I'm finally up to date with the first four episodes of Cosmos - enough that I have a sense of the show's approach. The fact that Seth MacFarlane, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and others were able to pull this together and to have it aired on network television is remarkable going way beyond their considerable talents as producers and story tellers. I'm not the intended audience so my comments don't really matter, but I'll offer a few and step back to a larger question.
The science is up to date and mostly accurate with the inaccuracies being no more than nits that, if properly handled, would probably interfere with the story telling. Some of the special effects strike me as a bit on the cheesy side, but the cosmic calendar is a great device that can be used over and over and will probably make a few memorable points. The second episode on evolution struck me as the strongest and most compelling of the lot and I'm happy to see the human element brought in as science is, of course, a fundamentally human enterprise. And there are those magical moments of poetry that take remind you of Sagan's poetry in the original series.
The fourth episode struck me as the weakest. Special relatively was presented almost mystically with far too much handwaving. Better introductions exist and it would have been nice to have a clear story that excite a few enough to learn the basics on their own.1 The special effects - buffeting around a black hole and the non-physical speculation - seemed way out of place and way over the top.
But choices have to be made. The aim of a show like this is engaging story telling and making at most two or three points per episode. While I would have done the relatively episode differently, I'm sure I wouldn't have come up with a flowing story and, left to my own devices, I probably would have ruined the other episodes trying to shoe-horn in too much explanation and I have a bias towards deeper than necessary explanation. I'd love to know how 11 year olds are reacting to the show and what kinds are inspired and why.
A larger point is that storytelling education content choices need to be made. The content and context of each element is not neutral and compromises are required. This is an area where the communication of science often dies. It is particularly difficult to create content that engages a general audience while maintaining scientific accuracy. Neil has been doing great work as a science communicator for the past decade and others, Alan Alda comes to mind, have been addressing issues central to good communication.
We often assume bits of science or technology are neutral when, in fact, they aren't.
It is often said that technology is neutral - what we do with it is where issues arise. But this isn't so. Take E = mc2 - a lovely result that easily falls out from special relativity. It is usually connected with nuclear energy - specifically fission or fusion. In both cases energy densities are far greater than our benchmark of fossil fuels. The release of energy is accompanied by the release of ionizing radiation - radiation that happens to be harmful to biological organisms like ourselves. Background radiation - what we are constantly bathed in - is low enough given our biology and lifespans that we mostly don't notice its effects. The technology that makes radioactive elements like Uranium greatly increases the amount of radiation - often to very dangerous levels and care must be taken. Nuclear technology is far from being neutral. Understanding a technology and its impact is a necessary element for wise use.
The internal combustion engine is far from being a neutral technology. While the technology has positive and negative impacts, some of the negative impacts were not readily apparently until the technology scaled. The positive aspects of a technology may far outweigh the negatives in the short term, but we should be aware the balance can change over time. The cotton gin is a cautionary example. With its invention cotton production at scale became possible and, if you could exploit a very cheap labor source, extremely profitable. Around the time of the invention slavery was dying out in America, but suddenly slavery made great economic sense in the South and ignoring the negative aspects of slavery was common among mill owners in the North.
I was intrigued to see a piece by danah boyd a few days ago - Is Oculus Rift Sexist? Oculus Rift is a virtual reality interface to 3d virtual worlds. You wear a head-mounted display that forms a computer generated image for each eye giving a pseudo 3d display. Sensors note orientation and a computer builds an artificial reality that you can navigate and even manipulate. The concept has been the subject of research since the 80s and is very sexy among much of the tech community. Not many have used it as it has been prohibitively expensive until now - Oculus Rift exploits inexpensive graphics chips used for gaming and small color displays used in smartphones. While the tech isn't novel, the comparatively low cost of entry is and there is a chance this may have an impact ... or it may prove to be a Segway for your face. danah made an interesting observation based on her use of a VR world and I recommend taking a bit of time to read what she has to say.
