For the longest time I thought that BBC’s Planet Earth and Life series where the perfect documentaries. David Attenborough’s sagely voice and the stunning high speed, high def photography taken in places where you or I likely will never visit still amazes when I watch it. But now I have found a series that competes on it’s level. I’m talking about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Ever since I was a little kid I have been fascinated by space. There is so much to see, so much we know, and yet still so much we don’t. It is endless and enormous, beautiful and deadly. The nature of the universe is something that humankind has tried to understand throughout its existence. Even our paleolithic ancestors would look to the stars at night and wonder how it all worked and what the strange signs they saw meant. Now with the power of science in our grasp, we can do things that would seem like sorcery to people even 300 years ago. We have come a long way, but there is still an infinity to go within the cosmos.
In this documentary series, Tyson does much more than explain the laws of physics. He takes us on an interstellar journey from the beginning of time to the present. He dives into the relentless heart of a black hole, and into the microscopic workings of cells. Watch him travel through space in his “Ship of the Imagination”, a sort of intergalactic teardrop resembling the Silver Surfer’s surfboard. Tyson explains the origins and development of science with animated segments depicting the great men and women who made the discoveries that took us from the primitive hunter gatherers we were, to the global civilization we are. He explains the formation and movement of the earth, the life cycles of stars and motions of galaxies, and the discovery and manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum. From the blackest depths of the ocean to the very edge of the known universe, Tyson is your guide through the unknown lifting the veil on the mysteries of the cosmos.
But while science has empowered and transformed us in many incredible ways, we have also misused science and caused extreme devastation and suffering. Although we have advanced with astonishing speed since the scientific revolution, there is still so much we don’t know. Tyson makes it clear that scientists don’t have all the answers, and they can make mistakes like anyone else. This is good. It gives us something more to strive for. Something to keep us humble.
This series has been inspiring to me in a number of ways. Tyson is a brilliant and accomplished man, but he is altogether humble and personable. He relates to us why he became so interested in the sciences, and how they have had such a profound role in his life. He levels with us, illustrating with crystal clarity how things that we take for granted are really amazing and integral and irreplaceable. It rekindled my scientific curiosity and brought me towards a new idea.
I am now writing a book of poems on the theme of science and mathematics. This is actually an idea I had a couple years ago but never went ahead with. Now this series has given me the impetus to start and no topic within the realm of math and science is out of bounds. Science history, astrological phenomenon, great discoveries, chemical elements, theories, momentous occasions in the sciences, laboratory technologies, equations, experiments, and on and on it goes. I have the entire scope of science and math to play with.
I have already brainstormed a pile of ideas and written three poems on my typewriter. It’s nice to have a specific theme to work on as it directs me towards a goal rather than passively sitting, searching, and waiting for some golden poetic idea to arrive in my head. This idea of “science poetry” makes sense for me, as I did study chemical engineering technology for four years and have yet to put that education to use. I can draw on that knowledge and experience, and whip out some of those sciencey words I learned back then.
Art and science are two completely different faculties. Who knows what will happen when the two combine? This is one experiment with an unpredictable outcome.