Last week I watched the first episode of the Neil deGrasse Tyson-hosted documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. The episode exposed me to some really amazing sights as the host explored the theory of the birth of the universe and the creation of the solar system and the wider universe and multiverse through the spaceship of imagination, a fantastical construct that becomes the vehicle of this exploration. I knew some of these things already, having read about the in school and college, but it was the visuals that really captured me, especially the cosmic calendar.
With the second episode, “Some of The Things That Molecules Do”, I was expecting something similar, and the show definitely did not disappoint me. This time, we got the Tree of Life, a representation of all the millions of lifeforms that have evolved on the Earth over the millions of years of its existence, and those that have died out. And he talked about concepts like artificial selection and selective breeding, imparting once more to the viewer in a straightforward manner how evolution works, whether through nature, or through our own hands.
The money quote in this episode is when Neil says “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is in pretending you know all the answers”. Which, I have to say, is a great summation of what this show is about and the intended audience for this show. It is also a summation of human history, our penchant for exploration. This is why we look for answers in all sorts of things around us. We are an inquisitive species, and the search for the whys and whats and hows and whens etc drive us to better ourselves collectively. We experiment, we hunt for answers. We develop new technologies to answer these questions. Hell of a message if there ever was one.
To explain the concept of selective breeding and artificial selection, Neil uses one of the commonest examples available to us: the domestication of wild wolves, which eventually led to the evolution of dogs. Measured in mere minutes on the last days of the cosmic calendar (see review for Ep 1), humans bred and trained wolves to become guardians and pets. From perhaps a very, very small handful of species of wild wolves, today we have hundreds of varieties of dogs. It is pretty spectacular. Whether we talk about German Shepherds or Pomeranians, all these dogs species have a common ancestor, the wild wolves, thousands of years ago.
Neil then dovetails into an explanation of how natural selection and the process of evolution led to the creation of eyes. We owe the biomechanics of our eyes to a process that began millions of years ago and then plateaued out once our most distant ancestors crawled out from the oceans and began to live on land. This is a very long and extended subject in the episode, and I found it to be very fascinating indeed. The development of the eyes is perhaps one of the most truly amazing things I’ve seen or read about, partly because of what it implies, that our eyes are unchanged for thousands of years and that our distant ancestors when they were still water-bound had much better eyesight than us. That fishes today could have better eyesight than us, all because of how light interacts with different mediums like air and water, and how the bio-lenses in our eyes (or that of any other creature on Earth) process that light.
Pretty mind-boggling isn’t it?
But then that is exactly why I love this show, because it exposes me to such amazing concepts and it brings them to cinematic life. The CGI on the show is second to none and the visuals are always mesmerising and beautiful.
For example, in this episode, we take a trip to Titan, one of the largest moons of Saturn. It has an atmosphere somewhat similar to ours, but it is also quite a hostile place for life as we know it. Titan’s atmosphere is so cold that water exists only as solid mountainous blocks of ice. The lakes on the moon as we glimpse them here are made of methane, and the rains are composed of ethane. Given the vast bodies of liquid methane on Titan, the moon is a gigantic storehouse of what on Earth we call natural gas. And if we compare the two, then the natural gas reserves on Earth are a mere sub-fraction of those that exist on Titan. On Earth, all life needs water to some degree, but since there is no liquid water on Titan, scientists posit that life on the moon could exist in the methane lakes and seas that cover it. Species that, as Neil says, might use acetylene instead of sugar as energy source. And so on. The visuals that are presented here are just amazing, such as the spaceship of the imagination diving down into one of the oil-dark methane lakes to hopefully glimpse some sign of methane-based life.
Amazing. Just amazing all of it.
One of the other things that Neil covers is the Five Great Tragedies, events so cataclysmic that they changed the path of life on Earth. It is very saddening to see how entire branches of species got wiped out, either due to the natural upheavals of the Earth’s core, or outside events such as the asteroid that ended the age of dinosaurs. At one point during this segment, Neil sits down in one place for several segments, as if frustrated and reflecting on how violent Earth’s past has been for life on the planet. And it is something that I felt too. Species at the height of their evolution, or just budding and brimming with potential, wiped out in an instant, or suffering long years of devastation.
But then again, life on our planet is nothing if not tough. And this is ultimately the message of the segment. The extinction of the dinosaurs paved the way for our distant ape-like ancestors to take charge of the world around them. Microscopic species like the tardigrade have survived all Five Great Tragedies and they are one of the very, very small number of creatures who can exist in almost any environment on Earth. There’s also the cockroach, still alive and still kicking after hundreds of millennia, evolving all the time, but surviving nonetheless.
Perhaps one day, there will be another Great Tragedy, something that will radically change the evolutionary status of humans and force us to adapt to the new circumstances or die out. Perhaps we will reach a point where we reach out into the stars and escape the earthly confines of our home-planet.
Who knows, but I can tell you that I look forward to an episode where Neil covers this, because the exploration of space is one topic that I find endlessly fascinating, especially as a science fiction/space opera geek.
The episode concludes by revisiting an animation sequence that was first aired on Carl Sagan’s own Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the predecessor of this documentary series. It shows how life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism and all the way to the modern homo sapiens.
In the words of the great Spock, “fascinating”.
More Cosmos: Ep 1.