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Cosmos: A Triumphant Reboot

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Fox

This Sunday, the 13-part series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey begins. It airs on Fox, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it is a triumph of television. The new Cosmos is like the original, in that it communicates clearly about science, and the wonder of the universe. But you've never seen Cosmos like this.

Tune in on Sundays on Fox at 9pm ET/PT beginning March 9. The show airs on Fox and National Geographic on Sundays, then airs again on National Geographic starting Monday, March 10 at 10pm ET/PT (with bonus material).

The Tightrope

There are so many ways a reboot of Cosmos could have gone wrong. To succeed, the production had to walk a tightrope, in constant peril of falling. I'm delighted to say that the producers have managed to cross that tightrope intact, and delivered a show that's simultaneously entertaining, educational, and inspirational. The wonder of the original series is here, and in many ways the new show is more fun to watch, while retaining the careful attention to detail that was a hallmark of the original.

The challenges facing the reboot of Cosmos were threefold:

1. Nostalgia. I grew up watching Carl Sagan on Cosmos, and I'm a fan. I own the DVD box set. I own the book. So when I think about Cosmos, I think about a very specific set of qualities that are entangled with my own childhood experience of wonder and awe. It's hard to revisit something with more than three decades of nostalgic love attached to it, because the slightest misstep could bring out shouts of, "Sagan wouldn't have done that!" Nostalgia is a powerful and generally irrational force, but the new show has managed to stay true to the original in part by bringing back the original writers (more on that below). All in all, it feels right, and that's powerful.

2. Audience. What's the audience for a primetime science show in 2014? Most science programming now lives on cable or PBS (where the original Cosmos aired), so it's either gutsy or misguided to air this in primetime on a major network. I'm going with "gutsy," because what we have here is an entertaining show that really does work for the whole family. Kids and adults alike will dig the new Cosmos, and I expect it will inspire many conversations about science—and perhaps even guide career choices for kids. The original Cosmos really was a landmark TV show, winning Emmy and Peabody awards, and remains PBS's most-watched series. I suspect the new Cosmos will also be a huge deal, in part because it is accessible to so many people—both by virtue of being on broadcast TV and being a well-made show.

3. Correctness vs. Watchability. The original Cosmos was notable partly because it took such pains to be correct, to communicate the concept that science often entails being wrong. In the first episode of the original, Sagan explains the story of Eratosthenes deducing the circumference of the Earth using "sticks, eyes, feet, and brains; plus a zest for experiment." In the reboot's first episode, this story is swapped with that of Giordano Bruno, who believed in a cosmos filled with other planets orbiting other suns, based in part on an inspirational dream. At the end of Bruno's story, Tyson points out that Bruno was not a scientist and that his vision of the cosmos "was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it. Like most guesses, it could well have turned out wrong." This is important. In this moment, we see Tyson gently but firmly asserting the importance of science within the narrative.

(A side-note: viewers familiar with Tyson's history related to Pluto will want to watch carefully how the first episode deals with Pluto's status as a planet. The show manages to be technically correct but also inclusive, in a way that should satisfy...most viewers.)

Animation vs. Live Action

Animation still from Cosmos. Image courtesy of Fox.

The new Cosmos features loads of animation for historical reenactments. The art style is not cartoony (no Family Guy art here), and it's beautifully executed—distinctive but not distracting. The original Cosmos used, let's face it, slightly stuffy actors in period garb waving their hands. The new approach works better on all levels.

There are also small details woven into the animation that are brilliantly appropriate—at one moment in the Bruno animation, we see a glimpse of the Earth seen in its solar system context, and the continents shown don't include the Americas. This makes sense, of course, because Bruno lived in Europe. But the fact that someone in the production team decided to rotate the Earth on that illustration such that the relevant continents were shown demonstrates a reassuring sense of attention to detail. We see similar clever details in other visual effects, such as when the Spaceship of the Imagination flies by a NASA rover on Mars.

The Cold War vs. Climate Change

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson contemplates the Big Bang. Image courtesy of Fox.

The original Cosmos was made at a time when the Cold War was still the overriding threat to human life on Earth, and it shows within Sagan's narration. He mentions the potential for human self-annihilation, for instance when musing on a hypothetical extraterrestrial civilization, he wonders whether they are also "a danger to themselves." Ann Druyan's introduction to the 2000 DVD release of Cosmos (with updated visual effects) touches on this as well, noting that many scientists of the day were caught up in the global arms race.

In the new Cosmos, of course, the Cold War is history. But there is still a specter of doom, and it is climate change. Tyson mentions it while walking through a forest, saying, "Three hundred million years later, we humans are burning most of that coal to power—and imperil—our civilization." It doesn't come across as heavy-handed, but it's there, and it occupies a similar position as the greatest threat of our age.

