Cosmos II: Electric boogaloo

As people know I absolutely love Carl Sagan, Cosmos for me is the greatest TV programme ever made and I was over the moon when I heard a few years ago that they were making a new one.

As it’s aired in the US and since I couldn’t wait until the 16th for it to be shown on National Geographic (and Sky1) I managed to just finish watching it. And what can I say about a show that I have built up in expectation? Mind blowingly brilliant!

It begins fittingly enough with Carl Sagan speaking the opening lines from the original version
“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be” followed by the original ship of the imagination. Then the baton is passed to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, standing on the same spot Sagan stood when he took us on his personal voyage.
Like the first episode we begin by journeying into deep space, starting with our home, through the solar system and out into the Milky Way, the local group, the Virgo cluster and the observable universe, where it departed from the original was the introduction of the multiverse theory and the stunning CGI. During the voyage we passed the Voyager 1 probe, the music of Blind Willie Johnson playing into the void

Following the grand tour NDT tells us through an animated segment the sad story of Giordano Bruno a monk who theorised that the stars were other suns, each with their own planets and life despite stating his ideas did not contradict scripture, Bruno was tried by the Roman inquisition and burned at the stake for heresy, in the show he is shown escaping the bonds of earth and even as he was being led to his death his head was in the stars.

I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite.
And while I rise from my own globe to others
And penetrate ever further through the eternal field,
That which others saw from afar, I leave far behind me.”

Like the first episode we deal with the cosmic calendar, updated with the new CGI that is becoming the main focus of the show (while Sagan himself was the focus of his)  this is the part that is always mind blowing. By putting the 13 billion years of our universe into one year and realising that the dinosaurs died on December 30, and all of human history happened in the last 14 seconds of December 31. During this segment while dealing with the Big Bang, and how all matter in the universe was created in that moment NDT utters the immortal line about how we are star stuff. This is one of many quotes of Sagans that permeate the show, in a way it’s Carl Sagan talking to us through NDT. When explaining the 14 seconds of Humanity he paraphrases the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ speech about everyone, every king, queen and migration being in that spot.

The ending was beautiful, NDT takes from his bag Carl’s diary for 1975 and under December 20 this is written:

At the time deGrasse Tyson was just a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx with dreams of being a scientist, but Sagan had invited him to spend a Saturday with him in Ithaca at Cornell University, after seeing his application to attend University there. He toured their labs there, and Sagan gave him a book, “The Cosmic Collection” and inscribed it “to a future astronomer”

NDT recounts how he became the scientist and communicator he is by reminiscing about the encounter:
“At the end of the day, he drove me back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper. And he said, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family.”I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.”

The cooperative enterprise sentence is lifted from the original in which Carl links the works of Galileo, and  Percival Lowell to the work of the Viking project and one of his friends who had recently died.

“”Science is a collaborative enterprise, spanning the generations. When it permits us to see the far side of some new horizon, we remember those who prepared the way – seeing for them also.”
so Neil DeGrasse Tyson is peering at the horizon, ready to go again.


The Newsroom

Sky really has been spoiling us recently, not only have we been blessed with Alan Partridge but also ‘Veep’ which is Armando Iannucci turning his attention to the highest non job in the western world, that of Vice President of the United States.

Also fresh from the US is ‘The Newsroom’  from the writer Aaron Sorkin, genius behind ‘Sports Night’,’Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ & ‘The West Wing.’  Sorkin really isn’t deviating from his tried and tested formula, like his other shows this is set behind the scenes of a TV show like Sports Night and S60, and not surprisingly the similarities don’t end there.

Studio 60 starts with the executive producer Wes Mandell melting down about the state of TV summed up with the line “People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump?… We’re eating worms for money. Who wants to screw my sister? Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo?” Well Newsroom also starts with a complete meltdown, but about the US in general and how it isn’t the greatest country in the world before rattling off statistics we know because they’ve been mentioned by Sorkin including the number of Adults who think Angels are real (also lifting sections from speeches Bartlet made in the West Wing)
Like his other shows there’s a love story which is going to rumble throughout. In SN it was Casey/Dana in S60 it was Harriet and Matt and the only one that actually made people give a damn Josh/Donna in TWW.

