As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, the wonders of the cosmos leads me down a winding path.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. 4 discs. color. 572 min. 20th Century Fox. 2014. DVD UPC 024543932055. $49.99. SCIENCE
Scientific discovery, along with its resulting knowledge and production, is part of our collective cultural and intellectual inheritance. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, makes this simple but profound fact clear in the sweeping and wonder-filled 21st-century reboot of Carl Sagan’s famous “Cosmos” series—a show about the innovations, foundations, and discoveries of science. Through a blend of biography, history, and hard science, the films address a wide variety of topics, from the discoveries that led to the invention of motors to explanations of evolution and extinction. No subject is too grand—deep time and black holes—or too small—the dangers of leaded gasoline—to serve the series’ mission to make science clear, engaging, and relevant. It is a feat Cosmos pulls off with verve. The series takes full advantage of the advances in filmmaking to wow viewers with stunning images inside stars, around planets, and back through time. It mixes animation with on-location shots (on a global scale) to create the full extent of scientific wonder. Tyson is a charmingly companionable guide: smart, enthusiastic, earnest, and utterly engaging. He narrates the program with an inviting mix of storyteller, teacher, and news anchor personae that combine to present clarity and fuel the imagination. Beautifully conceived, engrossing, and quickly paced, Cosmos is a joyfully rich treasure trove of what science has learned, how it came to know what is true, and what its principles and methods might lead to next.
How the Universe Works: Season 1. 480 min. 2011. DVD UPC 018713580863. $19.99.
How the Universe Works: Season 2. 440 min. 2014. DVD UPC 018713610737. $29.99.
ea. vol: 2 discs. color. Discovery Channel. SCIENCE
For Cosmos fans who want more smart, detailed, and elegantly produced science TV focused on the universe itself, suggest this Discovery Channel series spanning 16 episodes. Season one addresses the big bang and black holes as well as supernovas and alien moons. Season two ranges from cosmic firestorms to comets and asteroids to exoplanets. The episodes are notable for their accessible approach to science as well as a mix of stunning animation, gorgeous imagery, and on-location shots. Interviews with top scientists provide both expertise and a loose story line, turning the understandable explanations into a cogent tale that structures each episode. Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs) narrates season one and does so with great care toward pacing, moving quickly along but also creating an appropriately weighty and grand tone that is nicely supported by a high-energy and dramatic sound track. Cosmos is more extensive, but for fans who want to concentrate on the universe and its wonders, this series will provide addictive next viewing.
Planet Earth 5 DVD Collector’s Edition Boxed Set. 5 discs. color. 550 min. BBC/Discovery Channel. 2007. $75. NATURE DOCUMENTARY
For viewers happy to exchange the cosmos for the decidedly earthbound, this epic series first produced by the BBC and then rereleased by the Discovery Channel with narration by Sigourney Weaver makes for an excellent next viewing suggestion. It matches Cosmos for its awe-inspiring production values, its serious approach, and its breadth. Filmed over five years and spanning the globe, the 11-episode program focuses on a range of habitats, from the shallow seas to deserts, and from caves to mountains. Film crews traveled to Ethiopia and Antarctica, Mexico and Siberia, and Tibet and America. They filmed seals hunted by bus-sized sharks, tiny tree frogs, and elegant snow geese. Episodic, quickly moving, and enthralling, Planet Earth tells a grand and full story about the cycle of seasons, the behavior of animals, and the delicate balance that supports life on the planet. Weaver is a first-rate host, voicing the text in a tone of reserved precision that is as easy to listen to as Tyson’s deeply resonant narration.
Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman: Season 1. 373 min. 2011. DVD UPC 018713578945. $19.99.
Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman: Season 2. 420 min. 2011. DVD UPC 018713585417. $19.99.
Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman: Season 3. 445 min. 2012. DVD UPC 018713596673. $14.99.
ea. vol: 2 discs. color. Science Channel. SCIENCE
Morgan Freeman narrates this Science Channel series targeting provocative and intriguing scientific questions such as whether time travel is possible, what existed before the big bang, and when time began. Currently in its fifth season, the show features some of the biggest names in a number of fields, including astrophysics and astrobiology, going on location to their labs and on their expeditions, allowing them to explain what they have uncovered and have yet to discover or prove. As with Cosmos, the series maintains a rapid pace and is engrossing and often mind-bending. It differs in its approach—Tyson is explaining science while Freeman is using the discipline to ponder big questions—but both programs invite viewers to delve into the marvels of scientific inquiry. Freeman, similar to Tyson, is an appealing narrator, charming and enthusiastic in a laid-back manner. While not an expert such as Tyson, Freeman nevertheless manages to navigate deftly the topics at hand and creates an inviting space for viewers to learn and ponder.