There can be an enormous amount of variation across the human population. An obvious difference is height. The plot shows a good fit to the distribution of human height from a large sample of several hundred thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 45. The double hump comes from the fact that height is sexually dimorphic - men and women are different on average. Of course there are women who are much taller than the average man and men who are much shorter than the average woman, but on whole the difference is real and obvious. Given a large sample the distribution for each sex alone is bell-shaped - a gaussian distribution.2 Many technologies are size dependent and may be said to be sexist of they can't accommodate a sufficiently wide range. Kitchen design tends to assume that the user will be a woman and, since women not as tall on average, the technology has some built-in sexism.
Some aspects of vision are sexually dimorphic. As danah notes there are some areas where aspects of stereo vision differ and one of these may be the trick head-mounted VR displays used to generate the illusion of 3d. 3 Although unintended such displays would be sexist if the effects are real.
Another technological sexism many of you have experienced is color dying and quite possibly video conferencing.
You're probably wondering now ...
It turns out color discrimination is one of the sexually dimorphic component of vision. Women are much better at discriminating color - particularly reds.4 Women see differences that are invisible to men in many colors that are even partly red. I realize this and only buy socks that are blue, black and white and staying away from anything reddish that would have to match something else.
Recently we've learned this difference and a bit of biology impacts human communication in a fascinating way. We have a lot of capillaries just under the skin on our faces. Our faces display subtle color change, mostly in the red, as we communicate. Women are sensitive to this signal which is mostly invisible to men. It may be advantageous for women to have face to face communication. This type of communication is generally lumped in with other unspoken modes like facial and hand expressions, changes in posture - even odor. The best commercial color cameras and displays don't render facial color differences properly - not only are the colors inaccurate, but the video can't render the differences. The best VR in the world won't hack it.
When we understand the impact of the non-neutral bias of a technology and its evolution we can make better choices. And this questioning must continue as the technology and the context it is used in evolve over time.
1 The basic concepts of special relatively are not difficult and a high school student with trigonometry and algebra under her belt should be able to work through the basics. If she has a high school physics background she can probe much further. General relativity, on the other hand, requires a few years of University level math and physics and usually isn't taught until the third year as course for majors and then revisited in grad school at a much deeper level.
If you want to learn SR on your own I'd recommend Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler. A bit quirky, but with clear examples and problem sets and the first half or so should be accessible to a smart high school student.
2 Sort of that it. There are many distributions in Nature that appear to have gaussian distributions, but in fact the distribution is only an approximation. For about 99.99% of the population the distribution is an excellent fit. For those in the tails it is a different story and the fit no longer holds in this example.
A curious thing about the readership of this blog is the height distribution is extremely non-representive of the human population. I can state that accurately by knowing the readership is very low (about 30 look at any given piece within a week of its posting) and the fact that the female readership is extremely skewed by the presence of four who stand six feet or taller.
3 There are many cues for stereo vision - parallax is only one. It turns out 3d movies and 3d television don't exploit parallax the way human vision works. It is a hack and can cause problems in some users. I'm one of them. These problems may have a sexual dimorphism to them. It may be that a much larger percentage of women have problems than men. Something that is very interesting and open for investigation.
4 The effect is pronounced for wavelengths longer than 590nm and very strong above 620nm.
Something very simple - baked olives based on a family recipe of a friend with Sicilian roots. These are so good!
° 2 cups kalamata olives
° ½ cup dry red wine
° 3 tbl olive oil
° 3 cloves garlic, 1 sliced, 2 coarsely chopped
° 2 tbl marjoram (oregano may work, but it is stronger, so use care)
° 1 tbl chopped parsley
° 1 bay leaf
° freshly ground pepper
° a few pinches red pepper flakes
° preheat oven to 375°F
° rinse olives if they were salted, place then in a single layer on a baking pan or dish you can cover
° add wine, half the oil, the sliced garlic and bay leaf
° cover and bake for about 45m until they are swollen and smell *wonderful*
° crush the chopped garlic in a mortar with the marjoram, parsley and a bit of ground pepper.
° when the olives are out of the oven poke each with a fork and stir in the paste, extra olive oil and pepper flakes.
° I like to let them sit for a few hours, but it is difficult not to snack.