It still retains the slickness of his other shows and is still a million times better than most other dramas on TV mainly due to the lack of a detective who is by the book/grumpy/a pain in the arse or battling his own demons. Jeff Daniels rant is far better than Wes Mandells and the comparison to is and the beginning of ‘Network’ was already noted in Studio 60. But here is my main problem with the show.

It deals with the news, but from 2 years ago. Sorkin is being -in a way- lazy by tackling issues that are 2 years old. The opening episode deals with the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. Presenting it in an idealised way, tackling the issues that weren’t known at the time, whilst the West Wing created issues that were based on real issues that were happening around the world (Such as international terrorism, genocide in Africa and the Middle East) to me Sorkin seems to be trying to recapture the magic of the West Wing, but fell short somewhat in this opener.

Hopefully it picks up for Episode 2.

Come along Pond!

After a rather poor Christmas special Doctor Who is gearing up for another season. A season which marks the last one with Amy Pond as the companion, also marking a sharp decline in the number of short shorts on TV.
It’s also nice to see Kryten finally  living the dream and branching out from Red Dwarf, although I was expecting the four horsemen to turn up followed by the Riviera Kid.

The main question is twofold. 1 How many times does Rory die? as illustrated below

And 2, how do we get the new assistant?

Mummifying Alan

Sorry for the pun, couldn’t resist. Channel 4 is known for pushing the envelope of taste in the pursuit of educating their viewers, from the “Joy of teen sex” to “Sex education show” to simply “Sex! the musical(Cumming 2012*) however one area they always resort to is History. They have shows like Time team, which portray a Roman Britain where everyone has a villa and Roundhouses were everywhere to Many one off’s.

One such one off is the topic of this post. Ask anyone to describe Ancient Egypt and the one thing that comes out is “mummies.” Yes despite irrigation and building wonders that have withstood the test of time, we think of them as wrapped up dead people that have a habit of coming to life and hunting Rachael Weiss.

In this show we were introduced to Alan, a 61 year old taxi driver with terminal Lung cancer and the “Star” of the show. The entire show revolved around the art of mummification, an art which our previous understanding was consigned to one testimony. After the discovery of Queen Tye an 18th dynasty mummy extensive scientific testing revealed a rather odd anomaly. When the body is “Dried” the belief was the body was buried under Natron salt, which would absorb the moisture from the body. However Xrays of Tye showed clear salt crystals inside the body, a feat that would be nigh on impossible if she were just buried.

Instead the mastermind behind this experiment,Stephen Buckley, had reverse engineered a new process for mummification, and this is where Alan comes into it.

Alan answered an advert for someone with a terminal illness. Buckley had carried out numerous experiments with the cast offs from the local butchers. First Alan went through the normal Egyptian practice of having his internal organs removed except from the heart. Then, to the dissapointment of everyone who knows the mummification process. His brain was left in his body, since the Tye Xrays also revealed the existence of the brain.

Then, against the norm, Alan was lowered into a bath of highly concentrated natron salt water for 30-35 days. While the idea of dehydrating a corpse using water seems odd, when it came to remove him, the water had gone from clear to blood red, the salt had drawn all the liquid out and except for where the sesame and cedar coating Alan was treated with to preserve the skin from the solution, Alan started to resemble a mummy. Following a quick sealing up in the ears nose and mouth to prevent insect infestations it was time to wrap him.

His widow was very pleased with the result, and to their credit the show avoided going down the tasteless Channel 5 route and treated Alan with the utmost respect and dealt with it sensitively. Rarely does a documentary involve a corpse (C4 experimented with Gunter Von Hagens with a rather positive result) And on the whole the show was very interesting and the Voice overs from Alan added a lot of humour, the section where his wife remarks “It’s alright for him sitting in his bath, I’m the one having to cope” was touching and funny added the human side to the scientific side and a personal touch to what could have been a very different documentary.

S207 a preliminary look

S207 is now well and truly underway. After reading book 1 in one sitting, a rather gentle introduction if there ever was I’ve now started on Book 2, describing motion.