Johnson, George. Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How To Measure the Universe. Norton. (Great Discoveries). 2006. 256p. ISBN 9780393328561. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393348378. SCIENCE
Once, and not so long ago, many astronomers believed that the Milky Way was the universe in total, that there was nothing beyond it, nothing around it. It took the discovery by a woman whom history barely knows—a woman Harvard University paid 25¢ an hour in the late 1880s to compare the size of stars—to change that thinking. Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921) was hired as a human computer and sat for hours hunched over photographic negatives of the night sky cataloging the tiny black dots. Through the course of her work, Leavitt discovered something astounding—some stars varied in their brightness in regular cycles. That variability could be used as a measuring tool, and it allowed astronomers to prove that there were galaxies beyond the Milky Way and that the universe was unfathomably vast. Leavitt is featured in episode eight of Cosmos, “Sisters of the Sun,” and here Johnson makes what he can of her thin biography in this elegant, inviting, and highly readable chronicle of how we came to measure the universe. For fans who enjoy the stories of the scientists in Cosmos as much as the science, this gem of a book asserts itself as a lovely next read.
Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society. Morrow. 2011. 512p. ed. by Bill Bryson. ISBN 9780061999772. pap. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062036223. SCIENCE
The celebration and wonder of science in Cosmos is well captured in Bryson’s homage to the Royal Society, originally published to coincide with the society’s 350th anniversary. Bryson (The Lost Continent) gathered a host of writers (scientific, historical, and others) and invited them to delve into the delights and complexities of scientific inquiry while pondering the valuable collection of personalities and discoveries that constitute the long-lived learned society. The results are pieces on the history of flight by Richard Holmes, on metaphysics by Neal Stephenson, on scientific collecting by Richard Forety, and on natural selection by Richard Dawkins. Matching Cosmos for its focus on stories, history, and biography, Bryson’s cabinet of curiosities, which is richly illustrated and invitingly arranged, is accessible and fascinating, delightful in its scope and commendable for its seriousness, imagination, and spirit of inquiry.
Shubin, Neil. The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body. Vintage. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780307473271. pap. $15.95; ebook available. SCIENCE
In a lovely moment of glee and bewilderment, Tyson grandly informs his audience that we are all formed of “starstuff.” Shubin (Your Inner Fish) expands upon that intriguing thought in his engaging, comprehensive, and clearly written explanation of human origins—and how the very molecules in our bodies were born in space. Blending astronomy and geology and touching on a number of other fields as well, Shubin details how human chemistry was conceived billions of years ago and light years away. With rigor and clarity the author illustrates the science, traveling across the globe and through time. He visits multiple personalities along the way, telling the stories of the scientists and explorers who have contributed to the many discoveries that demonstrate our celestial physiology. Like Cosmos, Shubin’s book is episodic and story-rich, sweeping, fascinating, and told with a similar mix of hard science and accessibility. It makes for a superb next reading suggestion for Cosmos fans seeking a scholarly work that is rigorous, exuberant, and fun to read.
More on Cosmos and more by Tyson:
Cosmos: Carl Sagan. 7 discs. color. 13 hrs. Cosmos Studios. 2002. DVD UPC 804387101097. $99.99. SCIENCE
The original 13-part TV series will delight fans of the Tyson version with its even more earnest and gee-wiz tone. First aired in 1980, the show has a definite period feel to it, full of special effects reminiscent of early Star Trek episodes and scored with a dramatic, New Age symphonic sound track. The retro delights are just window dressing to the science, however. Sagan is a brilliant and compelling guide as he explains the universe and the expansive scope of scientific exploration—from the big bang to the idea of intelligence to existence beyond Earth life. Exhaustive, gripping, and intriguing, Sagan’s watershed production remains a stunning achievement—a glorious and exhilarating exploration of the intellectual endeavor and adventure of humans on the widest scale. Spanning the initial second of cosmic time, delving into the Classical Age, and journeying forward to what may lie light years beyond, Cosmos invites astonishment and reflection.
Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution. 2 discs. color. 240 min. PBS. 2004. DVD UPC 783421380394. $29.95. SCIENCE
In 2004, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted this four-part PBS NOVA special that investigated how the universe began, how our planet came into being, and the origins of life. As Tyson is in Cosmos, he is a magnetic and affable host for this series, guiding viewers with ease through the complications of the scientific proofs and discoveries that astrophysicists and other experts use to make and test theories. Combining stunning graphics and on-location shots in both labs and in the field, Tyson illuminates the working process of scientific inquiry. The search for the origin of the ocean and the quest for an explanation of how the moon was formed are but a few of the topics covered. Fans of Tyson can also be pointed to the excellent companion book (of the same name) and, if patrons have access, via the library or Netflix, to his “Great Courses” DVD program The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries, which serves as a pleasant next viewing as well.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Random. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780345539434. pap. $15. SCIENCE
Although it was first published in 1980, the book version of Cosmos retains much of its wonder. At the time, many of the images within it had never previously been available, and there were few books as accessible, intelligent, and stirring on the myriad subjects it treated. While readers are likely to have now seen images of volcano’s erupting on distant moons of far-away planets, the photos still enthrall, as does Sagan’s lyrical, meditative text investigating planets, galaxies, spacecraft, atoms, life on Earth, and the possibility of alien existence. Like the original series upon which it was based, Sagan’s study is a grand exploration of the many fields of science, of the history of the earth, and the discoveries of the universe. Engaging, immediate, entertaining, and smart, this notable achievement offers more detail and interpretation than the TV show could and is still vibrant and rich decades after its release.
To extend the gee-wiz awe and amazement of Cosmos, point patrons to this website that explores graphically just how vast the universe is and the scale of everything within it.