EPISODE REVIEW: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey: “A Sky Full of Ghosts” (Episode 4)

Kevin Long
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I took two pretty bad blows to the head today, and am debating whether or not I’ve got a concussion and whether or not I should go to a doctor. I’m also contemplating whether or not I’d miss being really really smart. On the one hand, I like being able to understand stuff. On the other hand, honestly, what the hell has being smart ever gotten me but depressed, frightened, and punched twice in the head? As a result, I’m not sure I’m in the best frame of mind (and may never be again) to review this.

 

I’ll give it a shot, though.

 

Basically, I watched this whole thing and I tried to follow it, but I was pretty distracted by the idea that I might have a concussion, or perhaps even brain damage, like a bleed or something. I kept wondering if I should go to the doctor or call someone, or if I even cared because, y’know, life has been pretty rough lately. As a result, I think I may not have been concentrating too clearly on the episode. Or perhaps I was concentrating as hard as I’m now capable, and simply have brain damage and am missing subtle allusions. Or maybe I’m just scared. My dad died of a brain injury. Coup counter-coup it was called.

 

In any event, whether I’m brain damaged or just sad, I found the episode to be rather dull, and the last bit to be rather difficult to follow.

 

In essence the episode was a physics-of-light 101 styled lecture. We open with the still-inexplicably-awful animation telling us the story of William Herschel, the first man to deduce that some of the stars we see in the night sky are ghosts. That is to say: Their light is all that remains of long-dead stars. We also find out that one of Herschel’s friends deduced the existence of “Black Stars” (As he called them) that were so massive light couldn’t escape. These are black holes in modern parlance.

 

We’re treated to a lecture about how every glance in the night sky is a glance back in time, how far back depending on the distance between the observer and the thing he’s looking at. This then led to a discussion of Relativity as the absolute speed limit of the universe, which functions as pretty much the only absolute yardstick by which to measure anything when you get right down to it. Way to go, Einstein!

 

This then leads to a discussion of spacetime and the interrelation between spacetime and gravity, which is pretty perfunctory. We also get a discussion of the big bang about 13.8 Billion years ago. What existed prior to that? Tyson admits no one knows. (Nor do I, but my bias is that it was this God fellow saying ‘Let there be light.’) Later on, he gets to talking about supermassive black holes at the center of all galaxies. (All galaxies? Really? Even wussie ones like the Magellanic Clouds or the Pegasus Irregular Dwarf Galaxy?) He then speculates what it would be like if you could go into a black hole and survive. What would it look like? He suggests that each black hole could be a big bang on the other side. Each star that goes black hole here produces a corresponding big bang on some other plane of the omniverse, which ultimately creates its own black holes, which then produce big bangs, and so on. He offers not a shard of proof for this, but suggests our own big bang might be the product of some black hole forming in some other universe.

 

Riiiiiiiight.  Have we got any numbers on this, you know? Proof?

 

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I found myself rather disappointed by tonight’s episode, particularly after the general increase in quality of the previous two. There was nothing here you wouldn’t find in a half dozen episodes of Nova. There was nothing new,  nothing revolutionary, nothing compelling, nothing gee-gosh-wow about it. Light speed: I get it. Anyone who’s ever had a basic physics class gets it. Even a high school science class will contain at least a perfunctory introduction to this.

 

Another aspect that bothered me was the complete absence of the discussion of higher and lower dimensions. Hyperspheres and so on. This seems oddly out of place in an episode largely about black holes. In essence, space is three dimensional, right? And gravity curves that. Indeed, gravity IS a curve in 3D spacetime. A black hole is so steep a curve that it is kind of a pinhole rip in the fabric of spacetime, and whatever goes down the funnel is out of the universe entirely. All these curves are in the 4th dimension.

 

Of course the fabric of the ENTIRE universe is slightly curved in the fourth dimention. Which means our infinite 3-D spacetime universe is really just the skin of a 4-D hypersphere, at right angles to the three we know. This has been measured, it’s well know, it’s an incontrovertible fact. So while we can say the universe is infinite, it’s only as infinite as an egg: go long enough in any one direction and you’ll end up at the same coordinates you started at. Of course this is an awkward metaphor as it’s a 3-D egg wrapped around a 4-D whatever, but still…

 

My point is that that we got a lot of stuff that everyone knows, and is kinda’ bored by, and nothing about the vastly more interesting stuff that MAKES what we know work. Instead of giving us an hour condensed version of something truly fascinating and approachable like Rudy Rucker’s Geometry, Relativity, and the Fourth Dimension (1977), which explains how all this stuff fits together, and what the underpinnings of the universe really ARE, we got just another 8th grade Science Class slideshow tarted up with CGI.

 

Disappointing

 

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There were two swipes at Creationists tonight. One was the rather obvious (And correct) assertion that if the universe was only 6500 years old, the sky would be mostly black because the light from most of the stars wouldn’t have reached us yet. The other is when Tyson says “The universe commands, “Thou shalt not…” when speaking of the speed of light.

 

Just as a sideways observation, have you ever noticed how people who say “Evolution is just a theory” as though hoping to discredit it as unreliable and unproven never do the same thing with the theory of Relativity? Why is that?

 

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Well, that’s that. What’s your assumption? Am I lucid, or do I need to go to the E.R.?

 

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Kevin Long is a well-reviewed Science Fiction author, who has written three full-length anthologies, and has a fourth one coming out any week now. He used to blog under the name “Republibot 3.0,” but now that his stalker is dead, and he can afford to be less paranoid, he uses his real name. His personal website is here and his Smashwords page here. Or, if you prefer Amazon, his books are here, here, and here. Check out his site, and buy one of his books. He’s got a wife and kids to support!

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