Now my main criticism about S104 was the rather wishy washy way it dealt with everything. Not explaining some complex parts at all and then over complicating the simple things. Take for example this section:

“Consider the following problem. A vehicletravels at a velocity vx = 12 m s−1 for 4 s. By how much does its position change over that interval?”

Now you know straight away that the answer is simply 12 x 4, but let’s see how the course book works it out:

“However, for our present purposes it is more instructive to work from the definition of uniform velocity (Equation 1.5), which may be rearranged by multiplying both sides of the equation by
(t2 − t1) to give x2− x1 = vx(t2− t1).
This tells us that the change in position during a given time interval is equal to the velocity multiplied by the time interval. So, a vehicle which travels at a constant velocity
v−1x= 12 m s over a time interval ∆t = 4 s will change its position coordinate by ∆x = 48 m.”

Or in laymans terms,  12 x 4.

I’m living in hope that this isn’t a recurring theme and that it does eventually feel more like a level 2 course and not a GCSE coursebook. While motion isn’t exactly that interesting it does form the spine of the rest of the course and if it’s going to be another case of over complication (much like the equation section in S104) then it’s going to be frustrating to complete.

I still haven’t begun to do the work for MST121 but I hope it’s not the same.

Cosmos to return.

Slightly behind the times but I just found out earlier that Fox has commissioned 13 episodes of a follow up to ‘Cosmos.’ A show that did more for hooking people onto science than Star trek. The show is to be produced by Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan and Family guy creator Seth McFarlane. Ok that last one is no Joke, a man who made a talking evil baby a cult figure will be making Cosmos. However things return to normalcy when you see who is hosting it.

Shortly after this image was taken Pluto died after being hit on the head by a rock that was't cleared out of his orbital path

That’s right. Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson is finally doing what I’ve been wanting him to do and assume the position of Sagan’s successor. Tyson is a tireless advocate for Science and more importantly for opening up the subject which is a bit complex at some points. However I think he should have no problem in communicating the topics to a wide audience since he already has had numerous appearances on both TV and on his weekly radio show. (If you’re in the UK it’s available on iTunes, look for startalk radio)

What made Cosmos great was Carl’s passion for Science, he didn’t need flash graphics (Just a field in Yorkshire) or Sigur Ros music. His passion carried the show, so it’s lucky that when applying for Undergraduate Courses Tyson’s Application

“dripped of my passion for the study and research of the Universe. Somehow the admissions office brought my application to the attention of the late Dr. Sagan, and he actually took the initiative and care to contact me. He was very inspirational and a most powerful influence. Dr. Sagan was as great as the universe, an effective mentor.”  

So naturally Tyson is the perfect choice. If it’s made to be educational and accessible without dumbing down and isn’t too CGI heavy then this could be the show of the decade. And if one kid is hooked onto Science because of it…..Mission accomplished.

For an example of DeGrasse Tyson kicking ass

A rather late, Uncaged Monkeys review: @ Newcastle City Hall

It was billed as “The first ever national science tour celebrating the universe and many of the wonders that lie within it.”  For me it was a chance to see the team behind the “Infinite Monkey Cage”. One thing that became apparent pretty quickly is that for everyone else, it was a chance to see Professor Brian Cox. Well that was my observation, based solely on the group of people behind me and the almost “Beatlemania” style reception as he finally got on the stage.

I was a bit apprehensive seeing this for 2 main reasons, the first was simply logistics. For me going from where I live to Newcastle is 2 buses away, however there was only one bus I could take leaving at 11PM before I was stranded in “the toon” all night. The seconds was a review I read “A combination of occasional sound and projection problems, a sense of under-rehearsal, and a serious inability to keep to time that saw the show overrun by almost an hour, left the whole thing feeling a touch amateur.” Thankfully for one night only the Projection and sound problems were gone, it ran over by about an hour (Was billed as 2 hours.)

