Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe

The new series of Cosmos currently airing in the United States on the FOX Television Network is an effort to get the public re-engaged with science and to hopefully increase understanding of the scientific method and what we’ve learned about the world and universe around us.  Based on the rise of anti-vaccination hysteria, attempts to put the teaching of intelligent design into schools, and climate change denial throughout the country, Cosmos is badly needed.

As of this writing, two episodes have aired.  The first covered the history of the universe in broad strokes.  It’s most striking segment may have been the compression of billions of years of galactic time into the space of a calendar year.  At that scale, the entirety of human existence fits on the last day of the year, and modern civilization only arises in the last 14 seconds.  The second episode then discussed evolution, first covering how humans used directed evolution (i.e. breeding) starting with wolves to create all of the types of dogs we have on the planet today.  This episode also had an extended segment on the evolution of the eye, showing how it came about and that the human eye’s complexity is indeed the result of evolution rather than the work of a designer.

The show is incredibly well done, and Neil deGrasse Tyson makes for an engaging host (not that I had any doubt there.  He’s one of the best spokesmen for science to come along in ages.).  I am still a bit amazed that it is airing on the FOX Network.  I have to remind myself that their entertainment and news arms are separate.  Even more amazing is that the show is being executive produced by Seth MacFarlane, best known for creating and performing several voices on Family Guy.  MacFarlane has a great deal of interest in science and science fiction, though, and even had a cameo on Star Trek: Enterprise.

Cosmos has the pedigree and the platform to potentially reach a large audience.  I have been watching the episodes with my son, who is really enjoying them.  But then he’s always loved science.  I just hope that this new series will inspire and educate people just as the original Cosmos did when it aired in 1980.

This series has also gotten me thinking about how I first became interested in science.  It happened when I was young, I know, and it’s stayed with me my whole life.  I have a graduate degree in English, and I got more than a few odd looks around the graduate student office when my colleagues saw me reading about cosmology rather than literary criticism.

While, I could thank Star Wars, I really believe that movie got me more interested in film and science fiction than actual science.  No, my first exposure to anything resembling scientific exploration that I can remember came courtesy of a neighbor. 

When I was five, my family lived in a townhome complex, and a few doors down lived two brothers.  The younger, who I will call Jim in the interest of anonymity, was ten but seemed to enjoy spending time with me.  Either that or he was using me to get to my collection of Star Wars toys.  I wouldn’t doubt that had something to do with our friendship.

Jim had an older brother (he was all of 12), who I will call Spock, and Spock had a great interest in many things.  He also liked to explain things to people.  I remember him having either built or taken the housing off of a metal fan.  While he was showing it off to someone else and explaining how it worked, Jim stuck his finger into the spinning blades for reasons unknown to me and got cut very badly.  I remember Jim running through the living room of their townhome, where I was playing with my Star Wars toys that I’d dragged over to their place, and shaking his finger madly while screaming in pain.  That was the end of that particular play session, since Jim needed to go get a few stitches.

Spock’s first demonstration of scientific principles (at least as he thought he knew them) was a bit more dramatic.  While my younger brother (who was all of 3 at the time) and I were over at their place, Spock and Jim got into an argument about fire.  As I recall, their mother wasn’t home at the time, so what we were all doing there unsupervised, I have no idea.  Maybe Spock was considered responsible enough to watch us all. 

In any case, Spock was determined to prove to Jim that fire couldn’t burn on a vertical surface.  Scientist that he was, he decided to perform an experiment.  He doused their brick garden wall with gasoline and proceeded to light it.  In an instant, we all learned that Spock’s hypothesis was incorrect.  Fire could indeed burn up a wall, quite well actually.  As Jim and Spock started to panic, I ran all the way down the block of townhomes to get my father (Next time, try RIGHT NEXT DOOR!  I was five.  Give me a break.), while my brother decided the most important thing to do was get Spock and Jim’s cats into their house. 

By the time my father and I returned with a hose, the next door neighbor had seen the flames and started to put them out.  The fire didn’t spread beyond the garden wall, and the only casualty was my brother’s plastic Mickey Mouse tricycle, one ear of which went the way of Salvador Dali’s clocks.

Ok, so maybe that wasn’t so much science as trying dangerous things with reckless abandon.  That may be why I like Mythbusters so much.  Spock was so sure that fire couldn’t burn on a vertical wall.  To this day, I can remember how adamant he was.  Faced with indisputable proof that he was wrong, Spock didn’t protest or claim that some conspiracy was rigging the results.  He accepted them.  Well…actually…he panicked and screamed a lot.  But still, I don’t think he needed to light any more walls on fire to know what would happen.

Even so that experience with Spock did teach me some basic scientific concepts.  You have a theory, you set up an experiment to test it, and you gather data to see if your theory is correct.  If it’s not, you scrap it and come up with a new theory.  At its most basic level, science is a methodology for exploring the universe around us, which, when you think about it, is really what we’re doing from the time we are born throughout most of our childhoods (and hopefully continuing through our adult lives).  It can be a wonderful and awe-inspiring process.

I want to close with something that happened just this week.  News broke that scientists had found evidence supporting cosmic inflation theory (For an explanation of what that means, check out THIS COMIC.).  While the theory has been around for many years, no evidence had been found to support it…until now.  This week Stanford University posted THIS VIDEO of the moment when Professor Andrei Linde, one of the developers of inflation theory, was informed that evidence had been found.  It is truly touching.

-Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter