Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey: The Immortals
May 19, 2014 5:55 AM - Season 1, Episode 11 - Subscribe

On the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. How meteorites may carry life between worlds, as well as allow earthly life to have survived the scouring of the earth's surface in its early history. The possibility and potential problems of communicating with intelligent extraterrestrial life. How civilizations die, and how ours may survive.
posted by DevilsAdvocate (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I thought this was one of the more uneven episodes. The transitions between mini-arcs seemed forced and didn't tie together under the episode title theme very well at all. I thought it would have better if some of the more recent and fanciful conjectures about things like life surviving early Earth impact events via space travel and interstellar transport by dust cloud seeding should have been either downplayed or earmarked as being, well, recent and fanciful and not at all universally accepted the way things like gravity and the speed of light are.
posted by localroger at 7:46 AM on May 19, 2014

I really enjoyed this one. I'm particularly curious how many people watching got their minds a little blown to learn that the story of the flood and the ark pre-dates the Bible by quite a lot. (Though I suppose those who would react the strongest to that probably aren't watching to begin with.)
posted by dnash at 8:00 AM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, localroger, I found the "seeding" theory a little farfetched. Much respect to Neil of course, but I had never heard that the earth could be completely "sterilized" of life by a meteor. Even the deep sea vents? That bit seemed shaky. Why is it more likely that lifeforms could survive being ejected into space, orbit the sun, fall back down to Earth, and restart evolution than that life could have hid out during events like meteor strikes and survived that way? Even if the seas all vaporized, there is underground water and we know that bacteria can live in conditions like that.

Of course, clearly he's warming up to the global warming episode next week.
posted by emjaybee at 10:14 AM on May 19, 2014

I don't understand the value of mixing in the untestable stuff, like life surviving on asteroids that happen back across our orbit, or all the wormhole things. There have been a couple of episodes where I want to shake someone and scream, "THERE'S SO MUCH PROVABLE, TESTABLE, BEAUTIFUL SCIENCE OUT HERE. STOP WITH THE 'WOO', YOU'RE GIVING AMMO TO THE DULLARDS"
posted by DigDoug at 11:52 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I get a sense that it's more driven by "we have to fill X hours with pretty pictures" than by a coherent outline setting down major points to cover and subpoints to illustrate and support them.
posted by localroger at 1:14 PM on May 19, 2014

Even the deep sea vents?

Well, in the era Neil was talking about, yeah; after an impact like the one that created the Moon, or even a 100-kilometer scale body, pretty much the entire surface would be molten to considerable depth and whatever water was around would be in the atmosphere. Conventional wisdom is that life simply couldn't have been around during that era because of the chaos.

And that's always looked a little weird, because pretty much as soon as the surface was consistently cool enough for life to exist, there was life. So survival via space rocks and interstellar seeding are two proposals to answer to the dilemma of how life could have gotten so complex so quickly after the Earth became habitable.

The problem with how they were presented is that they are really different answers, and both currently just conjectures, to the same problem. This could have been presented in a much better context -- alongside, for example, the once radical notions of plate tectonics and the K-T impactor as ideas that might pan out in the future even though they sound farfetched today. The difference between such hypotheses and well-accepted theories like evolution was completely elided, presumably in the service of telling a good yarn with gripping VFX.
posted by localroger at 3:34 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I found it a bit hard to write a summary for the FPP here because there wasn't as much of a clear consistent theme as there has been for some of the other episodes. That said...

I don't understand the value of mixing in the untestable stuff, like life surviving on asteroids that happen back across our orbit, or all the wormhole things.

Well, depends how you mean "untestable" here. If you mean it like it's usually used in a philosophy-of-science way, i.e., untestable forever and ever, like the existence of God, I don't agree those are untestable. But if you only mean untestable given today's resources and technology, I don't agree that such things should be excluded. To quote Sagan himself from the first episode of the original Cosmos, "We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact." I agree that Tyson could do a better job of distinguishing speculation from fact, but I don't agree that such speculation should be entirely absent from the series.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:37 PM on May 19, 2014

And Sagan did a really good job of separating his speculations from his facts. For example he went into some depth as to how hard interstellar travel would be, then suggested concept ramjets with "engines the size of worlds" might be able to do the trick. Then later in the series, speculating about how things might have been different if the Greeks had openly pursued their interests in math, astronomy, and physics, he suggests that those ramships might be operating today, with the sacred dodecahedron logo as their standard. That was very smooth; it made multiple use of a single fantastic and possibly unworkable SFnal concept, while making it very clear that it was a fantastic and possibly unworkable SFnal concept.

This show only seems to get its thoughts organized that well within single episodes with a strong theme. Here we bounced from Gilgamesh to the late bombardment to space seeded life to fantasy far-future Earth with only the barest connectivity between segments, and little between any of them and the episode's supposed theme of immortality.
posted by localroger at 5:10 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The ark-comets were an interesting idea, but I agree that they could have been presented with a clearer warning as to the speculative nature of the idea. Those with duller critical thinking skills might take his statement as fact. It does seem like a stretch.

I watched the Gilgamesh story blow someone's mind during the episode. It was wonderful.

I love, absolutely love, when they drop soundbites from Carl Sagan into the current series. This week's Sagan clip seemed weak. It was too short and didn't really serve to drive any point home or explicate anything. Needs more Sagan.
posted by GrapeApiary at 5:56 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Needs more Sagan.

That's gonna be my new mantra for everything.
posted by DigDoug at 12:30 PM on May 20, 2014

I haven't seen this episode yet, so pardon me if this is duplicate information, but Dr. Tyson gives a great talk on the golden age of science and mathematics in the Islamic world, and where we might be today if things had gone a little differently.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:20 PM on May 20, 2014

I thought this episode was a little disjointed as well, though I admit the SF fan in me loved the end bit with the giant spaceship and the cities on Mars. I know it wasn't SCIENCE, but it was pretty!

Speaking of the cities on Mars, their appearance made me wonder something: they were all circles of light, almost fractal-like. I've seen futuristic cities represented that way elsewhere, too. Can anyone tell me where that visual originated and/or what the reasoning behind it is?
posted by Janta at 1:25 PM on May 21, 2014

Can anyone tell me where that visual originated and/or what the reasoning behind it is?

I assume it's based on Thünen rings which later gave rise to the Burgess and Hoyt models.
posted by Uncle Ira at 1:43 PM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

they were all circles of light, almost fractal-like

A simpler, and probably more likely explanation given how the show was produced, is that they look like fractals because they ARE fractals, with the "complexity" algorithmically generated to save production effort.
posted by localroger at 5:31 PM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I finally get to comment on FanFare!!!

We've been having my mother- and father-in-law over for dinner on Monday nights. FIL has Alzheimer's disease but he is very intelligent and he loves watching Cosmos on Monday nights with us.

I agree, this was not the best episode, but I do so love NDT.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:37 AM on May 22, 2014

Yeah, this one was disjointed, but I could feel some heads exploding at the Gilgamesh story.
posted by nubs at 9:50 AM on May 29, 2014

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