The odyssey of it all | Chuck's World
I blame it on indoctrination, the persistence of high school English departments in my day to fill our sleepy teenaged brains with literature that could be easily analyzed.
It was simpler with short stories, but rather than introduce us to John Cheever or Raymond Carver, who might have been considered provocative, and heaven forbid we be allowed to wander through science fiction, we mostly got the work of William Sydney Porter.
Which, to be fair, is not a bad place to at least start discovering the short form, and Mr. Porter shortened his own form by taking the pen name of O. Henry.
So I can maybe be forgiven for the visions of “The Gift of the Magi” that float through my memories of Christmas 1980.
My best friend and I gave each other the exact same gift that year, although that’s where the imagined irony of Mr. Porter’s story disappears. We planned this, the two of us, no surprises, and we each unwrapped a copy of “Cosmos.”
It was the coffee table book version of Carl Sagan’s hit science show on PBS, which had grabbed our attention even before it aired. It’s hard to describe the excitement we felt about this, something that seemed state-of-the-art and ready for its time.
We’d already seen the movie magic versions of the universe, from Kubrick to Lucas to Spielberg, but here was the real thing.
Instead of the hokey, crude animation of the science films we saw in school, Sagan presented science through the magic of computer graphics, and we were fascinated.
I still have my copy of the book, somewhere around here, torn cover and all, having been handed over at different times to my kids for their own amazement.
Science is fun, Sagan was saying, and like an O. Henry story, you usually will discover something you never saw coming.
So I was ready for the reboot. How could you not like Neil deGrasse Tyson? The astrophysicist has become the 21st century’s Sagan, an engaging, charming scientist who shares his excitement with anyone within his reach, and he’s got some reach.
My wife, son and I all sat down to watch the first episode of Tyson’s new “Cosmos” with anticipation, and we weren’t disappointed. Maybe just a little bored.
The opening show seemed determined to mimic the original, and Tyson himself seemed less playful than usual, more serious. The animated sequences of historical events were dumb and caricatures, and we finished the episode entertained, but not all that certain we’d continue to watch.
In fact, the most interesting part of that first “Cosmos” was the implicit battle lines that Tyson and the other producers had drawn: This is science. That is faith.
It was the Thunderdome of the cosmos: Two ideas enter, one comes out.
Not that it was overt, but nobody was getting fooled here. The fact alone that the historical part of the show focused not on Copernicus or Galileo, two of the most influential scientists of all time, but on the little-known Giordano Bruno, not a scientist but an itinerant Renaissance-era Christian prophet of sorts, who dreamt of a God and universe larger than the contemporary Roman church cared to consider, proved the point.
Bruno paid for his accurate (if imagined) picture of the cosmos by being burned at the stake, and thus we figured out what was at, um, stake.
I’m happy to say that the second episode, “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” was a big improvement, faster paced and with fewer cartoons, but the set-up was clear.
This was about evolution, the building-block process of all life as we know it, and the Thunderdome was about to rock.
Except for those who seem fixated on six verses in the Bible, mostly Leviticus and Romans, a tiny portion, our culture has changed drastically in the past few years in terms of awareness and at least tolerance of homosexuality.
It may seen odd or even weird to the vast majority of us, but even churches once preaching the sin of homosexuality have come to a sense of acceptance, if not approval. It’s heartening.
But evolution? Since “On The Origin of the Human Species,” published almost reluctantly by Charles Darwin in 1859, the battle lines have been drawn and buttressed.
How can a process that takes millions of years, that traces our ancestors to single-cell organisms and relates us most closely to chimpanzees, hardly decent dinner companions, coincide with the creation story told in Genesis?
Or stories, since there are a couple. Sometimes I wonder if people actually read Genesis.
Or if people consider that intelligent design might actually involve natural processes, as opposed to supernatural.
Sure, we can imagine that God could plop down a man into Africa, snag a rib, create a mate, establish free will but also big time rules, but why can’t we also imagine a deity that plans our eventual cellphone-using selves from the drawing board, with nothing but time on His hands?
These aren’t questions easily answered, of course. I know many religious people who accept evolution as a fact, and others who see it as a conspiracy to deny the existence of God.
“Cosmos” won’t solve this, but it just might show us how the world was made, and leave it to us to decide what was at the beginning. And that, it seems to me, is TV worth watching.