UPDATE: Cosmos writer Steven Soter responds to my critique here.
The first episode of the ambitious reboot of Cosmos, which debuted last night, closely follows the template of the first episode of the original. It also differs in some important ways–most of them right on target, but one of them unfortunately off the mark.
Special effects have advanced greatly since Carl Sagan’s 1980 original; the new visualizations are both more dramatic and more realistic. Science has advanced greatly as well. The updated Cosmos discusses free-floating planets between the stars, shows real images of Uranus and Neptune, and gives a precise age to the universe (that would be 13.8 billion years). All of these things were unknown 34 years ago.
In overall content, the new series introduces two major innovations. One is a tribute to Carl Sagan, a moving segment in which host Neil DeGrasse Tyson recalls his teenage encounter with the revered astronomer. The other is an extended tribute to the 16th-century Italian philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno.
Here is where Cosmos 2.0 runs into its big problem, missing out both on a chance to set history straight and to embrace the generous, forward-looking spirit of Sagan.
Last week’s discovery of 715 planets orbiting other stars was more than just a remarkable piece of astronomical detective work. It was also a bold confirmation that we have entered a new era of cosmic exploration. Sara Seager of MIT, one of the scientists leading the search for other Earths, beautifully expressed this sentiment to me in a recent interview: “For exoplanets, I see ourselves like the generation of Christopher Columbus. We are leaving a legacy in terms of us as a generation, and as a society.”
Often it is hard to recognize a revolution while you are right in the middle of it, but that is what I believe is happening right now. When future generations look back, as Seager suggests, I think they will recognize this time as the fourth great era of exploration, comparable to…well, let’s go back and look at the previous three great eras of exploration for context.
Earlier this week, two NASA-affiliated teams announced the discovery of 715 new planets around other stars. I have to pause on that number for a moment. From the dawn of Mesopotamian astronomy around 2000 BC until 1992 AD, astronomers discovered a grand total of three planets: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. (I’m still counting Pluto as a planet. So sue me.) Now, in a single data release, scientists have found 715, bringing the total number of known alien worlds to 1,750.
And the news is even more amazing than the raw numbers convey. Through almost all of history, our solar system contained the only real estate that we knew about. Yes, astronomers studied other stars and nebulae, but they knew nothing of planets–the only places where life can exist, so far as we know, the only places where humans might set down and explore. Now we know that other planets exist, and that they come in a wide variety of exotic forms never before imagined. Read More
As a would-be Hollywood blockbuster, Pompeii is fizzling out. But when you watch the movie through the eyes of a volcanologist, things look quiet a bit different.
“I thought, oh boy, another volcano movie. There’s already been Dante’s Peak, Volcano…but I was positively surprised. Actually, I was blown away,” says Florian Schwandner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. “Some of the effects that were used to show eruptive events in Pompeii were so realistic that I wasn’t sure if they used actual footage from eruptions of if it was animation. They got a lot of things very right, right enough that as a specialist I was excited seeing it.”
To Schwandner, the real drama in Pompeii is not the love story or the swords-and-sandles battles, but the meticulous depiction of what happens when Earth’s inner heat finds its way to the surface. (Um…you didn’t need a spoiler alert for that, did you?) He also regards the movie as a fabulous teaching moment: an opportunity to remind people that the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is just one small example of what our planet is capable of.
More than 500 volcanoes around the world have erupted in historical times, and more 1,500 are likely to be active. “That’s a lot of volcanoes,” Schwandner laughs. “There are over 60 appreciable eruptions every year. Stromboli in Italy erupts every 20 minutes.” Every 20 minutes? Who knew? Read More
When something strange shows up on Mars, Jim Bell is the guy to call for answers. For the past decade he has watched Mars through the eyes of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers. He’s written popular books about Mars (including one in 3D), published extensively about the planet’s geology and mineralogy, and he’s president of the Planetary Society. As the Opportunity rover celebrates its 10th anniversary on the Red Planet, I spoke with Bell to get the consummate insider’s impressions of what it is like living virtually on another world.
