In Cosmos, The Only Thing More Important Than Evidence Is Imagination

Illustration for article titled In Cosmos, The Only Thing More Important Than Evidence Is Imagination

The universe, they say, isn't just stranger than we imagine. It's stranger than we can imagine. After three episodes focused on matters solar and mundane, from the evolution of life to the orbital dynamics of comets in our little flat circle of spacetime, episode four tackles the limits of cosmic reality far beyond human experience.


Tonight's topic (light, gravity and the theory of relativity) requires fueling up the Ship of the Imagination with just a little more imagination than previous journeys. Testing the limits of relativity, of course, requires technology far beyond our capacities. We may be able to build particle accelerators, account for the orbit of Mercury or discovery gravitational waves in the cosmic background radiation, but it will be a long, long time before we are able to send probes to the edge of an event horizon or experience space travel at near lightspeed.

And while Tyson couldn't resist taking another shot at young Earth creation by pointing out that a 6,000-year-old cosmos would not appear to have objects more than 6,000 light years away, barely larger than our corner of the Milky Way, his story of relativity seems more apt as criticism to those who ask of every scientific endeavor: "Why must we waste our resources on this, when Problem X is so much more important?"

As scientific trolling goes, this objection is only marginally less clueless than insisting that we consider the Magical Wizard theory of creation. This is because science very rarely sets out to solve a pressing problem by throwing every available scientist at the most obvious possible approaches.

Not everything is the invention of the light bulb or the Manhattan Project, where finding the right filament or the right configuration for critical mass implosion is a matter of tirelessly focusing on a single set of engineering problems. In order to thrive, science requires imagination that can see beyond the most immediate and the most pressing concerns of the day.

If we want to solve Problem X, we have to create a culture of curiosity, of pursuit of the fantastical within the bounds the scientific method. And it is, of course, precisely the power of the scientific method: we can take voyages of the fantastical confident that we will not sail right off the Earth into a sea on unreasoning wish-thinking.

After an animated sequence, voiced by guest star Patrick Stewart, describing William Herschel's first thought-experiments describing the voyage of light from distant stars, Tyson takes us on an expanding journey further and further back in time, observing ever more distant objects in the cosmos to demonstrate the point that a telescope is a time machine.

Adding John Mitchell's dark stars and Maxwell's electromagnetic equations to the mix gives us all the ingredients Einstein needed to formulate the theory of relativity. And the theory of relativity is all the Ship of the Imagination needs to envision a journey beyond the event horizon of a black hole into a realm which Tyson tells us is populated at this point largely by conjecture... but well-informed conjecture.

And it is here, of course, that Tyson implicitly answers another age-old troll against science: that its rigorous alignment to evidence and confidence in theories based on same is close-minded intellectual arrogance.

What's close-minded, of course, is pouring any sugar you want into the Ship of the Imagination's gas tank and pretending that constitutes valid science. Science lives ever on the razor's edge of ignorance. Sorting hokum from real theories or reasonable conjecture means honing what Carl Sagan called the "bullshit detector," or "baloney detector" in polite company.

Just because you can imagine something doesn't make it science. But often, the smallest, most obscure little insights brought about by a patent clerk working in his spare time, or a mathematician playing with wires and magnets, can dispel the sky of its ghosts and open realms of the cosmos to examination that can lay the foundation for solving a whole lot more than just Problem X.



The single great issue that I had with this episode of Cosmos, though I very much liked it, is that the show failed to motivate the logical link between its demonstration of special relativity and the idea that light can be bent and trapped by massive objects. Special Relativity is insufficient to describe the curvature of space by mass-energy that enables a massive "dark star" to be dark. The effects of time dilation near a super massive object is not related to velocity boosts (going "faster") but to curvature of the base spacetime metric. The effect of approaching the event horizon is not quite the same as traveling very fast, which is where the episode's description of relativity totally ends. They needed some segue to the description of curved space... he could easily have spoken about mass-lensing of light and left out an imaginative special effect sequence.

The reason I feel this problem is important is because the lack of the logical link makes the association a little bit magical and therefore caters to the anti-science crowd's objections.