Cosmos Episode 4: The Journey Across Space-Time Continues
Neil De Grasse Tyson and Cosmos continue its journey through space-time. The reason this journey seems stranger than science fiction is because it is beyond our direct sensory perceptions. In the interior of stars, the effects of both quantum mechanics and relativity cannot be ignored. We can safely ignore quantum mechanical effects in our day to day lives, unless we are dealing with matter on the atomic atomic scale or smaller. As for relativistic effects, they become important only when we approach the speed of light. If you are interested in exploring what quantum mechanical and relativistic phenomena would look like if we could experience them via our senses you should read the Russian born physicist, George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins series.
Coming back to Cosmos, this week’s protagonist was the British astronomer William Herschel, voiced by none other than Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart to non-Trekkies). Herschel is credited with discovering Uranus among other things. The exploration of space-time dealt with the consequences of applying Newton’s laws of motion and that of universal gravitation to the astronomical objects. Tyson also tackled the concepts of action-at-a-distance through the presence of a force field. We learned about an astronomical unit of distance, a light year, and the mind bending consequences of nature’s speed limit, the speed of light.
We were also introduced to Maxwell’s equations and the origin of electromagnetic waves of which the visible light is but a very small portion. If human beings are the products of intelligent design then pray tell why our eyes are sensitive to only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum?
I wish the show had spent some more time on the idea of ether, the Michelson-Morley experiment which failed to detect its existence and proved that light unlike sound did not need a medium to propagate. De Grasse Tyson introduced the work of Albert Einstein and talked about both the General and the Special Theories of Relativity. The show ended with a thought experiment exploring what might be inside of a black hole. A collapsed star with a gravitational pull so great that even light cannot escape it. I do wish though that Tyson would spend more time discussing the physics behind the dazzling light show.
Although, none of the physics De Grasse Tyson discusses is cutting edge, most of what he tackles would be covered in undergraduate physics, it is timely and necessary. Especially if it helps bridge the gulf that separates lay people from practitioners. The depth of scientific ignorance, seen in debates over climate change and evolution, even by media heavy weights is mind boggling, so the timing could not have been better.
Lasting economic success is built on technological progress which is not possible without basic science. This fact seems to be lost on policy makers, who give preference to tax cuts for the 1% over funding for basic science. Industry is not going to step in to fund basic research, or any product that can’t be marketed for an immediate return. We need science for the sake of science, to satisfy our innate curiosity, a purpose higher than increasing quarterly earnings.
You will find the review of the earlier episodes of Cosmos, here.