Tuesday, March 11, 2014


A generation ago Carl Sagan did Cosmos. This weekend Neil deGrasse Tyson started the presentation of an updated version. I’m not sure how many episodes they have planned. The original ran for thirteen episodes.

The new one was bright and shiny. There’s been a lot of progress since 1980. The images from Hubble. The Mars Rovers. And a lot of non progress too. Which might be why Dr. Tyson lead off with the story of Griodano Bruno in his version. While Bruno is portrayed as a martyr for his scientific beliefs he was actually condemned more for his perceived heretical beliefs on matters of doctrine. Apparently he wasn't with the program when it came to the divinity of Jesus, transubstantiation, the trinity and the perpetual virginity of Mary. The beliefs he may have had about the position of the earth relative to the sun and whether other planetary systems existed outside of our own played a small part in his condemnation. 

Perhaps Tyson was trying to get his science vs. religious fundamentalist idiocy licks in early in the game. But one thing that Carl Sagan was know for was his attempts to be very exact it what he said and wrote. That said, Sagan certainly didn't face the organized opposition to science that has grown like a patch of poisonous mushrooms in the lst ten or fifteen years. Showcasing good science is a place to start. Calling the fundies for their almost criminal ignorance may be rude but it's becoming increasingly necessary. I can put up with a lot but willful ignorance doesn't make the cut. 

Sagan’s first episode showcased one of the most elegant math solutions of all time; the story of Eratosthenes, the village of Syene and the libraries of Alexandria. He was a third century scientist and mathematician who calculated the circumference of the earth based on information he received about what happens in Syene on the day of the summer solstice. There were no shadows cast by the columns at noon and the sun appeared in the water of the village well while in Alexandria the shadows cast were approximately seven degrees.

Given the distance between Syene and Alexandria and the angle of the shadows he calculated the circumference of the earth at approximately forty thousand kilometers. Very accurate given the tools he had to work with. Look what you can do with sticks, strings, feet and basic geometry. 

So, I will watch the new series with interest, and reserve judgement on making comparisons on with the original. 

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