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'Cosmos' recap: From Alexandria to dark matter

"Cosmos" wrapped its 13-episode run by emphasizing the importance of knowledge and critical thinking

"Cosmos" wrapped its 13-episode run this week by emphasizing the importance of knowledge and critical thinking by way of the scientific method in "Unafraid of the Dark."

Despite a few missteps here and there, host Neil de Grasse has taken us on a memorable journey spanning the smallest scale (inside an atom) to the largest (the furthest reaches of the universe). This week's episode embodied the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole.

We opened with the ancient library of Alexandria, once the greatest repository of human knowledge on the planet, with anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million scrolls -- until invading barbarian hordes ransacked the place, burning much of the collection. Because access to the scrolls was reserved for the educated (privileged) elite, the knowledge was lost.

Today we have the Internet, an electronic repository of knowledge, and one available to anyone with a computer and a connection. But we have to be open to that knowledge and mindful of our own propensity for bias and delusion. Otherwise, Tyson asks, "What will happen the next time the mob comes?"  That's the thematic Big Idea running through this episode.

From the start, the series' most serious flaw has been a tendency to wander from topic to topic, with only the most tenuous of links between the segments. It made it difficult at times to follow the logic, and often felt like a bunch of random facts strung together -- fascinating facts, to be sure, but if the aim is to transfer knowledge, you need a little something beyond the "Wow!" factor to cement those facts in viewers' memories.

The final episode is no different in that respect. We veer from the library of Alexandria and the first globe made in 1492 by Martin Behaim, to Victor Hess and the discovery of cosmic rays, Fritz Zwicky, supernovas and pulsars, and finally to the cutting-edge physics of dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter and dark energy alone could easily fill a 45-minute episode, improving on the shallow, we'll-just-mention-this-in-passing take here.

"Cosmos" took some heat at times for its emphasis on white male scientists -- the omission of Caroline Herschel in particular ruffled some feathers -- but there was an entire episode devoted to female astronomers, and taken as a whole, I think the series proved remarkably diverse. You don't see much mention of Islamic Golden Age scholar Ibn Al-Haytham on primetime TV these days, but you did if you were watching "Cosmos."

This time, I was delighted to see a segment on astrophysicist Vera Rubin. Her methodical observations that the outermost stars in most galaxies move at the same speed as the innermost ones -- in seeming defiance of the laws of gravity -- provided the first (indirect) observational evidence of dark matter proposed by Zwicky back in the 1930s. Rubin has yet to be honored with a Nobel Prize for her seminal contributions, but I still root for her every year when the announcements are made.

One of the series' undeniable strengths has been the eye-popping graphics and special effects -- could that artful opening sequence be more stunning? They were even better served in the rare episodes with a strong narrative framework. One quibble: The timeline trope, whereby mind-bending cosmic time scales were compressed into a single calendar year, was over-used.

I also loved (loved!) the animated reenactment sequences showcasing historical scientists and their discoveries, sometimes with cameo voiceovers from the likes of Patrick Stewart. That said, in the final episode there was hardly any dialogue and more narration -- making those sequences more like another graphics element rather than a vibrant storytelling device.

All 13 episodes were peppered with references to the host of the original series, Carl Sagan, and in this final one, it was Sagan's work on NASA's Voyager I and II spacecraft that was featured, notably the now-famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth -- "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

That image was taken as Voyager was moving past Neptune, a reminder of just how small we are compared just with our solar system, never mind the Milky Way or the universe as a whole. The voiceover for this segment was by Sagan himself, with background snippets from the analog recordings on the accompanying Voyager golden record -- including Sagan's son, Nick (now a grown-up science fiction novelist), saying, "Hello from the children of planet Earth."

Though I've had my quibbles with the rebooted "Cosmos," those are likely to prove irrelevant nitpicks in the grander scheme of things. It's a Very Big Deal to have science return to primetime TV, at a time when scientific literacy among the general populace is needed more than ever.

Between the primetime airings on Fox plus those on other cable channels, millions of people tuned into the series each week -- maybe not as many as those who tune into "Game of Thrones" on Sunday nights, but "Cosmos" doesn't have fire-breathing dragons, although it does have a much lower body count. (Lest you think I am slighting the HBO series, I am also a rabid "Thrones" fan.)

Those several million people experienced more than just nifty special effects and cool science facts. They witnessed, repeatedly, the power of science and its methodology to expand the limits of human knowledge, transforming our lives in the process.

Tyson boils it all down to five basic principles: Think for yourself. Question authority, but also question yourself and your own biases and assumptions. Test your ideas, and if the experiments fail, discard those bad ideas and move on. Follow the evidence, and always remember: You could be wrong -- and there's nothing wrong with that, unless you refuse to admit you were wrong. "Cosmos" may have ended its run, but we can take these lessons to heart; they are our best defense when the marauding hordes are howling at the gates.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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