Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Day Thirty-seven - Cosmos: Episode 2, One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue, or "Time and Death."

Sixty minutes is a comparatively small time in which to try and explain the intricacies of evolution in a thoughtful and engaging way. I think Carl Sagan managed to do it with no small amount of empathy and panache... especially for its era of television.

While there's a pretty good possibility that I had seen Cosmos before as a child, the first time I distinctly remember it--the first time that I know for a fact that it made an impression--was during my high school physics classes with the late, great Debbie Prell.

She wasn't just a teacher or a scientist to me... but also a great inspiration. I was lucky enough to know her from my teen years on into my adulthood, for a time we were even colleagues, if you can make that sort of comparison between a lowly radio jock (who sometimes tutored for her students) and a professor at a small local college. Most probably wouldn't, but I like to think so. It makes me proud.

It was she who started showing episodes of COSMOS twenty years ago to her high school students and it was she who pushed Carl Sagan into my world sphere. Before her, I had never heard of Pale Blue Dot or Contact. She changed that.

I miss her dearly.

Anyway, back to COSMOS... the series itself can actually put people to sleep. I say that with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, but it's true. The music is sonorous new age synths and to high schoolers (or college kids for that matter) in a darkened room, it's a mixture for the sirens' song of sleep.

Still, it's all great stuff.

In this epsiode, Carl first takes us on a ride to medieval Japan--hundreds of years before the Sengoku period or the Tokugawa shogunate--during the Heian era. In fact, he takes us right to the end, where the young Emperor and his grandmother drown themselves rather than face capture and dishonor.

You wouldn't think such an anecdote would have much to do with explaining the evolution of life on earth. It's a tale of human history and folklore.

There is one note of interest, though... how folklore has intertwined with nature and the stuff of legend.

On the site where the Emperor's clan died, in the inland sea, there are crabs whose shell bears a striking similarity to that of a human face... not just that, but it is said these faces resemble the intimidating grimace of samurai warriors!

It's an interesting tale that shows up in Japanese folklore and their modern day interpretations. I remember reading a version of it in Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo series.

What does this have to do with evolution? Artificial Selection, of course.

It's amazing how a footnote in history has created influence on an entire species of wildlife deep beneath the waves! And Carl explains that it's just that. Not magic or the spirits of those long dead warriors... just fishermen deciding to throw them back out of superstition, increasing the chances that those crabs with the peculiar shells would survive to propagate.

He goes on from there, touching the Watchmaker argument of intelligent design, not in a confrontational manner, but briefly to both acknowledge and dismiss it before moving on to more important, actually factual, things.

We revisit the Cosmic Calendar, a device that shows up many times during the series, and explore the fossil record... tracing the lineage of life from simple proteins and nucleotides, to single-celled organisms, early aquatic life and beyond to plants, dinosaurs, and mammals.

Towards the end of the segment, what had taken five to ten minutes to explain is crunched down into a single 40-second animation that illustrates the fossil record... maybe not as elegantly as we've come to expect with expensive computer animation nowadays, but simply and succinctly.

Further he goes into DNA itself and we're treated to explanations on its sheer enormousness despite its infinitesimally small scale, not to mention the replication processes and the like.

Gah, I just love this series. I wish Neil Degrasse Tyson would do an update. Sure, I could definitely use it to wind down an evening and fall asleep to, but it really is breathtaking how Sagan took intimidating topics and made them relevant, engaging, yet still somewhat frightening and awesome to behold.

It's a shame that we lost him when we did... and the same can be said for Debbie Prell. In fact, I do say it. I wish we still had them both. We lost them far too early.

Until tomorrow, Potatoes~

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