Return To The Cosmos… And To Science.
Sunday March 09th 2014, 10:11 pm
Filed under: Family, Knowledge Junkie, Me, Myself, and Reid, NYC

34 years after his hero Carl Sagan first gave the world “Cosmos,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, hosted the first episode of a new “Cosmos” series tonight. It was fantastic.

When I was younger, I had a huge passion for science. This passion was spurred on by shows like “3-2-1 Contact,” “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” and countless reruns of Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Although the original “Cosmos” series from 1980 was made up of only 13 episodes, they felt like new adventures every time I watched them.

Sagan didn’t just make science unbelievably interesting to me in an easy-to-understand way, he showed why science was such an easy subject to embrace and love. It’s the story of us all, of all that has ever existed, and of all that will ever exist. “We are all made of star-stuff,” as he famously said.

Although the world tragically lost Carl Sagan in 1996, his work lives on. With the invention of YouTube, I watched many of his old television specials in college. Even without the assistance of drugs, I found what he taught to be mind-blowing, just as “Cosmos” had been. I even read a few of the scores of books he wrote and/or edited. Dr. Sagan made science so obvious and so wonderfully magnificent at the same time.

Unfortunately, by the time I was in college, I had been discouraged from being anything more than an amateur scientific observer due to two very specific issues. First, I posses scientifically-proven terrible mathematical genes, a trait shared by the genes of everyone in my family. I probably could have overcome those faulty genes and learned not to fearhate math if not for the second issue. Beginning in the eighth grade, I had an unending series of science teachers and professors who could be ranked from “less-than-inspiring” to “downright-unhappy-with-having-to-teach-science-and-eager-to-take-it-out-on-their-students.”

By the middle of high school, I held little interest in a professional life in the field of one of my greatest passions. By that time, I had enough other things to be passionate about that it didn’t bother me. I went to college in New York City and studied acting and writing and continued with another of my longtime passions, comedy. I even took a class called “The Philosophy of Science” to satisfy one of my science credit requirements without having to do anything too sciencey. And especially not mathy in any way, whatsoever.

In my defense, I did date a wonderful, brilliant scientist for many years. But I also vividly remember being in a pharmacy with her, carrying her biology book, the cashier looking at both of us and, apropos of nothing, correctly stating that she was clearly the scientist. My mouth wasn’t even unconsciously pouring goofy nonsense out at the time. It was just that obvious.

I’d left science behind, though not my curious mind. During my time in New York City, both during college and after it, The Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural history was one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a giant sphere, at the center of which, sits another very large sphere. Throughout the giant, spherical planetarium are dozens of decorated spheres of all different sizes in an exhibit called the “Size Scales of the Universe.” (That’s site’s not all that exciting, but there’s a picture of the inside of the planetarium and some size scale examples, so you have some idea what the hell I’m talking about.)

Each of the smaller spheres represents the size of something when compared to the sphere at the center of the planetarium. For instance, there are models of all the planets in our solar system hanging around the center sphere, to size scale as if the center sphere were the size of the Sun. There are also spheres that represent how big the different parts of atoms would be if the big center sphere were a proton.

Actually, there’s a similar sort of exhibit on the web that you can take a look at to kind of sort of get an idea of what’s in The Hayden Planetarium, The Scale of the Universe, created by Cary Huang. It’s great, but don’t use it as an excuse not to visit the planetarium in all it’s three-dimensional, gigantic, spherical glory. Seriously, I’ll know.

I never cease to be amazed at how the Size Scales of the Universe exhibit made it so easy for me to suddenly comprehend the most massive of size relationships between so many things in our universe, from the very largest macroscopic galaxies to the tiniest microscopic parts of the cells in our bodies. Standing in that room always seems both so obvious and so wonderfully magnificent at the same time. When I’m in there, I’m always reminded of my youthful passion for science and the people that made it so obvious and so wonderfully magnificent, people like Carl Sagan.

I first became aware of Neil deGrasse Tyson not from my many visits to the planetarium of which he is the director, but rather through that other passion of mine I mentioned, comedy. Tyson has appeared numerous times over the years on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and its sister show “The Colbert Report.” I won’t explain what those are, because you should just know. I try never to miss either show, but if there are ever times when I go to extreme lengths not to miss an episode, it’s when Tyson is the guest.

He’s funny and personable and, over the past 15-or-so years, like Bill Nye, he has been an advocate for the absolute necessity of Americans to renew their interest in science. Both on a “wow, that’s neat!” way and a governmental “we’ll put money into this!” way. Every time he appears on one of these shows, I find what he had to say about science absolutely fascinating. I’ve always thought his advocacy for a renewed focus on science in America is extremely important. Science has been getting trampled on in this country for at least half of my life, which I find extremely offensive and, quite honestly, just plain bizarre. How could you not “believe in” science? That’s not even how it works.

I even bumped into Dr. Tyson a few times in New York. I think the longest conversation we ever had was, “Hey, I’m a huge fan of your work!” and him running away yelling, “Thanks! I don’t just do ‘The Daily Show!'” I knew that by the time of that run-in, but I’m sure he got that all the time. I also ran into him once when I had grown a large, gnarly beard for the part I was playing in “Hamlet” (Old Hamlet [The Force ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, played by James Earl Jones in “The Lion King”]). It was also the middle of the winter and I was wearing a long trenchcoat. I attribute the large beard, the trenchcoat, and my over all largeness to him not making eye contact with me and quickly ushering his children inside the nearest building very quickly.

Anyway…

Even though I felt terrible today, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and even though I spent most of the day in bed, there was no chance I was going to miss the premiere of the all-new “Cosmos.” This premiere of this sequel to Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” subtitled “A Spacetime Odyssey,” had been on my schedule ever since I read an article about Seth MacFarlane producing it all the way back in some previous year like 2011 or maybe even 2010 (it feels like a few years ago). As soon as commercials for the new show started airing, my parents and I agreed we were all going to watch it together, no matter what.

As I watched, I found myself elated and literally (yes, literally) jumping out of my seat in excitement. I couldn’t stop saying “I’m loving this!” throughout the broadcast, nor could my parents. We only quieted down for fear we’d miss something. Lo-and-behold, this new “Cosmos” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, has reignited a passion for science that I’ve not felt in many years. The chances are almost infinitesimally low that it’ll change my mind and convince me to ever become a professional scientist, but I definitely have a warm place in my heart for science that–while never having gone away–was inflamed tonight.

Dr. Tyson made science seem so obvious and so wonderfully magnificent at the same time. I think Dr. Sagan would be proud.

I can’t wait to keep watching it every week. I highly recommend it. And science. Thank you, Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and all the other people involved in creating this brilliant, new, exciting, educational, network television show.

–Reid.

P.S. And, I guess if you can do it, math is probably not bad to learn as a helpful tool to use for a greater understanding of science. But I wouldn’t know anything about that.


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