I just finished watching the third episode of the new Cosmos (“When Knowledge Conquered Fear”), and it was fairly disappointing. The episode focused on Newton’s discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation, but the presentation was somewhat of a hash. It started out explaining the role that comets had historically played as bad omens, and, by the end, I think the aim was to show how, thanks to Newton and others, it was discovered that comets obeyed specific natural laws and that their motion through the sky could be predicted with accuracy. In other words, why mankind, armed with knowledge, had nothing to fear from them.
Unfortunately, the episode spent too much time on irrelevancies and not enough time on explaining any of the methodology or the observations that went into coming up with the Law of Universal Gravitation. The episode spent an enormous amount of time on a trivial rivalry between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. (Hooke claimed that Newton stole some of his ideas.) There was almost no explanation of the thinking or reasoning involved in coming up with the Law of Universal Gravitation.
By way of contrast, in the original “Cosmos” TV series, Carl Sagan gave an excellent explanation of how an ancient Greek, Eratosthenes, calculated the circumference of the Earth by peering inside wells at certain times of the year, at different locations, and then based on the shadows cast and knowledge of the distance between the wells, he was able to use trigonometry to come up with a fairly accurate answer. In that original series, examples were actually given of some of the observations and reasoning that went into coming up with the scientific ideas being presented. There was almost none of that in this new episode of Cosmos.
At one, point in episode 3, Tyson was talking about the influence of Newton and Edmond Halley on subsequent discoveries, and he said that Captain Cook eventually used some of their ideas to calculate the distance of the Earth to the Sun by viewing the transit of Venus across the Sun on the island of Tahiti. When this started, I thought: “Alright, finally, they will go into some of the methodology used in science,” but, instead, Tyson just said they did it. How did they do it? Somehow that is not explained on the show.
The new Cosmos makes a big show about how science and religious dogma are incompatible, but it doesn’t really go into the details of what science is, or how science is done. Unless they present some examples of the observations and reasoning that went into some of these scientific discoveries, then their presentation of them comes across as dogmatic and based in nothing but authority itself.
This is not a total condemnation of the new Cosmos TV series. The previous episode regarding evolution through natural selection was fairly good. It discussed how human beings had bred dogs from gray wolves into a huge variety of shapes and sizes. (This observation about the various breeds of dogs was one that Charles Darwin made when he came up with his theory.) The second episode then went on to say that this was a form of “artificial selection”, and that evolution occurred through a similar process of “natural selection”, which was the conclusion that Darwin also came to. I hope that subsequent episodes in this series will be more like the second episode, and less like the “Newton-Hooke soap-opera” that was the third one.