Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with Carl Sagan (1980)

Length: 13 episodes of 60 minutes each. (This review only covers the first 9.)

Cosmos was a TV program from 1980 that described science for popular audiences, hosted by Carl Sagan, famous for astronomy and atheism. (An updated 2014 version was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.) With satellite images, cutting-edge computer graphics (for its time, that is), detailed re-enactments, and visits to important places around the world, Sagan describes conventional scientific theories about the history of the universe and the clever ways scientists made important discoveries over the centuries. He focuses with infectious excitement on the recent satellite launches to other planets, and repeatedly drills, with tireless optimism, his great hopes that intelligent life exists throughout the universe.

Deep time content: Heavy. Episode 1 describes the “15 billion year” history of the universe through the famous analogy of the “cosmic calendar,” describing the gradual evolution of stars, planets, living things, and human beings at the correlating spots. The calendar notes the interestingly quick appearance of life on Earth as well as non-gradual jumps like the Cambrian explosion. Later episodes are sprinkled with references to this history, such as comet or asteroid impacts spread over billions of years, or the way constellations would have looked  millions of years ago. He also says the lost Babylonian history of Berossus spanned 432,000 years, described as many times longer than the “Old Testament chronology.”

Evolution content: Heavy. Episode 2 admits the attraction of appealing to a “designer,” noting that cells are more complex than watches, but describes living outcomes as “accidents.” It includes a basic evolutionary walk-through via a simple cartoon outline that repeatedly morphs into different kinds of creatures, which may be misleading, due to its oversimplification of complex transformation, as well as its implicitly “gradual” pace, which conflicts somewhat with the claimed evidence from deep time for relatively rapid changes separated by long pauses. The episode also describes and optimistically interprets the Miller-Urey experiments on the natural origin of life from non-life. Episode 8 says that if the path of evolution had been “slightly different,” intelligence may have come from some other species. (The fact that Sagan assumes different paths would have led to “different” intelligent life, rather than none at all, is related to his great optimism in the existence of extraterrestrial life, and his assumptions that it is easy for life both to arise and develop.)

Environmental content: Light. The episodes have an undercurrent of concern for the future of humanity, but modern audiences will note the sign of its time in its primary concern for the threat of nuclear warfare rather than strictly environmental issues.

Climate change content: Light. Episode 4, which touches on Venus, briefly notes how humans are changing the atmosphere despite being “ignorant” of its potential effects. But, as the product of its time, it hazily suggests uncertain possibilities, treating the “increasing greenhouse effect” of Venus as equally plausible as increasing brightness leading to a Mars-like “ice age”. (A 10-yr update at the end of the episode says recent evidence has tilted scientists confidently towards the greenhouse effect, describing the risk of Venus unless we “change our ways” with concrete steps that involve replacing fossil fuels with alternatives, reforestation, and alleviating poverty to reduce population growth.)

Attitude toward religion: At first glance, Sagan appears to have a negative attitude toward religion, but it is fairly reserved, portraying Christianity more positively than some might expect, and it also leaves open an inviting potential for attentive educators to contextualize with a Christian worldview.

Overall, Sagan values those who pursue the “uncomfortable” truths that advance science over those with close-minded religious prejudices. Episode 6 praises Renaissance-era Holland for its openness toward science, crediting it for progress and quoting a figure who called “science” his “religion.” He largely criticizes non-Christian historical movements for their opposition to scientific progress, though he claims in Episode 7 that Christianity adopted Plato’s Pythagorean suppression of observation and experiment for the less useful, or even restrictive, focus on abstract thought.

Episode 3 briefly describes both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther as opposing Copernicus’s model that displaced the Earth from the center of the universe, but it mostly focuses on the more nuanced story of Johannes Kepler. Sagan describes Kepler’s view of God as the creative power of the universe; he saw all creation as expressing the mind of God. Kepler’s desire to “read the mind of God” through the “book of nature” is portrayed as leading to the scientific revolution. But Kepler’s discovery that planetary orbits were elliptical is said to have “shook his faith” in God, and his perfect circular geometry Kepler was expecting.

