science

Cosmos: Carl Sagan’s visionary series returns [Review Part Two]

This is part two in my miniature review of the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey  which aired on March 9. This is a re-imagining of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos which ran in 1980. If you have not already, read the first part of my overview here.

The CGI and Visuals

The American networks pushed the marketing for Cosmos for months. They had two versions of a teaser airing in the ad breaks of their 10 channels for what seemed like eons. The trailers were flashy; filled with what I presume to be the most elaborate computer-generated graphics that will appear in the show. This made me concerned that the actual series would be overloaded with CGI and not with actual footage showing the wonders of the universe as they appear in real life. Thankfully, the show found the perfect balance.

The space exploration sequence early in the first episode was FX heavy but this is to be expected. I foresee the spectacle to diminish throughout the season to remain in budget. It is a television show after all.

The Pacing and Tone

Yet again, I have only praise for the consistency of the first episode of Cosmos. The show quickly found its footing to deliver fascinating information, under the 40-minute prime time constraint, while still keeping viewers interested. I predict the series will have a very dynamic approach to topics much like A Personal Voyage, where the enthusiasm for scientific discovery is portrayed in order to appeal to people’s genuine curiosity for the universe around them.

Tyson 2009
Neil deGrasse Tyson: your personal astrophysicist (Credit: wikipedia/commons)

The Host

Some know him for his science activism, some for his work in cosmology. Many even know his face because of the popular internet meme. Whatever way you are aware of Neil deGrasse Tyson, he is the host for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. And he is the perfect man for the job.

With Carl Sagan himself hosting the original series several decades ago, Tyson had big shoes to fill. Sagan maintained such presence on screen and his delivery of scientific concepts allowed people to connect with him while they learned.

Tyson does not compare to Sagan but that is the best thing about this change. He takes a very different approach to hosting his Cosmos. Instead of holding your hand through the journey (like Sagan), Tyson guides you though the episode and brings his own passion to the screen.

Neil deGrasse Tyson promoting Cosmos for National Geographic (Credit: wikipedia/commons_
Neil deGrasse Tyson promoting Cosmos for National Geographic (Credit: wikipedia/commons)

Overall, episode one of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was a huge success. My standards were very high and I had a major worry the show would be a let down after the historic 80s series. Instead of breaking down by expectations, it blew them away (in the most positive method imaginable, of course). I expect many others to feel the same way I do about the reboot too. Buckle up, there is another twelve episodes to go. But this time it is more than a personal voyage, we are a part of this odyssey together.

This will be my last mention of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey for the time being. Once the series ends in three months time, I will do a series overview to round up my thoughts on the success of the show.  

Cosmos: Carl Sagan’s visionary series returns [Review Part One]

“This is the cosmos: a network of a hundred billion galaxies… and it is the greatest story science has ever told.”

It was one of the most loved shows of the 20th century. It inspired an entire generation of scientists to explore the universe. It gave millions an insight into the marvellous complexity of the reality around us. It was Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Now it has been given new life to achieve all of these goals again, today.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired for the first time last night across 10 of the biggest American networks. The reboot, hosted by science communicator Neil DeGrasse Tyson, ran for just shy of an hour and began the first of a 13-part journey into exploring the cosmos.

I wanted to give my personal thoughts on how successful the first episode actually was. The first Cosmos by Carl Sagan in the 1980s was a huge influence on me so the 2013 version  has a lot to live up to. Did it?

The Opening Minutes

Tyson stands on the very same shoreline cliffs that Sagan stood more than three decades before. This begins a perfectly nostalgic undertone to the show, establishing Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey as a re-imagining of A Personal Voyage. It is not a scene by scene recreation, but throughout the episode, Cosmos keen-eyes will see nods to the original -certain phrases from Sagan are repeated by Tyson, the Ship of the Imagination, the cosmic calendar e.t.c.

It was good to see the show did not open immediately with flashy CGI or imposing text overlay,  but a wave crashing against the beach to symbolise how this series’ journey will take viewers beyond the shore of the cosmic oceanon which humanity stands.

The content (i.e. The science)

I was initially worried the producers of the show would cram too much information from an overly diverse range of topics to hook viewers on shallow knowledge, but this was not the case. The opening episode dealt with only certain issues while being able to raise the interest in other topics that will be expanded upon in later episodes.

