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Michael DuVernois | Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center | USA

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Thinking about Cosmos, Mark II

I’ve just been watching the first couple of episodes of the new, reborn, perhaps rebooted, Cosmos. About 4 million people have been watching each of the episodes when broadcast. Out of a US population of about 300 million. Said that way, it doesn’t sound like a huge success, but science has much less of a grip on the American public than science fiction (or at least folks in spandex hitting each other over the head) or comedy about scientists. Over the years, it’s said that Sagan’s Cosmos has been the most watched PBS series world-wide, ever, and I have confidence that the new one, with current special effects, and its hooks to the 2010s rather than the late 1970s, will be watched for many years to come.

Different times and different shows. It’s worth thinking about why this isn’t a PBS show today. Why is that? And why are there still creationists around to poke holes in our schools?

Anyway, what I’ve seen so far, I’ve liked quite a bit. There are plenty of eloquent positive reviews out there, so let me highlight one thing of which I am not a fan. With the excellent special effects, along with the excellent astronomical images available, it’s not always clear in the show what is a real image and what is artwork. In Sagan’s Cosmos, we see visualizations and we see telescopic views, and we can know which is which. With the current Cosmos, it’s a lot harder to tell. And a third category, simulations also poke in somewhere between the models and true imaging. Simulations based on the physics, so therefore “true” and “correct,” but not real images of objects in the sky. I’ve seen NASA artist renditions clearly marked in the corner. It would be a nice addition to the show, not to justify the scientific validity but to clarify, to mark the boundaries of what we see, what we know, and what we conjecture. Three different parts of the science.

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