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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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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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Astronomers Observe a New Kind of Massive Cosmic Collision for the First Time
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NSF/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet

For the first time, astronomers have detected the colossal blast produced by the merger of two neutron stars—and they've recorded it both via the gravitational waves the event produced, as well as the flash of light it emitted.

Physicists believe that the pair of neutron stars—ultra-dense stars formed when a massive star collapses, following a supernova explosion—had been locked in a death spiral just before their final collision and merger. As they spiraled inward, a burst of gravitational waves was released; when they finally smashed together, high-energy electromagnetic radiation known as gamma rays were emitted. In the days that followed, electromagnetic radiation at many other wavelengths—X-rays, ultraviolet, optical, infrared, and radio waves—were released. (Imagine all the instruments in an orchestra, from the lowest bassoons to the highest piccolos, playing a short, loud note all at once.)

This is the first time such a collision has been observed, as well as the first time that both kinds of observations—gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation—have been recorded from the same event, a feat that required co-operation among some 70 different observatories around the world, including ground-based observatories, orbiting telescopes, the U.S. LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), and European Virgo gravitational wave detectors.

"For me, it feels like the dawning of a next era in astrophysics," Julie McEnery, project scientist for NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, one of the first instruments to record the burst of energy from the cosmic collision, tells Mental Floss. "With this observation, we've connected these new gravitational wave observations to the rest of the observations that we've been doing in astrophysics for a very long time."

A BREAKTHROUGH ON SEVERAL FRONTS

The observations represent a breakthrough on several fronts. Until now, the only events detected via gravitational waves have been mergers of black holes; with these new results, it seems likely that gravitational wave technology—which is still in its infancy—will open many new phenomena to scientific scrutiny. At the same time, very little was known about the physics of neutron stars—especially their violent, final moments—until now. The observations are also shedding new light on the origin of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs)—extremely energetic explosions seen in distant galaxies. As well, the research may offer clues as to how the heavier elements, such as gold, platinum, and uranium, formed.

Astronomers around the world are thrilled by the latest findings, as today's flurry of excitement attests. The LIGO-Virgo results are being published today in the journal Physical Review Letters; further articles are due to be published in other journals, including Nature and Science, in the weeks ahead. Scientists also described the findings today at press briefings hosted by the National Science Foundation (the agency that funds LIGO) in Washington, and at the headquarters of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

(Rumors of the breakthrough had been swirling for weeks; in August, astronomer J. Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas at Austin tweeted, "New LIGO. Source with optical counterpart. Blow your sox off!" He and another scientist who tweeted have since apologized for doing so prematurely, but this morning, minutes after the news officially broke, Wheeler tweeted, "Socks off!") 

The neutron star merger happened in a galaxy known as NGC 4993, located some 130 million light years from our own Milky Way, in the direction of the southern constellation Hydra.

Gravitational wave astronomy is barely a year and a half old. The first detection of gravitational waves—physicists describe them as ripples in space-time—came in fall 2015, when the signal from a pair of merging black holes was recorded by the LIGO detectors. The discovery was announced in February 2016 to great fanfare, and was honored with this year's Nobel Prize in Physics. Virgo, a European gravitational wave detector, went online in 2007 and was upgraded last year; together, they allow astronomers to accurately pin down the location of gravitational wave sources for the first time. The addition of Virgo also allows for a greater sensitivity than LIGO could achieve on its own.

LIGO previously recorded four different instances of colliding black holes—objects with masses between seven times the mass of the Sun and a bit less than 40 times the mass of the Sun. This new signal was weaker than that produced by the black holes, but also lasted longer, persisting for about 100 seconds; the data suggested the objects were too small to be black holes, but instead were neutron stars, with masses of about 1.1 and 1.6 times the Sun's mass. (In spite of their heft, neutron stars are tiny, with diameters of only a dozen or so miles.) Another key difference is that while black hole collisions can be detected only via gravitational waves—black holes are black, after all—neutron star collisions can actually be seen.

"EXACTLY WHAT WE'D HOPE TO SEE"

When the gravitational wave signal was recorded, on the morning of August 17, observatories around the world were notified and began scanning the sky in search of an optical counterpart. Even before the LIGO bulletin went out, however, the orbiting Fermi telescope, which can receive high-energy gamma rays from all directions in the sky at once, had caught something, receiving a signal less than two seconds after the gravitational wave signal tripped the LIGO detectors. This was presumed to be a gamma-ray burst, an explosion of gamma rays seen in deep space. Astronomers had recorded such bursts sporadically since the 1960s; however, their physical cause was never certain. Merging neutron stars had been a suggested culprit for at least some of these explosions.

"This is exactly what we'd hoped to see," says McEnery. "A gamma ray burst requires a colossal release of energy, and one of the hypotheses for what powers at least some of them—the ones that have durations of less than two seconds—was the merger of two neutron stars … We had hoped that we would see a gamma ray burst and a gravitational wave signal together, so it's fantastic to finally actually do this."

With preliminary data from LIGO and Virgo, combined with the Fermi data, scientists could tell with reasonable precision what direction in the sky the signal had come from—and dozens of telescopes at observatories around the world, including the U.S. Gemini telescopes, the European Very Large Telescope, and the Hubble Space Telescope, were quickly re-aimed toward Hydra, in the direction of reported signal.

The telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile were well-placed for getting a first look—because the bulletin arrived in the morning, however, they had to wait until the sun dropped below the horizon.

"We had about eight to 10 hours, until sunset in Chile, to prepare for this," Maria Drout, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in in Pasadena, California, which runs the Las Campanas telescopes, tells Mental Floss. She was connected by Skype to the astronomers in the control rooms of three different telescopes at Las Campanas, as they prepared to train their telescopes at the target region. "Usually you prepare a month in advance for an observing run on these telescopes, but this was all happening in a few hours," Drout says. She and her colleagues prepared a target list of about 100 galaxies, but less than one-tenth of the way through the list, by luck, they found it: a tiny blip of light in NGC 4993 that wasn't visible on archival images of the same galaxy. (It was the 1-meter Swope telescope that snagged the first images.)

A NEW ERA OF ASTROPHYSICS

When a new star-like object in a distant galaxy is spotted, a typical first guess is that it's a supernova (an exploding star). But this new object was changing very rapidly, growing 100 times dimmer over just a few days while also quickly becoming redder—which supernovae don't do, explains Drout, who is cross-appointed at the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. "We ended up following it for three weeks or so, and by the end, it was very clear that this [neutron star merger] was what we were looking at," she says.

The researchers say they can't be sure if the resulting object was another, larger neutron star, or whether it would have been so massive that it would have collapsed into a black hole.

As exciting as the original detection of gravitational waves last year was, Drout is looking forward to a new era in which both gravitational waves and traditional telescopes can be used to study the same objects. "We can learn a lot more about these types of extreme systems that exist in the universe, by coupling the two together," she says.

The detection shows that "gravitational wave science is moving from being a physics experiment to being a tool for astronomers," Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who is not involved in the current research, tells Mental Floss. "So I think it's a pretty big deal."

Physicists are also learning something new about the origin of the heaviest elements in the periodic table. For many years, these were thought to arise from supernova explosions, but spectroscopic data from the newly observed neutron star merger (in which light is broken up into its component colors) suggests that such explosion produce enormous quantities of heavy elements—including enough gold to put Fort Knox to shame. (The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, the scientists say.) "It's telling us that most of the gold that we know about is produced in these mergers, and not in supernovae," McEnery says.

Editor's note: This post has been updated.

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