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Cosmos Says We're Made of "Stardust"; But Is That All?

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Last night's episode of Cosmos was highlighted by a fascinating discussion of how scientists have determined the compositions of stars, and what happens when different types of stars die, producing phenomena like supernovae, black holes, or even more rarely, a hypernova. The science-lover and sci-fi fan in me was glued to the screen. After recounting how the pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin bravely bucked the consensus of the male-dominated astrophysical community in the 1920s, showing that the sun was made primarily of hydrogen and helium, Tyson remarked: "The words of the powerful may prevail in other spheres of human experience, but in science, the only thing that counts is the evidence, and the logic of the argument itself." If only that were always true!

200x200cosmos.jpgAs we saw in response to the episode a couple of weeks ago, plenty of scientists have said that when it comes to neo-Darwinism, the presentation of counterevidence often isn't tolerated. The history of science shows this in other fields as well: Some 15 years before Payne-Gaposckin published her discoveries, Alfred Wegener was widely ridiculed and roundly rejected because of his belief in continental drift.*** For such reasons, the great historian of science Thomas Kuhn said, "No part of the aim of normal science is to call forth new sorts of phenomena; indeed those that will not fit the box are often not seen at all. Nor do scientists normally aim to invent new theories, and they are often intolerant of those invented by others."

Nonetheless, most of last night's installment was great science, history, and science communication. It wasn't until the very end that Tyson couldn't help but get all fuzzy and materialistic. He enthused: "Our ancestors worshipped the sun. They were far from foolish. It makes good sense to revere the sun and stars because we are their children." He went on to say that all of our elements, our society, everything about us is "stardust." He explained, "We are made by the atoms and the stars" and "our matter and our form are forged by the great and ancient cosmos of which we are a part." But is that the end of the story, as Tyson makes it sound? Is our "form" forged by the cosmos alone?

We've already dealt with Tyson's failure to recognize that producing a life-friendly planet like our own -- whether from "stardust" or something else -- requires an incredible amount of fine-tuning. And that fine-tuning by itself won't even get you life. I'm sorry, but supernova explosions don't produce -- in any way, shape or form -- the conditions necessary for generating the complex and specified language-based code that underlies all life on Earth.

Tyson takes no notice of the reality that we live on a privileged planet, and instead has throughout Cosmos opted to subtly promote a position ultimately more like that of Bill Nye, who said:

I'm insignificant. ... I am just another speck of sand. And the Earth really in the cosmic scheme of things is another speck. And the sun an unremarkable star. Nothing special about the sun. The sun is another speck. And the galaxy is a speck. I'm a speck on a speck orbiting a speck among other specks among still other specks in the middle of specklessness. I suck.
But this simply ignores the mountains of evidence for the fine-tuning needed for our cosmos, galaxy, solar system, and planet to allow a life-friendly habitat. So no, we are not "forged" by the cosmos. And while the life-friendly cosmos points to design, cosmic fine-tuning alone is necessary but not sufficient to generate life. If there really were nothing more than Tyson's materialistic universe, we wouldn't be here to talk about it.

*** There was some decent evidence for continental drift even in Wegener's time -- e.g., fit of the continents, fossils on matching places across the Atlantic -- both of which are still regularly cited in geology textbooks as evidence for continental drift. Anti-drift scientists had weak rebuttals to the evidence Wegener cited, appealing to the migration of organisms across oceans or over ancient land bridges, and claiming the correlations were basically mere coincidence. Obviously the case for continental drift wasn't nearly as strong as it was after paleomagnetic data was discovered decades later, but that doesn't mean there was zero good evidence in Wegener's time, and it doesn't mean Wegener deserved the nasty dismissal or the ridicule he received. It also doesn't mean scientists behaved objectively about the situation -- that's an important point because Tyson in Cosmos promotes a naïve view of science that scientists are like perfectly objective robots.

Image source: Fox TV.