Cosmos Gets Small To Express Big Idea About How Science Can Save Us

The topic for this week's Cosmos is the little things in life, like cells, molecules, atoms and the universe. So hop on board the Ship of the Imagination and let's get small.

After providing a little fan service by describing himself as a collection of "three billion billion billion intricately arranged atoms called Neil DeGrasse Tyson," our host takes the Ship of the Imagination on a fantastic voyage into a dew drop, starting with our old friend the Tardigrade and moving through photosynthesizing plant cells and into the molecular machinery within, rendered in just a slightly more steampunk schematic format than in previous episodes.

Even in this cartoonish and decidedly non-literal rendition, representing our current lack of knowledge of the detailed mechanics of photosynthesis, we see how overwhelmingly complex "the ultimate green power" really is. Tyson imagines the boon to humanity that would come from a deep understanding of chlorophyl and uses this example as a launching point to describe how the naturalism that arose in the ancient world, starting with the Greek philosophers Thales and Democratus, which informed science down through the ages to Darwin and beyond.

Scientific rigor is what makes all this knowledge acquisition possible, and what makes it possible to hope that future knowledge will help us solve the very real problems our world faces today. The constant returning to this theme, the practical advantages to civilization of embracing the scientific worldview, is where Tyson has put his most distinctive personal mark on Sagan's work. Where Sagan's personal motivation was to keep us from blowing ourselves up, Tyson's motivation is to keep us from holding ourselves back.

To Tyson, naturalism and the scientific worldview aren't just a way to experience wonder, though they are that. They're also ways to solve problems that can't be solved when we take the laws of physics personally and assume everything that happens, from fires to floods to finding our car keys, is intended as a specific message just for us.

But this does not mean that there is no room for profound meaning in our experience of the natural world. Tyson describes how molecular theory holds the secrets of everything from a potential revolution in green energy to the memories and emotions activated in our brain by familiar scents.

Why did our sense of smell evolve to stimulate the amygdala and the hippocampus? Was it just to ensure that we'd remember the scent of important things, like edible plants, fire and predator poop? Sure. But no one ever said the reality of that evolutionary legacy had to be some cold, clinical, detached experience.

Each of us knows how a familiar scent can trigger reveries and remembrances of things past. Our deep sense of attachment to our own existence isn't diminished by our natural understanding of ourselves. It is enhanced by it. Understanding our nature doesn't reduce us to unfeeling, mechanistic automatons. Far from it. Carbon, Dr. Tyson tells us, is the atom that can fall in love.

After this, Tyson goes Full Illusive Man to describe how stars crush matter to form heavy elements and how neutrinos, with their ability to pass nearly undisturbed through unimaginably dense oceans of matter bound the early universe together in the moments right after the Big Bang, when it was small enough to be held in the palm of your hand.

To those who would suggest that science is a plate of cold fish that can only answer sterile questions of what and not deeper questions of why, this episode of Cosmos demonstrates that it is impossible to have any sort of meaningful concept of why without a natural understanding of what.