The universe is an infinitely vast entity, almost as big as Antilla. That hasn’t stopped humans throughout the ages from trying to understand its secrets, resulting in theories that range from the mythical (“The earth is a ball of snot inside the nose of a sleeping giant.”) to the scientific (“Atoms are the building blocks of snot.”).
It is this spirit of curiosity that is the star of my latest TV addiction, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It is a follow up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which brought science to massy television – something long considered impossible, given that the source material features exactly zero Kardashian booty.
The 2014 version aims to repeat that feat and make science cool again, which is why they got the internet’s favourite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, to host it. Tyson is the Will Smith-meets-Morgan Freeman of science. He seems like the kind of guy who’d spend his day neck-deep in equations that look like Elvish to us muggles, and then take on a beer-chug challenge at a bar in the evening (and win, because he’d know the optimum angle at which to hold the mug so as to minimise Spillage Coefficient. Then he’d trash-talk the loser with something like “Your mother’s so large that black holes cannot escape her gravity.”)
Fun fact: Cosmos is executive-produced by Seth MacFarlane. Yes, the same Seth Mac Farlane responsible for a gag that consisted entirely of Family Guy characters vomiting on each other for two whole minutes. And yes, the same Seth MacFarlane who opened the 2013 Oscars with a song dedicated to Hollywood’s most famous breasts. So naturally, you’d expect the Big Bang to be shown as a giant Peter Griffin fart, and Pluto would be the Meg of our solar system.
Sadly, that isn’t the case. With eye-popping visual effects, animated stories and a tight script, Cosmos is what the meme generation describes as ‘science porn’, except that you feel no shame at the end of an episode. (I don’t understand this current fad of adding the word ‘porn’ to describe anything that looks drool-worthy. Seriously, stop tagging photos of things like cheesecake and calling it ‘food porn’. That just maligns the good name of porn. Also, don’t ever google ‘food porn’ with Safe Search off. You’ll never look at glazed donuts the same way again.)
I wish schools in India would take some time off from stuffing kids’ bags with lead bricks, and use shows like Cosmos as teaching aids. The country could do with some nurturing of scientific talent – we have enough social media evangelist ninja potato whatevers – as opposed to an overworked, blinkered teacher reducing the greatest minds and discoveries of our species to “Learn this equation. It will come for 15 marks in board exam.”
Cosmos works because along with facts, it brings you the stories of the ambitious, brilliant and flawed geniuses behind those facts. For example, for most Indian students, Isaac Newton was reduced to a set of three equations – a bunch of letters and symbols that they remembered but didn’t fully understand, like Ke$ha.
Now consider his story, which will count for nothing in a board exam, but is fascinating nonetheless. A premature baby, he would go on to battle bipolar disorder and silly English hairstyles, while also laying the foundation of the modern world by inventing calculus. The math of his time wasn’t advanced enough to support his work, so he just invented a whole new branch of math. Normal people would’ve given up and gone out to catch the plague or whatever it is that they did for fun back then. Oh, and he did this before his 26th birthday. (By that age, I’d learnt to not throw up after drinking, which is almost the same thing.)
The only problem with Cosmos is that it’ll make you want to smack people in the face. It’s because you’ll watch stories about how we came into being, of the forces and coincidences that led to this moment where you’re able to read this text because we figured how to control sub-atomic particles and make them carry data, of bloody wars and heroes whose exploits are a mere blip on the timeline of the universe, of suns a million times larger than ours, and as you’re appreciating the enormity of it all, some client will start acting like it’s the apocalypse, all because his logo looks 0.05% smaller than usual. See, that’s why we need to make science cool again – so that kids don’t grow up to be that guy.
(Note: This is my HT column dated 22nd June 2014.)