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Documentaries I Like: Cosmos

Update: Cosmos Available Online, Free

I'm reposting this article (originally from September 2007) because the entire Cosmos TV series is now streaming at Hulu for free. Enjoy! (Be sure to click the "Watch Hi-Res" button inside the player to get the best quality.)

CosmosThis week's feature is the classic Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan. This thirteen-part series was originally created for PBS in 1980, and is now available (with some updated graphics and sound) on DVD. The series covers a wide variety of topics related to science -- Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the history of astronomy, planetary evolution, SETI, the murder of Hypatia, you name it.

Sagan's series seeks to instill a sense of wonder in the viewer -- he's profoundly concerned with the function of life on Earth, the ability of creatures to think and communicate, and ultimately the vastness of the Cosmos and our place in it. Across thirteen episodes, Sagan takes us on a journey through genuinely fascinating territory -- and yeah, he says "billions" a lot too.

There's something wonderfully late-Seventies about Cosmos -- the Vangelis soundtrack and Sagan's shaggy hairdo place the series firmly in an era where personal computers were just becoming available, and the notion of a worldwide web seemed distant, but ultimately within reach. There's a sense of human progress in the series, as it places itself in the larger context of science history. There are many details that have changed (for example, our understanding of the human genome is more complete, and we have broadband) but that doesn't invalidate any of what Sagan says. Watching Cosmos now, nearly thirty years after it originally aired, you can see how Sagan was out to show us his own journey through science -- why it was important to him, and why we might value it as well. Cosmos stands the test of time.

My favorite episode is the eleventh, "The Persistence of Memory," which starts with a discussion of whales and their communicative abilities, then proceeds to explain "genes, brains, and books" as the key evolutionary steps for humankind. (Update: watch this episode on Hulu!) The discussion concludes with information on the Voyager record, recently covered on this very blog! Here's an extended clip from "The Persistence of Memory," discussing whales:

This series may take a while to wade through (it comes on seven DVDs), but it's worth it. I'd particularly recommend it for families, as this is the kind of material that can really inspire kids (okay, and adults too!). You can rent it from Netflix, rent it from Blockbuster, or if you have over $114.99 burning a hole in your pocket, buy it from Amazon. Thanks for reading, and please keep the suggestions coming — I've got a list of over 60 documentaries to watch based on your feedback!

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science
What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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History
Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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