Sagan seems to view this as an example of a scientist choosing factual science over religion, but the Christian, noting that there is nothing strictly Biblical about circular orbits, can instead see the “precise” elliptical laws of motion as evidence of God’s ordered universe, and see Kepler’s story as a beautiful example of how God’s creation may not look exactly like we expect but can confirm his glorious majesty all the same. Indeed, this is a fitting description of the whole series, where Sagan marvels at the repeated and constant orderliness of the universe which allows us to discover the laws and rules behind it all. Sagan has a talent for telling stories of how scientists discovered these laws, but while he seems to think the laws let us “know the world without the god hypothesis” that credited Zeus for every fall, the Christian can ask why those orderly laws exist in the first place, and see them as pointing to a God who intentionally set them up. In this way, Sagan’s series reminds me of the quote from physicist Werner Heisenburg: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

Sagan also sees science as demolishing human significance. Episode 7 says our position in the Milky Way is “not important,” that we are an “insignificant planet of a hum drum star”. In Episode 8, Sagan thinks our planet arrangement is “typical,” and that Jupiter-sized planets close to the sun are probably rare. Episode 9 even describes humans and animals as “parasites” on the plants,” all orbiting the “ordinary mediocre” sun. Again, this all plays into Sagan’s worldview that there must be other life out there because there is nothing especially remarkable about us. Sagan correctly predicted we would find planets around other stars, but most of them have been far less life-friendly than he would have expected, including an abundance of close Jovians. And there are innumerable reasons that Earth’s position in the solar system and galaxy are actually incredibly significant and important for our existence (see Teaching Deep Time for a few hints of these). These factors may make life far rarer, and thus far more special, than optimistic atheists like Sagan have thought.

Other notable content: A Renassiance-style image of a constellation briefly features a naked woman in Episode 3. An illustration from a sci-fi Edgar Rice Burroughs book briefly features a voluptuous Martian princess.

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March of the Penguins (2005)

Length: 80 minutes.

March of the Penguins describes the life cycle of emperor penguins as they cross Antarctic ice to mate and care for their chicks, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Primary animal: Emperor penguin

Other animals: Leopard seal, an unspecified predatory Antarctic bird

Marvelous content: The penguins display impressive complex behavior to care for their eggs. Couples practice the egg “hand-off,” where females transfer the egg to the males so the females can go back to the ocean to get food. During incubation, males take turns rotating into the center of the pack so those on the outside edge don’t bear the entirety of the brutal winter wind. Males keep extra food in a special pouch in their throats to feed the chicks before the females return. The parents alternate these marches to feed themselves and get food for their chicks. The incredible insulating properties of feathers are not discussed, but it is clear that the penguins’ survival would not be possible otherwise.

Deep time content: Light. Antarctica is described as having a warmer, forested habitat “millions of years” ago before the continent “drifted south” to its present location.

Evolution content: None. Penguins are described as a “stubborn” tribe that remained in Antarctica after it became cold, but there is no mention of adaptation to the conditions.

Environmentalism content: None.

Climate change content: None.

Peril content: Light. Some penguins die at each stage of the process, including eggs and baby chicks. A leopard seal catches a penguin in the water and a predatory bird tries to nab baby chicks.

Animal mating content: Moderate. After penguins choose mates, couples are shown caressing and one penguin briefly appears to calmly mount another.

The Best YouTube Videos For Learning About Total Solar Eclipses

Do you want to incorporate The Great American Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017 into your child’s education? There’s a lot of great educational material on YouTube, but it can get lost in the vast noise of content. If you search for solar eclipses, you’ll find low-quality iPhone videos, lectures that try to connect this year’s eclipse to obscure interpretations of Revelation, and even literal flat-earthers who think solar eclipses are a big conspiracy theory (seriously). I watched 50 eclipse clips to find the most helpful resources to incorporate into your educational experience. (OK, only 49 if you don’t count Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”!)