One of the main sections of the premier concerned the story of Giordano Bruno, Italian philosopher of the 1500’s. In a beautifully crafted interpretative animation (made by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane and his animation studio), Bruno’s tribulations as an open-minded believer are covered with a shockingly dark tone. His prosecution and eventual execution by the Church uncovers just how abusive religion was to the expansion of science back in the 16th century. This segment plays well into the first episode’s theme of having a curious mind and willingness to explore other possibilities outside of the accepted truth.

The cosmic calendar made a spectacular return from the 80’s version of the show. This concept neatly summarises the 13.78 billion years of our universe by condensing events to one calendar year- from the Big Bang at midnight on January 1, to the present day at 23.59pm on December 31. On this scale, our industrial revolution happened just 14 seconds ago.

While the complexity of the science covered in this first episode hardly surpassed high-school standard, it was nevertheless engaging and informative, particularly for those who may not have any interest in the sciences.

This post is the first in a two-part review. See part two here.

Human lungs grown in the lab for the first time

Scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) have grown lungs in the laboratory for the first time. By taking parts of damaged lungs from children, they have been able to nurture a set of lungs to the point of being able to react to air.

I found this story through New York Daily News and was then able to get the original release from UTMB. This news item is of particular significance because it brings about two scientific breakthroughs.

Firstly, an organ as complex as a lung has not been artificially created in a lab environment in the past.  There is a bucketful of reasons why artificial organ growth is challenging but these researchers have been able to break down some of those barriers.

Secondly, their methods were very interesting. Taking an ‘abnormal’ approach allowed them to create something relatively ‘normal’. By using two lungs taken from two separate children who died, the researchers created a scaffold from one lung to use as a ‘soft-tissue backbone’ that could have the damaged tissue from the second child’s lung grafted on to it.

Submerging the grafted lung into a nutritional solution for one month to allow the cells to repair, spread, grow, and become somewhat functional. After this, the scientists took out the lungs and pumped them full of air, to which a lung responded by receiving the air, seen when the tiny air sacs- the alveoli-  expanded.

Reconstructed lungs

The lungs after being stripped of material, ready to be used as a scaffold (left). The lungs after being submerged 30 days (right).

While this work can be considered a revolution in artificial organ creation, any resulting impact to those who need an organ transplant is still a while away. It is a step forward nonetheless.

“My students will be doing the work when I’m old and retired and can’t hold a pipette anymore,” says Professor Joan Nichols, who headed the team responsible for the experiment. More complex lungs will need to be grown before any sort of animal trials can begin, not forgetting an exhaustive list of clinical trials in humans.

Perhaps with collaboration with stem cell researchers, this kind of work can have a prosperous outcome for all. Finding some way to utilise stem cells’ ability to adapt to very specific purposes could improve artificial organ growth times and the overall effectiveness of the organ in question.

“In terms of different cell types, the lung is probably the most complex of all organs — the cells near the entrance are very different from those deep in the lung,” said Dr. Joaquin Cortiella who leads the UTMB group.

“If we can make a good lung for people, we can also make a good model for injury.”

The brilliance of this news should not be shadowed by the long road ahead. While the lung is one of the most complex organs in terms of cell complexity and diversity, these sort of promising results are good news for those on the always over-encumbered transplant lists.

[Cover Image via Creative Commons]

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The wonders of science

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’ ” -Isaac Asimov, biochemist and scientific author

Every person has their likes and dislikes, fandoms and hobbies, obsessions and distastes. Whether you have an interest in the sciences or not, it is one of the few groups of topics that has a profound impact on the way we live our lives.

Controversies, personal beliefs, and distrusts aside, the practice of science has propelled the human race further in the last 100 years than anything ever studied. Science has brought us every single one of our technical advances, our wealth of medical knowledge, and continues to satisfy our desire to learn about the reality in which we live.

Energy coil

Science is an ongoing endeavour, with new discoveries, techniques and experiments being made every day.  It is far from the dull and uninteresting side of life which many people have branded it as. Fascinating scientific news emerges all the time, so the propose of this blog over the next number of weeks will highlight some of these. From chemistry to space exploration, zoology to microbiology, diverse and insightful stories will be covered on this website in both an informative manner and with my own  personal angle.

It is time to dispel the stereotypical image of test tubes and lab coats… so let’s find out what is new in the world around you?

Image Credit: chase_elliot via Creative Commons (Flickr