Cosmos, the next generation…

Space has always fascinated me, perhaps not surprisingly as I was born at the peak of the Apollo programme, just a couple of years before Neil Armstrong’s giant leap on the Moon. I had my little astronaut suit to play in, repeats of the original Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO, numerous other Gerry Anderson shows – space and an optimism in the future and in our ability to learn to use our own brains and science to better humanity were popular topics (sadly so much more pessimistic today for many). I was a child of the Space Age and then grew up in the early Information Age, I had a stack of astronomy books on my shelves even as a kid (reader then, as now). And then there was Cosmos and Carl Sagan on the television. I read and read, by the time I was 9 or 10 I could tell you the difference between a Gemini and a Soyuz and an Apollo capsule, I knew who Kepler was and how his mathematics shaped our understanding of our solar system.

Carl Sagan – Cosmos (Trailer) (1980) from Xhulian Traja on Vimeo.

I loved my books, but in Cosmos I could see it all – a history of science here on Earth and how it applied to our expanding knowledge of the universe itself, not just showing fascinating glimpses of distant creation, but putting it into a context of accumulated knowledge. I didn’t  realise that aspect of it until I was much older, but subliminally the message was received and somewhere inside my young brain, absorbed and applied and forever after I have taken simple delight and pleasure in finding links between pieces of knowledge, that wonderful moment when you realise that something you are reading or watching relates to some other subject you read previously, connection and connection and connection. I still take pleasure when that happens today, and it was a lesson Sagan taught in the original Cosmos, that knowledge is one thing, but the ability to step back, place that piece of knowledge into context, was even more important, because then you start to assemble the jigsaw that shows The Big Picture. We never actually finish that particular jigsaw, because none of us is omniscient, but there’s so much pleasure to be had from assembling and connecting those pieces…

carl sagan with viking lander

The original Cosmos also helped me humiliate an utter prig of a senior at my school, who tried to make me and my friend feel small and stupid. Back when there was a single BBC Micro for the whole school we were busy programming on it when this senior barged in with a friend, demanding we stop and they get to use it because their science teacher had an “important” programme that “we wouldn’t understand”. I asked what it was, and in a very condescending tone he told us it was to do with Kepler’s laws and we wouldn’t know anything about that. I proceeded to outline the main points of Kepler’s laws and observations and place them in their historical context for good measure. I would only be about eleven or twelve, he was about fifteen. I watched him deflate and become utterly humiliated as it was clear to all in the room that Mr Superior knew less about this subject than a boy did. Thanks to Sagan and Cosmos, where I learned of it then, me being me, I had followed this up by reading more about it. Learning is our friend. And sometimes we can use it in interesting ways, to beat an intellectual bully. Satisfying in itself, and also taught me a lesson too – there’s always someone who knows more than you do…

Sagan’s books and his Cosmos series had a huge influence on me. I think his series and the programmes of the great Jacques Cousteau taught young me an enormous amount about science and what Sagan called “the awesome machinery of nature.” My brain was never terribly good with maths, so studying science at university was never likely, my thoughts were more wired to the arts and language, and I have no regrets over that because I am forever in love with words, but they, and my piles of related books, left me with a huge fascination for an and appreciation of science and learning. And space exploration and astronomy especially, but again there’s that thing about learning being linked – learning about theories of how the other planets became the way they are prompted me to read some geology to understand this better. As a kid I also loved dinosaurs (which wee boy doesn’t?) and of course that linked with geology, which also lead into theories of evolution, which in turn lead to books about why it is humans can think, have language, create abstract thought, the very faculties that allowed for astonishing things like space exploration. There it is again, link, after link after link, all adding layers of context to what was learned.

cosmos neil degrasse tyson

And so this evening the much anticipated new Cosmos made its UK debut, with an introduction by President Obama, no less. Of course dear old Carl has been gone for a number of years now, but his influence is still felt, from his own opening narration and choice of similar location to that he used for his original introduction to the use of the ‘spaceship of the imagination’. And the new presenter, Neil deGrasse Tyson also embodies another link to Sagan – a joyfully personal one too, as he recounts at one point how as a seventeen year old student Sagan had invited him to visit. He arrived during heavy snow and Sagan talked to him, showed him his lab and offices at Cornell and presented him with a signed copy of one of his books (which he still has), an encounter which enthused the young man not only to a career in science but to emulate his role model in communicating science to a wider audience, to let everyone share in the knowledge and consider its implications and possibilities, which is important given how such matters often affect all of civilisation.

Cosmos Trailer from Nat Geo Channels Intl Creative on Vimeo.

And so the new show’s first episode this evening… The format is similar to the classic Cosmos, the mixture of astronomy but interspersed with history, both human history of ideas and understanding and the deeper history of our own world, solar system, galaxy and universe. Again, context, links, without which facts don’t mean much. Of course the graphics are vastly superior to the effects the 1980 show could ever hope to create (although back then I still remember marveling at them). But the most important quality, more important than the scientific facts, the history, the learning, was something Sagan gave me in the original, Cousteau did with his shows, Arthur C Clarke did with his books – and that is the quality of sense of wonder. Simple as that – a sense of wonder that makes you feel like a bright eyed child again staring at the stars and imagining and dreaming.  And yes, the new show had that sense of wonder.

You can read a short interview with the new Cosmos presenter Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Nat Geo site.