I’ve divided them into two categories: “educational” videos about eclipses, to help you learn what to expect during an eclipse, and “experiential” videos of eclipses, to see an eclipse in action and the reactions of people who see one.

CLIPS ABOUT ECLIPSES:

If you only watch one: This 5-minute video from Vox has good illustrations and all the basic information to understand eclipses (although some of it moves quickly, so it’s OK to pause.)

Crash Course has a solid 10-minute video with similar and additional information.

If you want to dig deeper with more advanced students, Smarter Every Day has a fun 16-minute video that goes into more details about what to expect during a total solar eclipse, through the eyes of someone excitedly learning about it. (He’s really excited about shadow bands!)

Great American Eclipse shows a 3-minute animation fly-by of the 2017 eclipse’s path over the United America. The shape of the moon nicely illustrates why the edges of the path only get a short duration of a few seconds while the middle of the path gets a much longer duration about two minutes.

CLIPS OF ECLIPSES

If you only watch one: The best actual eclipse clip is mikewattsuk’s clip of the 1999 solar eclipse over Britain. The commentators excitedly describe the advancing shadow and the sunset around the whole horizon. The clip beautifully shows the transition from the final sliver of sunlight to the diamond ring effect to the corona, backed by a cheering crowd and exciting music.

BBC has some high-quality footage of a total solar eclipse over Varanasi, India, leading up to the totality:

Stargate Media has a more tranquil scene from a total solar eclipse over Svalbard, Norway. This doesn’t show the eclipse itself very well, but it shows the overall day-to-night change and it has a cool 360 degree panorama that allows you to pan the camera and see the sunrise effect around the entire horizon (use the arrows on the top left).

Finally, Dave Kodama has a cool split-screen clip of a total solar eclipse over Easter Island that dramatically shows the darkening of the sky simultaneously with a pretty good shot of the transition from the sunlight sliver to the diamond ring to the corona.

CONNECTING TO GOD AND CREATION

For Christian parents/educators, solar eclipses are a great opportunity for making two spiritual connections.

The order of the universe: First, solar eclipses illustrate how scientists can precisely predict the path of eclipses down to the second, several decades in advance, thanks to the mathematical equations that describe the motion of celestial bodies by the laws of gravity.  I think this illustrates the elegance and order of the “fine-tuned universe” God created. (For more advanced students, this can be connected to lessons about Kepler’s orbital laws, Newton’s gravitational laws, and Einstein’s theory of relativity, which was proved by measuring the position of a star during the solar eclipse in 1919.)

Discovering the universe:  Second, the “coincidences” involved in solar eclipses show how the universe goes beyond just a design for us to exist, but is also designed for us to experience the glory of discovering and exploring it! (Proverbs 25:2)

  • The first coincidence: Many of the video clips above describe the fact that the moon can perfectly cover the sun as a “coincidence” – the sun is about four hundred times bigger than the moon, but it’s also about four hundred times farther away.
  • The second coincidence: The Case For A Creator describes the remarkable additional “coincidence” that total solar eclipses can only be observed on the one planet in our solar system that happens to have observers. It also describes the many scientific discoveries we’ve been able to make by studying them.
  • The third coincidence (optional): For Christians who believe in Deep Time, there’s a third coincidence. The moon’s gravitational effect on Earth’s tides also results in the moon being pushed slowly away from the Earth, currently at a rate of about 3 centimeters per year. According to Deep Time projections, this means that millions of years ago, the moon would have been too close for a total solar eclipse to reveal the sun’s atmosphere, which in addition to the beautiful display has many educational benefits. And hundreds of millions of years in the future, the moon will be always too far away to cover the sun, even at its closest point. So total solar eclipses are only visible for roughly 10% of the history of the Earth, meaning that not only are observers in the only place in the solar system where total solar eclipses are observable, but observers are also in the only time in the solar system where total solar eclipses are observable.