Coming into the theater the sound system is pumping out “dark was the night, cold was the ground” by Blind Willie Johnson,  for me, being the massive dork I am, I knew almost immediately that they were playing the fabled “Voyager record” and more importantly, that was the first “tip of the hat” to Dr Carl Sagan, a man who much to my joy played a rather large part in the show.

Just as the lights dimmed the heavily accented voice announced;

“We step out of our solar system into the universe seeking only peace and friendship, to teach if we are called upon, to be taught if we are fortunate. We know full well that our planet and all its inhabitants are but a small part of the immense universe that surrounds us and it is with humility and hope that we take this step.”

 Followed by Robin Ince who said that The greeting was from the UN secretary general of the time Kurt Waldheim, who then turned out to be a Nazi, “We come in peace, for some of you.” Ince then launched into a 20 minute routine, explaining what the show was about, a few jokes, and then a bit on Feynman, a return to his now famous Sagan impersonation and a gentle ribbing of the Professor.
Once Ince had left the stage Professor Wiseman, a man I knew little about jumped right in with a rather amuzing (Hysterical) look at optical illusions, from a disappearing coin to Four tuna and a catchy song. Following on From Professor Wiseman was Ben Goodacre, scourge of woo and although medical fraud isn’t my forte a rather enjoyable look at how the mail in particular can spin a good health scare from both sides.
Following on from This out emerged Professor Brian cox, and once the old and young women stopped screaming he dove into a presentation which felt like a carbon copy of a talk he did for about the LHC (Albeit with a few funny references to the “wonders” drinking game. Following on from this there was a musical performance by the rather attractive and very funny Helen Arney.
Following on from the intermission was a small Brief Q&A with Ince, Cox, Singh and Goodacre which felt more in line with the Monkey cage off of the Radio. However while it was pretty amusing it still fell way short of the usual high caliber nerdery associated with IMC.
Following on from that Cox emerged again and did a bit on the Universe and again on the LHC Then for a finale Simon Singh came out and did more on the Big Bang.
For me Simon Singh and Richard Wiseman were the highlights of the night. Singh and the pickle experiment were brilliant. And for Me the highlight was listening to the Pale blue dot in its entirety.
What lowered the night was the mad run to the bus.
All in all it was a pretty brilliant night and I would have gone into it more but I started this review on May 8 and it’s now June 26th

Turn that bloody racket down!(and a wonders review)

I often complain about the music on BBC Science shows, mainly because I like Sigur Ros and it gets overused too much. I think Sir Patrick Moore has the right idea, that music belongs at the beginning and end, and is an unnecessary distraction.

So imagine my surprise when I read this:

Professor Cox’s impassioned explanations of the universe have proved a hit with viewers, but many were angry that the programme was simply too loud, with the majority of complaints directed at the background music.

Consequently, the BBC has agreed to re-edit the whole series of Wonders of the Universe to make it more audio-friendly.

While I admit there is plenty to complain about with this current series, ok one thing, and that’s the annoying “Nu-Trek” visuals that resemble JJ Abrams on crack. The music has never bothered me to the extent I would openly complain to the BBC. According to the BBC they received a whopping 118 complaints, not quite the 18,000 that Brand got. Speaking of which the culprit for most BBC Complaints the Daily Mail ran an elegant article slamming the BBC for giving in to easily. Meaning that next weeks episode of Wonders, dealing with parallel universes is no longer needed, since we’re in one apparently.

Brian Cox

Professor Cox has “hit” out at the BBC for giving in remarking; “We can sometimes be too responsive to the minority of people that complain.” He added: “It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture.”

That is the point, The Sky at night is popular and is sharing the fascinating world of astronomy/astrophysics and spaceflight with everyone. While Wonders is trying to educate what is basically a backward population that science isn’t Open University programs from the 70’s with stuffy tweed clad professors stood in front of a blackboard (FYI the Feynman lectures is exempt from that generalisation)

So wonders needs flashy graphics and music to keep you entertained! while he drops a science bomb on you!

Now onto a review of Episode 2.

Episode 2 highlighted the role Stars have in creating everything in particular you. Now I made a lot of references to Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ last week and this episode continued in that vein. Many times I was expecting Brian to remark that “The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff.” I did like this episode more than episode 1. Mainly because I was on writing an essay answer on Absorption lines while he was showing how it worked (Cheers Brian) but also because I find the story of stars to be fascinating. I can also say that the music didn’t annoy me.