It's notable that two science shows, separated by a span of more than three decades, each identifies a serious human-caused threat to human life on Earth. Neither wallows in the threat, instead choosing to focus on the possibility that humanity can make its way. That is a core part of what makes Cosmos inspirational, and why it's likely to resonate especially strongly with young people today.

Sagan vs. Tyson

Ann Druyan and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Photo by Patrick Eccelsine/FOX.

Both versions of Cosmos were co-written by Ann Druyan, who married Sagan in 1981. The scripts share many concepts (such as the Cosmic Calendar and Spaceship of the Imagination) and key phrases ("star stuff!"). Her intellectual presence within the new show is palpable as the strongest link to the original, though she doesn't appear onscreen. Instead, Neil deGrasse Tyson takes over the hosting role in Carl Sagan's place. But how do you compete with the guy whose iconic phrase "billions and billions" became so popular that it was plastered all over McDonald's signs?

The short answer is that it's not a competition; Tyson's presence in the show feels more like Sagan's legacy. In the first episode, Tyson stands on the same windswept cliff where Sagan began the original series. There, Tyson relates an experience in which he visited Sagan in the mid-1970s, and it's a humble, emotional moment. As a host, Tyson is fantastic—he conveys information clearly, and he's fun to watch (when he walks up to the Big Bang and puts on sunglasses, you know we're dealing with a badass). His presence onscreen (and even his monologue) is markedly different from Sagan's, though—Sagan's version of Cosmos was dense with metaphor and a cadence that only Sagan could deliver. Tyson deals less in metaphor, and the show benefits tremendously from it. Instead, we see clear explanations of complex concepts, often illustrated using (very nice) computer graphics. That stuff simply wasn't available three and a half decades ago.

I sat down to watch the new Cosmos and watched the original Cosmos right after. The difference is stark. The original show is slow and dense, with a soothing Vangelis musical score—it's rather like a rich meal that touches on dozens of flavors, occasionally losing the typical viewer ("What's a quasar?"). The new show isn't fast-paced in the sense of an action movie, but in comparison it's simply more modern in its presentation. Tyson presents us with a view of the cosmos that is easier to grasp in the moment, but doesn't sacrifice the sense of wonder that permeated the original. I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Where to See Cosmos

Tune in to Fox on Sundays at 9pm ET/PT beginning March 9. The show is running on a bunch of Fox and National Geographic channels, plus re-runs with bonus materials on National Geographic Mondays at 10pm ET/PT. So you're likely to find it on cable, broadcast, or any other TV medium you might be able to access. As always, check your local listings to be sure.

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Look Up! Residents of Maine and Michigan Might Catch a Glimpse of the Northern Lights Tonight
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The aurora borealis, a celestial show usually reserved for spectators near the arctic circle, could potentially appear over parts of the continental U.S. on the night of February 15. As Newsweek reports, a solar storm is on track to illuminate the skies above Maine and Michigan.

The Northern Lights (and the Southern Lights) are caused by electrons from the sun colliding with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. The solar particles transfer some of their energy to oxygen and nitrogen molecules on contact, and as these excited molecules settle back to their normal states they release light particles. The results are glowing waves of blue, green, purple, and pink light creating a spectacle for viewers on Earth.

The more solar particles pelt the atmosphere, the more vivid these lights become. Following a moderate solar flare that burst from the sun on Monday, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center forecast a solar light show for tonight. While the Northern Lights are most visible from higher latitudes where the planet’s magnetic field is strongest, northern states are occasionally treated to a view. This is because the magnetic North Pole is closer to the U.S. than the geographic North Pole.

This Thursday night into Friday morning is expected to be one of those occasions. To catch a glimpse of the phenomena from your backyard, wait for the sun to go down and look toward the sky. People living in places with little cloud cover and light pollution will have the best chance of spotting it.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
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10 Facts About the Dwarf Planet Haumea
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
Kevin Gill, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

In terms of sheer weirdness, few objects in the solar system can compete with the dwarf planet Haumea. It has a strange shape, unusual brightness, two moons, and a wild rotation. Its unique features, however, can tell astronomers a lot about the formation of the solar system and the chaotic early years that characterized it. Here are a few things you need to know about Haumea, the tiny world beyond Neptune.

1. THREE HAUMEAS COULD FIT SIDE BY SIDE IN EARTH.

Haumea is a trans-Neptunian object; its orbit, in other words, is beyond that of the farthest ice giant in the solar system. Its discovery was reported to the International Astronomical Union in 2005, and its status as a dwarf planet—the fifth, after Ceres, Eris, Makemake, and Pluto—was made official three years later. Dwarf planets have the mass of a planet and have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e., they're round), but have not "cleared their neighborhoods" (meaning their gravity is not dominant in their orbit). Haumea is notable for the large amount of water ice on its surface, and for its size: Only Pluto and Eris are larger in the trans-Neptunian region, and Pluto only slightly, with a 1475-mile diameter versus Haumea's 1442-mile diameter. That means three Haumeas could fit sit by side in Earth—and yet it only has 1/1400th of the mass of our planet.

