Restricting the Cosmos

I didn’t take any science subjects in school, which is something I regret more and more as I get older. In my high/secondary/whatever school, geography was considered a science, and I took that as my mandatory science requirement instead of biology, chemistry or physics. While geography in an abstract sense is interesting, the subject itself is not so much: different types of rocks, glaciers moving, rivers moving stuff. It’s ok, but not especially fascinating. As I mentioned, I regret not taking any advanced science courses, as I see more and more that there is a big gap in my education when it comes to such things the periodic table of elements, species classification and generally how stuff works. I have tried to rectify this in my adult life by reading a lot of popular science books, mostly with regard to physics. After reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, I went on to a few Stephen Hawking books, became interested in quantum physics and went on to some Brian Greene and Roger Penrose . At around this time I hit a wall with popular physics books, as no one out there really compares to Stephen Hawking when it comes to explaining complex theories in a simple yet interesting way. Most popular science books are an absolute chore, and the main reason for this is that they are written by academics, whose basic job is to bore people into accepting them as an authority on a subject.

A few years ago I was about to start another dull Brian Greene book, and then discovered that it was the tie-in to a TV documentary series he had done on the topic. I downloaded it (legally), took in the information passively in a fraction of the time I would have spent reading, and never looked back. Since then, I have been relying on documentaries to supplement my lack of scientific expertise. Physics documentaries in particular are a rare beast, as given how complex the concepts in modern physics are, computer animated graphics are required every few seconds in order to communicate even the least important idea. Therefore it was exciting to hear that Fox TV and National Geographic were funding a new big-budget version of Cosmos, to debut in spring 2014. The original Cosmos, with renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan narrating the vastness of space and time, is the absolute gold standard in communicating complex science effectively to a large, diverse audience. It was such an institution that it has been shown in physics classrooms around the world for almost 35 years, despite our understanding of its subject changing so much in that time period. An update was needed however in order to chart our advances in describing the universe, and the torch was handed to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a disciple and informal student of Sagan, who takes us through space and time with the help of blockbuster special effects and thousands of years of cumulative scientific progress.

Tyson is such a capable host that after the first episode I looked him up and found it hard to believe that he was actually an academic: I was convinced he was an actor. He does a good job of simplifying the material and also making it interesting and relevant for the viewer. The producers of this version of Cosmos however decided to expand the scope of the material, so in addition to describing the formation and vastness of the known universe, they include discussion on the process of evolution. This was always going to be a problem, given that this is an American documentary and a significant minority of Americans reject evolution, and are creationists who believe in the idea of a Grand Design by some sort of eternal Creator. Cosmos is an expensive, mass-marketed blockbuster series, and therefore can’t afford to isolate any part of its audience and must dance a fine line between the two views. Tyson does just that in the first episode, mentioning evolution as something that is “still controversial to this day”. In the second episode he bravely (and surprisingly to me) goes further and directly confronts the creationists to try and win them to his side. He spends a large portion of the episode attempting to debunk the seminal intelligent design argument that the human eye is so complex and intricate, it is impossible that it is the result of chance improvements that an evolutionary process would suggest. With irreducible complexity seemingly destroyed as a logical argument, Tyson then goes on a passionate rant about how evolution is more than just theory. His efforts are noble, but the damage had already been done.

It had finally come to this. After years laughing at those idiot Americans across the Atlantic passing law after law that rejected the theory of evolution, they finally made their way into scientific debate. In contrast to Tyson and Cosmos’s view of debunking creationism with their second episode, in my opinion this was the moment of acceptance for intelligent design. The fact that the production team felt they needed to address the issue of creationism in a serious, educational documentary gives the movement the legitimacy that no law in any hick town nor state can give. If this iteration of Cosmos is to achieve the legacy that its predecessor had, classrooms around the world for the next few decades will see the same frustrated, highly educated man defending a perfectly scientific and falsifiable* theory such as evolution against a popular view of an outspoken element of society at a certain time. This is not science, and it is not educational. It simply shows that political bullying can get any message at all into the classroom. The producers of Cosmos knew what they were getting into when they signed on to produce the show for Fox, which is a network that panders to the right-leaning and often evolution-doubting sect of the United States. The producers were given a lot of freedom, and were allowed to get their message across, yet still were forced to address the creationist ideology as if it were a legitimate concern in the scientific world. Cosmos spent half an episode arguing against creationism, but in doing so acted as if creationism was a real scientific and falsifiable theory, which amounts to nothing but creationist propaganda.