Just as the anniversary celebrations were going on, Mars threw out a little surprise: an odd rock, nicknamed the Jelly Donut, that seemingly materialized out of thin Martian air right in front of Opportunity. Add that to the list of other strange sightings on Mars–the lizard, the rat, the mermaid, the bunny, etc–that eager sleuths have spotted in the Mars images (discussed in an earlier post). As you’ll see, Bell has plenty to say about those as well.
Remember Comet ISON? Last year began with a blizzard of hype, with stories repeating the mantra that this mysterious celestial visitor could become the “comet of the century.” This year begins with Comet ISON obliterated, an invisible cloud of debris expanding and traveling outward from the sun.
For the millions of enthusiasts hoping to see a glowing dagger of light hanging in the night sky, the premature demise of Comet ISON was a crushing disappointment. But for the astronomers who had pinned great hopes on the comet as an object of study, Comet ISON fully lived up to its billing (see my preview article, The Life and Death of Comet ISON).
It is already the most closely observed comet in history. It inspired the Comet ISON Observing Campaign, which coordinated studies not only from around the world but from across the solar system. Some of the first scientific papers will be coming out this week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society; expect the flow to keep going for a long time. Amateurs will get to participate as well, since much of the data on the comet will be released openly to the public.
All along, astronomers knew that there was a real possibility that Comet ISON would not survive its passage by the sun. Now it seems like the comet may in fact be in the middle of a catastrophic disintegration, based on the latest images from NASA’s SOHO observatory. In this view, the comet’s tail splits in two, and the trail of the comet seems to shrink and peter out closer to the sun. It’s not clear yet what is happening, but this sure looks like the comet’s last act.
I previewed this possibility in my feature article in Discover magazine several weeks ago:
Maybe some diminished portion of the comet will remain intact; maybe it will break apart and disperse entirely. Either way, the public unraveling of Comet ISON will be cause for celebration, not mourning. “Comet ISON is an extraordinarily rare object,” says Carey Lisse of Johns Hopkins University, who is coordinating an international observing campaign. “It isn’t just hyperbole. We are going to go to town on it. And we are going to learn a lot.” Read More
Today is make-or-break time for Comet ISON as it reaches perihelion, the point closest to the sun. At 1:25PM EST the comet will zoom just 730,000 miles above the solar surface, traveling at a speed of about 225,000 miles per hour. You can track the comet’s progress live here. What happens during that passage will determine a lot about what the comet will look like in the next few weeks. Will it be a faint smear or a bright fuzzball with a long, lingering tail? Will it fizzle entirely? We are about to find out.
Depending on the comet (and also depending on your skills as an observer and your local weather conditions) you might actually be able to watch as Comet ISON swings around the sun today. That’s right: It is possible you could see it in broad daylight, though it won’t be easy and you need to be very careful. Our friends at Universe Today have created a great guide for how to look for Comet ISON right next to the much, much brighter glare of the sun. Read More
I get it: Ender’s Game is not a science movie, or even a hard sci-fi movie. In many ways it’s barely sci-fi at all, falling closer to the coming-of-age hero fantasy narratives of Percy Jackson or (ducking) The Phantom Menace. But it certainly contains plenty of science fiction tropes and settings, many of which dovetail with themes from other recent science fiction films. As I watched it, I was intrigued by these recurring elements, and by the ways they riff on–or contradict–recent scientific discoveries.
Note that I’m referring only to the film, not the book. I’m not out to ruin anyone’s fun, so I’m avoiding spoilers as far as possible. I’m not here to write a critical review of Ender’s Game (it is entertaining for the younger audience, and let’s leave it at that). And my point is not to fact-check the movie, but to place it in the context of the things we actually know about biology, evolution, and the physics of other worlds. Science goggles engaged.
If you enjoy a dramatic spectacle in the sky, you have probably heard about Comet ISON, currently streaking toward the sun. (If you haven’t heard about it, bear with me—I’ll try to make it worth your while.) But the media coverage has been downright confusing. The first reports described it as a “comet of the century,” possibly as bright as the full moon. Then came some whipsaw downbeat news stories suggesting that the comet was fizzling and might have already begun to disintegrate.
No wonder DISCOVER readers have been sending in a steady stream of inquiries: What will Comet ISON really look like? When will it be visible? Where can I see it? Good questions. Time for some answers—and I’ll have a lot more to say about the science of the comet itself in an upcoming blog post. Read More