While there’s nothing about total solar eclipses that proves the existence of God, when you put them in the context of all the other “coincidences” that necessary for Earth to sustain life at all, I like to think of them as a beautiful bonus gift from the One who set the “greater” and “lesser” lights in their paths in the beginning, both for our wonder of the universe and to help us learn more about it. (For more advanced students, this can be connected to resources like The Case For A Creator, The Privileged Planet and other discussions about the “fine-tuned universe”)

The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1 ESV)

OTHER RESOURCES

If I missed a great video or other resource, please share in the comments!

Overview (2013)

Watch on Vimeo

Length: 19 minutes

Overview describes the intense feeling experienced by astronauts when they see the entire Earth as a single object in space, giving them a greater appreciation for the value and fragility of the planet as a “spaceship” that is our home (This experience has been labeled “the overview effect”). Interviews with astronauts are interspersed with inspiring footage of the planet from orbit and from outer space. While the film emphasizes the fragility of the planet and the responsibility of humans to protect it, the overall attitude is less about predicting doom and more about inspiring humans to appreciate our planet and work together to steward it properly.

Evolution content level: Low. An astronaut describes his understanding that “the molecules” in their bodies “had been prototyped” in stars, i.e. that we are “stardust.”

Deep time content level: None.

Climate change content level: Moderate. Astronauts describes how from the earth, “the blue sky” looks like “it goes on forever, and how could we possibly put enough stuff in it… to change it,” but from space, “it’s this thin line that’s just barely hugging the surface of the planet,” and how this fragile atmosphere is the only thing protecting us from death. An astronaut describes seeing erosion and other environmental changes from space, and how it helped him appreciate that humans are all on this “spaceship” together. Astronauts say that acting as one species is key to our survival, and that we need a worldview that will shift us from destructive to sustainable behavior.

Attitude toward religion: Nothing explicit. In general, the film portrays the idea that humans are “responsible for ourselves” and thus need to protect the planet. An astronaut says “it’s placed perfectly from the sun to take care of us,” so “we need to be taking care of it, too, so it can continue to do that.” While Christians believe God is ultimately the one who created and sustains our planet, this belief can be largely compatible with the film’s overall attitude of appreciating the planet we’ve been given and striving to steward it properly.

Arctic Tale (2007)

Length: 90 minutes

Arctic Tale describes life in and around the Arctic Ocean, narrated by Queen Latifah, focusing on the life cycles of polar bears and walruses. It contains high-quality visuals of Arctic landscapes and animal life on land, ice, and ocean.

Primary animals: Polar bear, walrus

Other animals: Ringed seal, arctic fox, narwhal, beluga whale, murre (bird)

Evolution content level: Subtle. The ringed seal is described as a “distant cousin” of the walrus. Animals are described as “designed” for the cold.

Deep Time content level: None. Animal behavior is described as “ancient” in contrast to modern changes, but nothing specific.

Climate Change content level: Heavy. Narration describes air and sea being “warmer” than before. In one winter the ice returns to the sea “three months late.” The animals’ struggles to find food and survive are directly portrayed as the consequences of a warmer arctic causing animals to face situations they had not faced before. Arctic sea ice has declined sharply over the last few decades. However, since our knowledge of these animals’ lifestyles is limited, and the story is not literal, but compiled from several years of footage of multiple animals, it is unclear how accurate it is to portray specific causes and effects in this way, and it could be seen as exaggerated or manipulative. Additionally, the credits feature children recommending lifestyle changes to stop climate change and save polar bears, which Plugged In describes as “hard-sell mode.”

Peril content level: Moderate. Predators chase, catch, and eat prey. Some animals die of hunger or nearly die of cold.

Animal mating content level: Subtle. The primary polar bear and walrus characters both find mates, play and nuzzle with them, and become mothers. Narration describes “communion” with some playful romantic language.

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