I have yet to get past this second episode, but Cosmos may still prove a useful tool in understanding the universe. The invasion of politics into science is highly frustrating however, and if I watch subsequent episodes I will be viewing it more as entertainment rather than as something informative or educational: its credibility has been lost. Much better are Brian Cox’s BBC Documentaries on the same topic, starting with Wonders of the Solar System and most recently with Wonders of Life. In the three series, Cox describes the formation and future of the universe, and all life on Earth without one reference to any god, and it was all funded by UK taxpayers. If Cosmos is what we get from a US-based corporation afraid of alienating a small but powerful minority of the population, just imagine what a science documentary funded by US taxpayers would look like.


*Falsifiability is a fundamental characteristic of a scientific theory. In order to be considered a valid argument, a statement must be falsifiable: there must be a possibility to prove the statement/theory wrong. Creationism is based on faith and therefore is not falsifiable nor a valid scientific theory.
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The Blade Runner, and Unreasonable Doubt

The celebrity trial of the decade began this week in South Africa as paralympic champion sprinter Oscar Pistorius attempted to fight charges of murdering his supermodel girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on the night of February 14th 2013. At the time of the murder, Pistorius was one of the most famous athletes in the world: a household name with lucrative sponsorship deals, and above all, a perfect role model for fighting and overcoming adversity. Pistorius had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old, and competed in races using highly advanced prosthetics that earned him the nickname “The Blade Runner”. He competed successfully in successive Paralympic Games, yet he was not satisfied, and sought to compete in the Olympic Games with non-amputees. He pursued the matter in court and eventually won the right to enter the full Games, although unsuccessful in qualifying for the finals in his chosen events, he did win many fans in the attempt.   The fame and success enjoyed by Pistorius was unheard of for a Paralympic athlete, and in his home country of South Africa, he was a bona-fide superstar. He and his girlfriend, the supermodel Reeva Steenkamp were favourites of the tabloid press, followed around constantly and photographed wherever they went.

Thus a media frenzy erupted on Valentine’s Day last year when shots were heard from the couple’s apartment late at night, and neighbours entered to find Pistorius weeping over Steenkamps dead body. What followed was international outrage, with the whole world immediately condemning Pistorius before he had even been formally charged for the murder. Protests mounted outside the jail where he was held, and security was required to protect the athlete entering the courthouse for his initial hearing. Everyone went even more crazy when Pistorius admitted shooting Steenkamp, yet pleaded not guilty to her murder. His defence argued that he had awoken from sleep and heard noise coming from his bathroom. Believing there was an intruder in his apartment, he grabbed his gun and fired several shots through the door. When he opened the door he found his dying girlfriend, and at this point neighbours appeared on the scene. As dubious as that argument sounds, the hearing was closed and a trial set for March 2014. Much to public outrage, he was released on bail to prepare his case and fight for his freedom. This week his trial began, and by March 20th he will know whether or not he will spend the next 25 years of his life in prison. The overwhelming opinion of the baying masses is that Pistorius is guilty and should pay for his crimes, yet I do not believe the case is as clear-cut as the media would like us to believe. When I read about this case, Pistorius’s defence struck an instant chord with me. Suddenly awoken from sleep, and believing there to be an intruder in his apartment, he didn’t notice that his girlfriend was still in his bed, produced his gun and shot through his bathroom door. This might seem a ridiculous statement, but I can completely relate to that.

