'Cosmos' review: Neil deGrasse Tyson brings brilliant science, questionable history to the world

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"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" is one of the most interesting, accessible and beautiful pieces of scientific television to appear in decades -- basically since the original "Cosmos" with Carl Sagan. Revived by host (and astronomer) Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane (yes, the "Family Guy" guy) and Ann Druyan (Sagan's widow), the new "Cosmos" aims to bring the universe's beauty and wonder to audiences.

Does it succeed?

As long as "Cosmos" sticks to the science it knows best, yes. "Cosmos" is almost as scientifically amazing as it is beautiful. This is no dry textbook -- it's a fun and informative look at the universe.

When "Cosmos" falters -- possibly fatally for some -- is in taking tentative steps away from science and into realms like history and religion. Possibly offensive to some, certainly confusing to many and occasionally inaccurate, "Cosmos" isn't so great in these areas.

But let's look at the show's considerable success first.

You are here

There's nothing in astronomy and cosmology like realizing where the Earth is in the oh-so-grand scheme of things. "Cosmos" zooms away from Earth in its imagination ship -- a clever method for moving through themes -- and gives us glimpses of the Sun, planets, asteroids and comets.

And then it keeps going. Stars, galaxies and the entirety of the universe pass by one after another. It could be overwhelming, but Tyson and "Cosmos" do it right. You really get a feel for both the scale and the beauty that exists out there.

To any long-term science nerds out there, the inclusion of music from the Voyager record (yes, they actually sent music up into space on a gold record) is a huge bonus -- did you know that "Johnny B. Goode," by Chuck Berry is on there too? The music played in the episode, by the way, is "Dark Was the Night" by blues musician Blind Willie Johnson. If aliens ever find Voyager, they'll be listening to it too.

Forget where -- what about when?

Guess what? The universe isn't just big but it's old. Like really, really, really old. The universe is so old, in fact, that a year-long cosmic calendar finds all of humanity in a minute or two at the end of New Year's Eve. The rest of the year? That's taken up with star formation, the origins of the Earth, dinosaurs and so on.

Conceiving of the universe's time and space is always tough. But "Cosmos" somehow makes it seem sensible.

The tricky case of Giordano Bruno

One of the goals of "Cosmos" is to introduce the world to "heroes of science." This would be the premiere episode's one and only massive failure. That's because someone at "Cosmos" decided to trot out the case of a 16th-century Italian philosopher named Giordano Bruno as its first hero.

Unfortunately for "Cosmos," Bruno wasn't terribly heroic. And he wasn't a scientist at all.

A religious philosopher living in the tense years following the schism between Catholicism and the new faith of Protestantism, Bruno managed to irritate and complicate the beliefs of just about everyone by preaching a cosmology of an infinite universe in which the Sun is just a star, around which the Earth moves.

Here's the thing: Even "Cosmos" points out that Bruno had no scientific basis for his theories. "His vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess," says Tyson. So why is the long-dead philosopher important enough to rate hero status? That would be because "Cosmos" takes his case as one of "martyrdom."

What "Cosmos" does not point out to its audiences that the Catholic Church didn't really care about Bruno's views on the Earth moving around the Sun. His crimes -- the ones for which he was executed -- were theological. Several actual scientists in this period happily investigated the ideas of Copernicus' theories without running into trouble. Even Galileo only got in trouble when he published books that directly mocked the Church's adherence to the Earth being at the center.

Why does this matter?

So what if Giordano Bruno wasn't a scientist and wasn't executed for science? There are three big reasons why this does, in fact, matter and why it hurts "Cosmos" to get it wrong.

1. To borrow one of Tyson's famous quotes, the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it. The same goes for history. Getting the history of science wrong hurts science itself. Why believe the science if other parts of the show are inaccurate?

2. Making Bruno into a martyr for science basically makes 100 years of historical research useless. The idea of Giordano Bruno as a scientific hero only originated in the 19th century, when he was championed by several historians. Since then, most have classified him as a philosopher sharing dangerous ideas in a dangerous time.

3. It's an unstated goal of "Cosmos" to champion science and scientific reasoning over superstition and religious dogmatism. But you're not going to win over anyone by vilifying religion in the face of science. Add in Bruno flying into space in an overtly crucifixion stance almost seems like giving religion the finger. You don't win arguments that way, "Cosmos."

cosmos-premiere-giordano-bruno-crucifixion-fox.jpgBut let's move on

"Cosmos" isn't about history. Maybe it should be a little more interested in that field, but the show's goal is instead to bring science to the world. In that sense, the show is a huge success. "Cosmos" is beautiful and fascinating and accessible to anyone.

You should watch "Cosmos." Revel in its beauty and the wonder of the universe it presents. But, as any sensible scientist would tell you, don't simply believe in everything the show tells you. Use "Cosmos" as the jumping-off point to think about it yourself.

"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX.

Photo/Video credit: FOX