The 5th Doctor

Just been released, new version of Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor along with the same era’s Master incarnation (as played so well by the late Anthony Ainley). I really want these for my desk to go next to my Tom Baker figure; Baker then Davison were the main two Doctors when I was growing up, so they’re always going to be ‘my’ Docs.

And at the same time there’s a new figure of Davison’s Doctor as he first appeared right after the regeneration scene at the end of Baker’s swansong in Logopolis/start of Davison’s first story, Castrovalva (since the former lead directly into the latter), the Doctor now regenerated into his new form but still clad in the previous incarnation’s clothes (Baker’s later period costume of the long, burgundy coat and matching scarf):

The Doctor is in…

Brian Rimmer presents a time-travelling musical slide through more than forty years of theme music and opening sequences to the world’s longest running science fiction show, Doctor Who. I confess my favourite remains the Tom Baker era ‘time tunnel opening (the main Who era for me growing up), with the same ‘slit-scan’ technique used in the stargate sequence for 2001, but it’s fun to see them all back to back like this, from the early Hartnell era of 1963 (and the logo that looks like ‘Doctor Oho’ for a second before becoming ‘Who’) through to 2010′s revamped opening and music for Matt Smith’s Doctor. And through it all that immortal, iconic bass line, duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh, that’s been reworked endlessly across the decades by various arrangers for the show and by other musicians like Orbital and Pink Floyd; those bass lines were the signal to generations of kids that it was Saturday, tea-time and that meant marvellous adventures and scary monsters (and jelly babies). How lovely that it still means exactly that to a new generation of kids watching the new show and still loving it. (via BoingBoing)

Doctor Who – the End of Time figures

Just announced new Doctor Who action figures based on the final two part tale that saw the end of David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor, there’s a set of End of Time figures coming soon, with the injured Tennant Doctor, the blonde Master, Timothy Dalton’s impessive, be-robed Time Lord and – wait for it! – the first Matt Smith Doctor Who action figure, with him right after the regeneration, still in the previous incarnation’s clothes.

And on the fun side there’s also a new Time Squad set of Doctor Who figures coming, with the collection coming together to assemble a Master figure. Funky!

Star Trek meets Mythbusters

Great, two of my favourite geek things in the world, Star Trek and Mythbusters, are coming together – the Mythbusters team are going to test out a classic scene from the original 60s Star Trek, where Captain Kirk is kidnapped and placed on a desert planet to battle the captain of the Gorn ship and told there are materials scattered around that can be fashioned into weapons. Finding some sulphur and other material he takes a large bamboo like hollow cane and imrpovises a primitive cannon, with some diamonds shoved in the barrel as ammunition. Its a now classic Trek scene (with the rocky desert setting now a cliche for the show, endlessly lampooned). But if you improvised such a device in real life would it work or just blow up in your face? That’s what the Mythbusters are going to test – sounds like a Trek themed follow up of sorts to the medieval wood cannon they did a couple of years back.

Pythons

I was thinking this morning how as a nation we generally only pause and come together to mark sad occasions like Armistice Day. So to mark the 40th anniversary of the first Monty Python screening I thought what about a moment of National Silliness instead? I encouraged some folks to mass-tweet “he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” at 11am on Twitter (it even got mentioned on radio BBC6) and a bunch joined in for some delightfully pointless silliness. Which is good for us, I’m convinced.

Chief Scout

Bear Grylls has become the new Chief Scout for the UK. Presumably he will be able to instruct kids on how to fake television shows and pretend you’re sleeping the night in that desert you’ve been crossing with only a rattlesnake for a pillow while actually you and the crew are straight off to an air conditioned motel as soon as the camera’s off. And is a man who kills animals just for the sake of making a TV programme really a good role model for kids? Seriously, the fact that he kills animals as part of this show disgusts me. You want to show survival skills, stop biting the heads off live frogs, you bastard, drop your white ass down into Compton and live on the street there for a week without being shot or knived. Oh well, the kids can at least enjoy making fun of his name, I suppose. Distract them from how silly their uniform looks.

Oliver Postgate

Very sad to hear about the passing of Oliver Postgate; Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers, Bagpuss, all wonderful pieces of hand-made animation put together in an old cowshed in the finest tradition of the great British eccentric. And all lovely parts of that half imagined, half remembered childhood memory, part of the good childhood memories along with other rose tinted nostalgic memories which tell you that when you were young summers were always long and sunny, winters always came with deep snow to sledge on. Basic animation to be sure, but in the long ago time before multi channeled TV, the web or digital animation these were as essential to generations of British kids as their copy of the Beano. Another little piece of my childhood tumbles away…

Fry in America

Seems to be something of an American media theme this last few days, no doubt prompted by the presidential circus, but as it means we get the national treasure that is Stephen Fry with a new show, “Stephen Fry in America“, as he crosses the United States in a London taxi cab (not his own one which he so famously drives around here in Blighty though). I had no idea he was almost born in the US when his father was offered a job at Princeton but he turned it down. Hard to think of Fry as American, he seems to quintessentially British – I mean Twinnings got him to advertise their tea, he cooks on an Aga and gives a wedding present to Prince Charles. All of which might have made him annoying except he seems such a lovely bloke, fiercely intelligent and very funny and self depreacting with it. America’s loss was our gain.