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Ever since I can remember, I have suffered from a sleeping disorder that involves me not being able to distinguish waking dreams from reality. When I was young, this manifested itself in me waking up suddenly, and being able to see snakes and insects all over the floor of my room, and in my bed. For me, they were there, everywhere, and I screamed all over the place and drove my parents absolutely insane. They were sincerely worried, and they were right: their child was absolutely mental, and if it was anywhere else other than Ireland in the mid-1980’s, they would have sent me to see a psychiatrist. In Ireland however, you just wait for things to get better, and they do or they don’t. In this case, the waiting worked and I grew out of it. Not completely however, as years later, when I was turning 20, the affliction returned, and ever since then my night-time habits can sometimes be very distressing. Every few weeks, I will wake suddenly, see something in the room or hear something outside, and run to the other side of the room, completely convinced that there is something very wrong with the situation, and that action is required. These are often the snakes and insects of my youth, or an intruder breaking in, or any of a million different external threats. The point being that there is danger or discomfort, and that this is completely real in my mind. The fear is there, the adrenalin flows, and ideas start forming about how to deal with the problem. This is not sleepwalking, or dreaming, I am completely awake, I just have different views about reality than what is objectively there. After a few minutes, the situation dissipates, and I go back to bed, partially convinced that I imagined the whole thing, yet still uneasy, and still with my heart beating fast and adrenalin flowing through my veins. It is an absolutely terrifying experience to go through, and afterwards it is pretty embarrassing to have to explain it to people who may have been in the room at the time. For example, one time I was staying over at a friend’s place and sharing a double bed (separated by many pillows, naturally) with him. I woke up and darted to the corner of the room in horror. He woke up and asked me if I was ok. I actually hesitated, not trusting him completely, but I asked him if he had ‘a snake’ in the bed. He laughed, but I was completely serious. To me, there was a giant anaconda coiled all over the mattress. He still quotes me to this day.

My strange (and still undiagnosed- I’m Irish!) disorder reached its zenith in May 2012, when I awoke just before 6am and flying towards me was a giant black dove. It flew all around the room, and when it perched on my cupboard, i ran out of the room, closing my door behind me. Hyperventilating in my living room, I was telling myself it wasn’t real, it was just like the others. Yet after collecting myself for a few minutes I opened the door, and was horrified to see that there actually was a bird there. I looked at my bedroom window:  closed. I looked at my other windows: all closed. I always close my bedroom door when sleeping: there was no way there could possibly have been a bird in there, yet there it perched, shitting all over my wardrobe. The fear and adrenalin from dealing with similar imaginary situations helped me open the window and flush the bird out, yet it was not until the next day before I could admit to myself that the event had actually happened, and that it wasn’t another of my waking dreams. Walking through my apartment the next day I began to see birdpoop everywhere and reasoned that I often left my windows open when I was at work, and therefore the bird must have come in, flown through the whole place, nestled in my room, and simply awoken when it was time to get up. Still, it was very stressful, and ever since, I have been waking up to my imaginary terrors more frequently.

So, can one man’s rant about his personal sleeping habits be of relevance to the trial of the decade? Probably not, but it did make me think. I have no idea of Oscar Pistorius’s sleeping habits, or indeed if anyone else out there has the same affliction as me, but all I know is that when I wake up into one of these episodes, I have absolutely no idea about the difference between reality and what is in my head. I am fully cognitive, and reasonable, yet my reality simply has a different understanding of the world. What really made me think is the possibility of living in a country like South Africa where violent crime is persistent, and gun ownership is widespread and actually advisable. I shudder to think what would happen if I slept with a gun in my bedroom, or even in my house. I have no way of knowing, but I would estimate that it takes at least two minutes from me waking up to actually calming down and regaining a sense of reality, yet a lot could happen in those two minutes. This is why the Pistorius trial really grabbed me, and why I will be watching the evidence as it comes in: as I said, I only paid attention to the hearing a year ago, I do not know what other evidence will be produced. I am not saying he didn’t kill her, I am just saying that the argument presented by his defence resonates deeply with me, and should not be dismissed easily. While you could be awake and conscious, you are not yourself, and therefore this could really be classified as temporary insanity or momentary loss of faculties. If this is the verdict of the trial, I will understand, yet I seriously doubt the protesters baying for Pistorius’s blood will. All I am saying is that until a clear motive is presented by the prosecution in this trial, I will have my reservations about the guilt of Oscar Pistorius in the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.