But his pronunciation of Betelgeuse as beetle juice did. All in all a really good episode that would have resulted in many hangovers thanks to the drinking game. And in the words of Sagan

“we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins — star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos.

Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring!”



Time flies.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Well ‘Wonders of the Universe’ got off to a flying start, by depressing the hell out of everyone.

Not only do we have to deal with war, disease and financial crises but now we learn there’s no point since we’re f*cked anyway, if the Maya get it wrong and the asteroids miss we have a few billion years before we’re consumed by the Sun. And if we survive that we’ll end up in a dark void as Entropy gets it’s way!

I’m still torn on that episode, entropy is quite a big subject to tackle and many shows have tried to explain heat death before with varying results. One thing that did stand out was this:

In the past I’ve been iffy with the sheer volume of special effects, especially when dealing with stuff you can see with your own eyes, however this episode did it really well, it was awe inspiring to see all he stars blast into life only to flicker away.

Echo’s of ‘Cosmos’ aside it was a valiant attempt to describe something that has a massive influence on the cosmos. However the “Time” aspect was underdone, ask anyone who knows their beans and they will say Time is odd to say the least. It really deserved an episode of its own.

Saying that the episode now has me watching Cosmos (Which is why this post is poor, even for this place) so maybe it was worth it

BBC Finally get it right(ish)

Now my feelings on Science shows and the BBC is rather well known. In as much as for the most part they aren’t that good. Yes ‘Wonders of the Solar system’ was quite good and ‘Sky at Night’ is an enduring classic that doesn’t rely on fancy graphics and Sigur Ros playing in the background. What does annoy me is that both these shows were on quite late in fact the Sky at Night is technically on so early being relegated to the graveyard slot, yet shows like “Nativity” and songs of Praise get a nice prime-time slot on BBC1 not BBC2. And when the BBC do put a science show on it’s so dumbed down embryo’s start kicking their mothers begging to change the channel.

Not saying that the other networks do any better with ITV thinking “Science” is something to fear channel 4 science shows is either part time Herr Flick impersonator Gunter von Hagens hacking at a corpse or someone hacking out the eye of a whale, and as for Channel 5 “The boy with 2 arses” isn’t exactly ground breaking, more a Victorian freakshow for the unemployed.

Which brings me to the point of today’s half arsed Daily Star style editorial.
Last night we were finally treated to something bordering on “Great science shows” BBC Stargazing live started yesterday with go to science guy Brian Cox who’s boyhood enthusiasm runs the risk of him just shouting “SPACE IS AWESOME” requiring heavy sedation and Dara O’Briain, a man who’s head was the but of many tiresome jokes.
It also featured Jonathan Ross acting the simpleton which is a shame because he isn’t and BBC Science pin up Liz Bonnin in Hawaii, standing next to an erupting volcano (also the butt of many tiresome jokes)

My only criticism is this: The show is obviously aimed at absolute beginners but it did border on “Secrets of the Universe” condescension, as I mentioned yesterday, Cosmos perhaps the greatest science show made didn’t do this, it dealt with complicated things in a simple to understand way without resorting to “Hurrr it’s space stuff you thickish fools durrr”.

What did amuse me about the show was for once there was no “BBC Balance” which in a science show isn’t needed or wanted, Science deals with the facts as we know them, there should be no need to talk to Mystic Pete a shaman from Essex on Black holes, as much as you don’t need Stephen hawking to discuss the finer points of pyramid power. What we had instead was 2012’ers and astrologers whipped into a tizzy as their bullcrap was destroyed Live on TV, which is worth the licence fee alone.

All in all Stargazing is a noble effort however until the BBC decide that not everyone in this country has the intelligence of a Jeremy Kyle guest it’s still missing something. Opinions have been divided with many thinking it was brilliant, women going mental over Brian and some Scientists feeling the same way I do, that it didn’t get into it and that there wasn’t enough stargazing.