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Humanist Essay for May 2014
"Renaissance 2.1"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM May 2014 Newsletter.]

I'm glad that the new Cosmos series is airing two nights a week, because sometimes it takes two viewings to see it all. I confess, I am apt to nod off during any program about astronomy. Once the screen is filled with the night sky, and we start zooming through outer space, my mind begins to drift off into space as well. We are traveling at the speed of light...tracing the universe back in time...approaching the Big Bang...entering a Black Hole...

I almost dozed off just thinking about it. Black Holes do it every time, not to mention quarks, dark matter, neutrinos... I have been known to fall asleep during the opening credits. To be fair, it's not only astronomy. Programs on paleontology and biology can have the same effect. And once the double helix shows up, and a narrator starts breaking down the components of DNA... Good night, nurse! I'm doing better with the new Cosmos, which benefits greatly from advances in digital production. There is nothing the artists cannot do in the way of animation, and the writers and directors are adept at using their skills to keep my attention on the screen.

Maybe you've noticed how the current series uses high-tech visualizations to convey abstract concepts and phenomena beyond natural human perception, but turns to fairly rudimentary animations to depict the historical events surrounding scientific discoveries. When a story is of a human scale, we don't need all those bells and whistles to keep us tuned in - our own experience allows us to mentally flesh out the characters, even their inner emotions, from a graphically flat, almost abstracted presentation. By approaching its topics from a variety of angles and points of view, Cosmos keeps my attention from flying into space and drifting off into dreamland. The shows jump around a bit much - from the Big Bang to life in a dewdrop - but I can't complain. Those conceptual leaps and directorial cuts have kept me not only awake but actively processing the wide-ranging and complex material.

The great challenge of science is achieving objectivity. What is true, has been true, and will remain true, regardless of human perception and consciousness? Since we only know the world through our minds and living experience, we must engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to imagine ourselves outside of humanity, to think through what reality is on the macro scale of the entire cosmos and the micro scale of genes and atoms. Mathematics, at once relentlessly precise and utterly abstract, provides a specialized language through which to deal objectively with our explorations of the world.

The challenge of teaching science and math also involves subjectivity. We must make all of that objective knowledge meaningful to the students, so they will be motivated to learn. But desire alone isn't enough. New information sticks better if it can be attached to some relevant existing knowledge or familiar activity. The simple act of drawing or viewing a picture can be sufficient to make that connection. Biographies of people who figured out how things work create an emotional connection and provide a common narrative context - the life story - which brings otherwise remote matters into focus.

The arts and sciences have always been inextricably linked. What I find so exciting about art and science in the digital age is that the correlation of the two has come so close as to actually eliminate, in many cases, that old fudge factor we used to call "artistic license." The artists and animators of today's science programs can readily translate a point to a pixel to produce an absolutely accurate graphic representation of how and where and when particles, cells, people and planets exist. They may use the very same tools that the scientists use - the same tools that we ourselves may have available on our home computers and even our phones.

Cosmos demonstrates the heights to which our digital age can take us. The series' exceptional integration of disciplines points to a potential coming Renaissance for the 21st century, in which human knowledge and artistic expression will again surge forward in tandem. I hope I'm not just dreaming.

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Copyright © 2014 Zelda Gatuskin

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