Neil DeGrasse Tyson wraps up tonight’s finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by conceding that your passion for the show’s subject matter depends on the size of the universe you want to live in. If you’re satisfied with a small universe, then the frontiers of science won’t hold much interest. But Tyson declares that he likes his universes “big,” and he implies that only the most complacent bystander could want it any other way. If Cosmos has been a 13-episode argument for a universe as big in our imaginations as it is in reality, then “Unafraid Of The Dark” is the capstone to a triumph.
After 12 episodes in which Tyson led viewers on seemingly boundless explorations of existence, the astrophysicist uses this final installment to sketch the outer limits of human knowledge. But even here, as he discusses the things we don’t know yet, Tyson strikes a hopeful tone. The unsolved problems of dark energy and dark matter—often characterized in the media as “embarrassing” for scientists—are instead cast by Tyson as opportunities. Science is okay with the fact that we don’t know things, he says, because it’s driven by our curiosity. So instead of being intimidated by the unknown, why not be curious about what lies on the other side of those two “dark” veils? This is one of Tyson’s favorite and most effective rhetorical twists: He starts with a seemingly humbling shortfall of scientists and makes it a hopeful paean to the scientific process.
In the series’ closing moments, though, Tyson also admits to a practical limitation in the scientific process itself—namely, that it’s carried out by humans. The fallibility of people, even those in Tyson’s line of work, is a running theme in the series. Cosmos’ historical segments have shown scientists suppressing information, dismissing worthwhile claims, and acting with venality and prejudice. Yes, the show also makes heroes out of great thinkers, but it venerates the idea over the individual. Science, the show insists, is a liberating force that exists independently from any one of its practitioners.
The series had to strike a balance here. If Cosmos idealized science too much, it would seem too remote—a dehumanized realm of theory that isn’t relevant to our day-to-day reality. So Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, the show’s writers, complemented their intellectual rigor with emotional appeals to our species’ sense of pride. At times in Cosmos’ run, when Tyson would reflect on how far the human race has come in a tiny sliver of cosmological time (as he does tonight), he was practically imploring viewers to give ourselves a little credit. Sure, it’s an unbelievably vast universe out there, but look how far we’ve come—doesn’t it make you want to see where this story goes?
That “to be continued…” sensibility lay at the heart of Cosmos’ most beautiful and thought-provoking episodes. The eighth and ninth installments, “Sisters Of The Sun” and “The Lost Worlds Of Planet Earth,” comprised a two-week high point. These episodes both situated us in the middle chapters of an epic tale, with “Sisters” chronicling the life of stars before “Lost Worlds” moved to the small scale, exploring the past lives of our planet. It may seem strange to refer to our entire geological history as the “small scale,” but that’s the humbling scope that Cosmos asks you to conceive.
The show only makes us feel small, however, so that we’ll strive for greater things. No hour of Cosmos made that aspirational bent clearer than “The World Set Free,” last week’s episode, which discussed global warming. As Tyson argued that humanity can and should turn the tide of climate change, he drew an unexpected parallel by comparing us to the prehistoric humans who developed agriculture. Those first farmers undertook a fundamental change in their society, Tyson said, because it was the only way for the species to advance. They thought of the long term. If this ability to think beyond tomorrow is the one human trait that elevated us above our hunter-gatherer existence, why wouldn’t we apply that same advantage to the greatest existential threat of today? It’s an elegant argument that illustrates the hope embedded in Cosmos’ audacious scale. We may be tiny against the backdrop of the observable universe, but Tyson renders us in glorious ascent.
The show hasn’t always achieved such majesty. I criticized the drab quality of the 2D animation in my review of the premiere, and the look of the cartoon segments never improved overall. (I’m particularly baffled by the insistence on applying an artificial layer of grime to almost every animated rendering of history—on the rare occasions when this ugly patina was absent, the look was markedly improved.) So animation-heavy episodes like “The Electric Boy” suffered for their heavy reliance on a crude art style. And a couple of episodes, including the spectroscopy lesson “Hiding In The Light,” struggled to situate their facts in a compelling narrative arc.
But other apparent flaws faded over the course of the series, like Tyson’s insistent presentational style. No, he may not have the flair for drama that Carl Sagan did, but with time, Tyson’s raw enthusiasm won me over, and I looked forward to hearing his nerdy growl each Sunday. It helped that his bluster was tinged with a down-to-earth humility. It also helped that he usually had a good story to tell. After all, if you put stylistic matters aside and judge Tyson on the strength of the ideas he presented, you’ll see that’s where he had it easy. Every week, he was presenting some of the best ideas anyone ever had.
The closing statement of “Unafraid Of The Dark” sums up one of Cosmos’ essential concepts in a single line: “Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and each other.” Both Sagan and Tyson liked to hit this note because it’s such a wonderful cosmic joke. Not only does humanity have a way to overcome the limits of our own perception, but we came up with it ourselves—using the same dumb, fallible brains that were holding us back! We turned a fundamental weakness into our greatest strength. That’s one hell of a trick, and Tyson simply believes in treating this unlikely achievement with the respect it deserves.
Whether it’s playing on our romantic pride or our pragmatic need to survive, Cosmos wants viewers to remember that science is the one reliable method we’ve found to assert ourselves against the heartless machinations of existence. The universe is indifferent, and its rules apply regardless of what we do. Science is our way of learning those rules so that we can at least play them in our favor. We need that edge, as the odds are stacked against us in the long term. So when Tyson asks us to apply the lessons of scientific inquiry, he’s basically daring us to make something more of ourselves. That is Cosmos’ uplifting distinction between nature and science: In nature, we observe immutable truth, but with science, we can craft a destiny.