Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Second Episode of “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”

The saga that is Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey continued on Sunday as host Neil deGrasse-Tyson explored “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” which basically traced the history of life on Earth. For people expecting pure astronomy, this can seem like a bit of an oddball topic for a series about space science but, as Carl Sagan once said, the story of the cosmos is a story of us.

The episode is largely a tale about how life in its present form came about through time by way of evolution by natural selection, the still-controversial theory (still denied by a large part of the population) first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. In this episode, Tyson starts with the story of an animal familiar to all of us: the dog. By explaining how humans have bred all current dog species on Earth, an undeniable fact, from the gray wolf, Tyson showcases evolution by artificial selection (imposed by humans).

Evolution explained with human intervention, Tyson then traces the evolution of other species by way of natural selection, which is triggered by random genetic mutations in an animal's genes. To explain briefly, random genetic mutations occur all the time, often with no implications for survival as a whole. However, every now and then, a mutation occurs that aids an animal's chances for survival. Example: the polar bear, Tyson's next subject.

At one time, there were no polar bears, only brown bears in the arctic. However, once upon a time a long time ago, a bear was born that had a genetic mutation that gave it white fur. Being white and camouflaged against the snow, the bear had an advantage in its hunting. In time that bear reproduced, passing along its genes for white fur, which aided the chances for survival against its offspring that inherited the white fur. In time, these white bears reproduced, further spreading out their genes for white fur. In time, there started to be a lot of white bears in the arctic. With this advantage over their brown cousins, in time, all bears in the arctic became white.

The rest of the episode involves further lessons on evolution, extinction, and how life might have evolved on other worlds and how it may have began on this one. The episode ends with a segment from the original series that graphically showcased evolution from single-cell bacteria into humans.


The second episode is better than the first, hands-down, as it was in Sagan's series. Here, Tyson really steps into Sagan's shoes, explaining complex scientific processes like evolution in ways that virtually anyone can understand. One thing that made the original series so special was its camera work and unique presentations. In this episode, there is some very not so boring documentary cinematography as well as the Hall of Extinction, which offers a distinctly unique way of capturing the attention of the viewer. In short, while the original series may have felt more like journalism with its brief, somewhat cursory glances, this second episode feels more like a novel: engrossing, entertaining, and captivating.

Hopefully, this will be an indication of things to come in the remaining 11 episodes.

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