2. HAUMEA'S DISCOVERY WAS CONTROVERSIAL.

There is some disagreement over who discovered Haumea. A team of astronomers at the Sierra Nevada Observatory in Spain first reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center of the International Astronomical Union on July 27, 2005. A team led by Mike Brown from the Palomar Observatory in California had discovered the object earlier, but had not reported their results, waiting to develop the science and present it at a conference. They later discovered that their files had been accessed by the Spanish team the night before the announcement was made. The Spanish team says that, yes, they did run across those files, having found them in a Google search before making their report to the Minor Planet Center, but that it was happenstance—the result of due diligence to make sure the object had never been reported. In the end, the IAU gave credit for the discovery to the Spanish team—but used the name proposed by the Caltech team.

3. IT'S NAMED FOR A HAWAIIAN GODDESS.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haumea is the goddess of fertility and childbirth. The name was proposed by the astronomers at Caltech to honor the place where Haumea's moon was discovered: the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Its moons—Hi'iaka and Namaka—are named for two of Haumea's children.

4. HAUMEA HAS RINGS—AND THAT'S STRANGE.

Haumea is the farthest known object in the solar system to possess a ring system. This discovery was recently published in the journal Nature. But why does it have rings? And how? "It is not entirely clear to us yet," says lead author Jose-Luis Ortiz, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia and leader of the Spanish team of astronomers who discovered Haumea.

5. HAUMEA'S SURFACE IS EXTREMELY BRIGHT.

In addition to being extremely fast, oddly shaped, and ringed, Haumea is very bright. This brightness is a result of the dwarf planet's composition. On the inside, it's rocky. On the outside, it is covered by a thin film of crystalline water ice [PDF]—the same kind of ice that's in your freezer. That gives Haumea a high albedo, or reflectiveness. It's about as bright as a snow-covered frozen lake on a sunny day.

6. HAUMEA HAS ONE OF THE SHORTEST DAYS IN THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM.

If you lived to be a year old on Haumea, you would be 284 years old back on Earth. And if you think a Haumean year is unusual, that's nothing next to the length of a Haumean day. It takes 3.9 hours for Haumea to make a full rotation, which means it has by far the fastest spin, and thus shortest day, of any object in the solar system larger than 62 miles.

7. HAUMEA'S HIGH SPEED SQUISHES IT INTO A SHAPE LIKE A RUGBY BALL.

haumea rotation gif
Stephanie Hoover, Wikipedia // Public Domain

As a result of this tornadic rotation, Haumea has an odd shape; its speed compresses it so much that rather than taking a spherical, soccer ball shape, it is flattened and elongated into looking something like a rugby ball.

8. HIGH-SPEED COLLISIONS MAY EXPLAIN HAUMEA'S TWO MOONS.

Ortiz says there are several mechanisms that can have led to rings around the dwarf planet: "One of our favorite scenarios has to do with collisions on Haumea, which can release material from the surface and send it to orbit." Part of the material that remains closer to Haumea can form a ring, and material further away can help form moons. "Because Haumea spins so quickly," Ortiz adds, "it is also possible that material is shed from the surface due to the centrifugal force, or maybe small collisions can trigger ejections of mass. This can also give rise to a ring and moons."

9. ONE MOON HAS WATER ICE—JUST LIKE HAUMEA.

Ortiz says that while the rings haven't transformed scientists' understanding of Haumea, they have clarified the orbit of its largest moon, Hi'iaka—it is equatorial, meaning it circles around Haumea's equator. Hi'iaka is notable for the crystalline water ice on its surface, similar to that on its parent body.

10. TRYING TO SEE HAUMEA FROM EARTH IS LIKE TRYING TO LOOK AT A COIN MORE THAN 100 MILES AWAY.

It's not easy to study Haumea. The dwarf planet, and other objects at that distance from the Sun, are indiscernible to all but the largest telescopes. One technique used by astronomers to study such objects is called "stellar occultation," in which the object is observed as it crosses in front of a star, causing the star to temporarily dim. (This is how exoplanets—those planets orbiting other stars—are also often located and studied.) This technique doesn't always work for objects beyond the orbit of Neptune, however; astronomers must know the objects' orbits and the position of the would-be eclipsed stars to astounding levels of accuracy, which is not always the case. Moreover, Ortiz says, their sizes are oftentimes very small, "comparable to the size of a small coin viewed at a distance of a couple hundred kilometers."

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