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Cosmos Episode 3, The Harmony of the Worlds

Cosmos Episode 3, The Harmony of the Worlds

Greeting Masterminds, and welcome back to the Cosmos review series! Are you ready to be 100% cosmo-fied?!? Then let's hop into the discussion of the third installment of Carl Sagan's masterpiece, "The Harmony of the Worlds." You're in for a treat, because this baby is all about how science karate-chopped superstition hard during the Renaissance like a veritable ninja master. Hiya!

Episode Summary: "The Harmony of the Worlds" is all about the necessity of letting go of what we might wish our universe to be, and embracing the awesomeness of what it actually is. The first arc follows the rise of astronomy and astrology as intertwined disciplines, and the second arc details the life of science warlock Johannes Kepler, who at last separated them using his awesome brain-sword.

Sagan starts with a takedown of astrology, but it's not what you think. He has an incredible ability to say, "hey, this whole thing is mad silly" without sounding like a jerk about it at all. He smiles the whole time he's detailing the pitfalls of thinking celestial objects exert specialized force on individual human beings, even explaining the "dangerous fatalism" of living in such a universe  (ie. why bother to change your own destiny if Mercury is just going to screw it up by being in retrograde?).

But his point is not that the skies are disconnected from us—far from it. Astronomy has revealed that we are part of one universal tapestry; that the molecules that comprise our bodies were forged deep in the bellies of stars. It's infinitely more epic to think of ourselves as the children of stars—which we literally are—than to cast the constellations as a bunch of sky perverts forcing us to live a certain way. That's the message.

The episode then explores why astronomy was bound up with astrology for such a long time. Even the words we casually use today have their origins in astrological thinking: for example, "disaster" comes from the ancient Greek phrase, "bad star." Both disciplines sprouted from the deep human need to recognize patterns in the sky, but astrology was much vaguer. Just think of all the early cultures across the world that projected different images onto the sky: Sagan uses the diverse imaginings of the Big Dipper as an example. We humans seriously love that sky shape. It's so shiny!

We finally get to Kepler, the "first astrophysicist and last scientific astrologer." Kepler is one of the best figures in history for many reasons, but primary among them is his utter commitment to facts even when they really pissed him off. Though he figured out exactly how the planets revolve around the sun, he was annoyed to discover that the shape of their orbits were ellipses, not the perfect circles he so admired. You see: Kepler loved geometry so much, he believed it to be God himself. He was seriously bummed out that the universe hadn't chosen the most elegant shapes to order herself into. But you know what? The dude abided. Sagan closes the episode in his honor, saying, "He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions. That is the heart of science." We love you, Kepler.

Episode's Best Weird Moments: "The Harmony of the Worlds" features an awesome dramatization of the famous rivalry between the prudent Kepler and his hedonistic benefactor Tycho Brahe. It depicts a sexy medieval feast in which Kepler has a hissy fit and Brahe looks heartbreakingly insulted. The episode is well worth it for this scene alone.

There are also some great Sagan moments in the episode, including this description of what the Egyptians thought the Big Dipper was—note how perplexed Sagan seems to be by it. There's also this camera trick in which Sagan pretends to be his own identical twin. This shot raises the spectacular question: what if Carl Sagan had an identical twin? Double the science magic!

Episode's Best Saganism: On Kepler's discoveries after the Dark Ages: "The book of nature had waited 1,500 years for a reader." Also, what's with your crazy candle lab, Dr. Sagan?!


Tags: science, astrology, life, astronomy, cosmos, carl sagan

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Becky Ferreira

Becky Ferreira is a writer, performer, and raptor based in New York.

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