REVIEW: Cosmos Episode 2, One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
Welcome back to the Cosmos review series! Today, we're taking on the second installment: "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue." For all you evolutionary biology fans—this is the episode for you. Sagan takes on the science of life as we know it as casually as he took on the cosmic and historical perspective of planet Earth in "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean." Why? Because he is the ultimate science wizard.
Episode Summary: "One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue" is driven by a simple question: if the laws of physics are the same everywhere in the universe, could it be that the laws of biology are also universal? Unfortunately, our data set of life is limited to one sample—Earth—so we have no way of actually testing this theory. Sagan takes on this challenge by spending the first half of the episode explaining everything about our one sample, starting with the idea of artificial selection.
I am astounded that artificial selection is so rarely brought up in the debate about evolution, as it is one of the simplest examples of selected inheritance. Moreover, Sagan chooses to introduce the idea sideways through mythology: he tells the Japanese legend of the Heiki people, who were defeated by a neighboring warlord in 1185. Many of the Heiki warriors died in the waves, and today a breed of crab known as Heikigani are common along the same shores. Astonishingly, their shells resemble Samurai warriors!
Sagan explains that out of respect for their dead, the Heiki people had, for centuries, been sparing the lives of crabs with human features over their relatives, thus creating an artificially selected population of Samurai-faced crabs. Not only does Sagan account for inherited traits here, he shows how humans have been manipulated this process long before we understood the underlying forces.
Having covered this simpler version of evolution, Sagan asks us only to imagine that conditions on Earth—and not Japanese fishermen—are responsible for these decisions. He takes us back to the origin of the first lifeforms on Earth, explaining exactly what scientists think happened during this foggy period in our planet's history. Again, with science, simply telling your audience what happened is ALWAYS better than trying to make it flashy. We learn that a combination of organic molecules, X-rays, and thunderstorms are responsible for every living thing on the planet. We are all born of mush, radiation, and lightning! How Frankenstein is that?!
Sagan shows how these early lifeforms led to us, pointing out that there are far more "terminated experiments"—species that are extinct—than there are species alive today. He quips that sexual reproduction was "stumbled upon by microbes" and compresses the exact human lineage—all 4 billion years of it—into a 40-second animated clip.
My personal favorite, however, is how casually he announces that if we're using the Cosmic Calendar (the universe's history compressed into a solar year), dinosaurs would have cropped up on Christmas Eve. There is no better salve for a sentimental dino-lover's heart than hearing dinosaurs appeared on Christmas Eve, in any context.
The episode ends with Sagan's re-creation of the famous Miller-Urey experiment with his Cornell buddy and fellow awesome astronomer Bishun Khare. This experiment simulates Earth's early conditions, and Khare pulls off the entire segment with a very entertaining flair for the mad science motif. If the building blocks of life can be so easily reproduced in a laboratory, Sagan reasons, then just think how plentiful they are in the universe. He even imagines a series of creatures that might survive in Jupiter's organically rich higher atmosphere. They are cool. I won't spoil it. Go watch.
Episode's Best Weird Moments*: Carl Sagan hanging out with dandelions (minute 16); Sagan reminiscing with an oak tree (minute 37); Sagan miming a primordial creature crawling out of his flask (minute 51).
*These minutes correspond to Cosmos on Netflix Instant.
Episode's Best "Saganism": "How lovely trees are!" - minute 33, said with unapologetic zeal.
Episode 3 Teaser: Tycho Brahe versus Johannes Kepler!