The Universe decoded

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It was supposed to be 42. Yes, the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, as given by the supercomputer Deep Thought in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The book goes on to add that after hearing the answer, the people who created Deep Thought went on to create the Earth — supposed to be an ever bigger and more complex supercomputer — to find the exact question to which they had the answer. So, what exactly did we, puny humans, do to address the same problems? We asked relevant questions, did an amazing amount of research, and unearthed answers, some of which were bettered over time by the most inquisitive of us. But merely asking questions and finding answers is not enough, because knowledge, like light, is no use if it is limited to a few. It has to be spread in order to benefit mankind. 

It was this thought process that prompted famous American astrophysicist and astronomer Carl Sagan to don the mantle of “science communicator” in a TV series of his own making. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage aired for 13 episodes in 1980, and is still the most-watched show created by American TV channel PBS. However, it took more than three decades for the series to spawn a sequel. Many reasons were attributed to it, but probably the biggest was the absence of the confluence that led to Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. 

Clearly, it needed the exceptionally non-conforming Seth McFarlance (of Family Guy and American Dad fame) funding the project, popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson (the gentleman behind the demotion of Pluto from planetary status) presenting it on screen, and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan co-creating it with astrophysicist Steven Soter, and the likes of Star Trek veteran Brannon Braga directing it. 

From its very first episode, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has attempted to simplify scientific concepts into a form that can be understood easily by the masses. The tools used are simple analogies, a straightforward approach and narration in the form of storytelling. The last tool is extremely important, because it has ensured that instead of delivering a boring monologue, Tyson ends up engaging the audience to cogitate about what they are seeing. No wonder, then, that even days after each episode is aired, certain corners of cyberspace still buzz with ideas and claims rising out of what the show has said. 

Now, Tyson isn’t exactly an actor, and it shows on the screen. But he is improving. Even otherwise, Tyson can be a real attention-grabber, as was evident from his appearances on talk shows, where he once told Jon Stewart that the globe shown at the beginning of the programme was spinning the wrong way, and on another occasion, explained to Conan O’Brien why the crescent moon drawn on his set’s background was all wrong. 

Tyson is also adding to the show with his personal experiences. In the first episode itself, he explained how Sagan had invited him, then merely an adolescent, to his home and inspired him to take up science. The references to Sagan, by Tyson or otherwise, have added up over the episodes, and can sometimes feel forced, instead of the fond memories and throwbacks they are meant to be. 

Another element of the show, on which the jury is still out, is the “ship of imagination”, an imaginary ship Tyson pretends to ride whenever “visiting” a different point in space and time. Now, while this ship seems like a fascinating addition to the show, it may also often come across as a somewhat overbearing prop. 

However, look past all of these, and literally an entire world of possibilities presents itself. True, the show is already stepping on the toes of creationists who have already demanded equal airtime for their views. But it is only a testimony of the power of the series when it comes to sowing the seeds of scientific inquiry in budding brains. 

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