradicted not by physics, but by economics and human priorities. It’s just easier and cheaper to send robot probes, who will no doubt continue to achieve greater things, thanks to Moore’s “Law”. For more on this, see Bob Park’s Voodoo Science. Even if the Space Ladder is built, humans may remain a minority off Earth for centuries to come.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      I haven’t had the chance to sit down and enjoy the first episode yet (what with teaching and family … and wanting to be ‘up for it’).

      I agree with Bruno not being the best choice … but more importantly, I especially agree with @Liam about the non-abandonment of space. I frequently have discussions with people who equate human spaceflight with space exploration – and I always try to educate them (and @Liam does here).

      Space is a nasty, harsh environment and aside from ‘bragging rights’ there is little reason today to send humans into harms way. Robots are eclipsing humans in the field of exploration (not just in space, also in deep sea exploration) – becoming better explorers than we ever were. The probes are getting more dextrous than humans in bulky protective gear; they can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ a wider range of wavelengths than we can; they are modular and so can deploy mini-probes and, finally, robots come in a much wider variety of shapes, sizes, weights, colors and energy sources than we do.

      Claiming that the era of space exploration is over because human spaceflight is tapering down for the time being is like saying the era of aerial warfare is over because the grow of UAVs is greater than the growth of conventional piloted aircraft.

  6. Erik says:

    A point about the martyrdom of Bruno.
    An important topic about Bruno, as far as i understand it.
    Is that his martyrdom should rather bee seen as a tragedy of free tought and censorship rather than science. Since there was nothing scientific about Brunos discovery, which was rather mystical. Nowadays we might find the critique of his argument absurd but back then people still did not know of the law of gravity and other natural phenomenom that would be necisarily to know for his argument to make sense to a scientific mind. So its a case for free speech and tought rather than scientific reasoning.

  7. Maggie Hall says:

    When will we British Sagan fans be able to see this show in the UK?

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