Atoms of Cambridge
The first 1/3 of the episode is centered in and around Cambridge university,
where atomic structure was first discovered. Sagan gives quite a complete
explanation of atoms here, from size and scale, to their composition
from the building blocks of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and the various
forces that need to be rebalanced to put things together. These sequences
are kept lively by creative use of the location and many different props.
Since this sequence is primarily concerned with all you need to know for
the later stellar phenomena sequences, it doesn't quite go far enough
to cover topics like ions (basically atoms that do NOT have the right number
of electrons to be electrically balanced), or the concept of building molecules
out of atoms, which could get us into valences and completing various electron orbit
shells. Perhaps that should ideally be in a different episode if done at all though,
because the atomic section that we do get is a hefty chunk in itself, after which
the episode makes a stylistic and visual shift, and enjoys a burst of new energy
as it tackles some different ideas altogether.
Suns and Supernovae
The episode makes a successful return to outer space and the depths of time
for its next segment. We begin with a review of what we know about the
composition of our own sun, and the processes at work there. This is a visually
beautiful stretch of the program. Modern presentations of the show feature
some excellent full motion CGI, which is mixed with actual scientific photography
and film of our own sun's churning gases and corona, ejecting plumes of material
into space. Sagan then describes the details of the changes the sun will
undergo in its lifetime, and contrasts this with other types of stars. This
he does very nicely and succinctly, such that viewers are prompted to come out
of this episode with a very clear idea of what many celestial objects are,
and what it is that makes them different or special.
But the most definitive sequence of the episode comes next, as Sagan takes us in
the familiar Ship of the Imagination to witness a supernova explosion. It's
about the only time in the series that we get a bit of high tension and drama
in the ship, which helps the sequence stand out a bit. Some of the graphics
don't seem very modern, but they have a unique bit of charm to them. How well-built
is Sagan's ship? How many of these forces can it withstand? The sequence wraps
up by connecting the dots appreciably. It is thanks to prior Supernova explosions that
we get to enjoy all the heavier atomic elements that these big powerful stars
fused and synthesized in their interiors.
One thing I always found a bit creepy is the casual way
Sagan handles radioactive uranium in the cave,
adding only a pair of gloves to his usual outfit.
It doesn't seem too surprising to me then, that he passed
away at an early age....
Another most memorable bit is the portrayal of the timespan of
Human observations of the Crab Nebula - ancient cultures recording
what was likely a supernova explosion in that location, while
modern astronomers regard the nebula as the gaseous outer shell
of that supernova, and the rapidly spinning pulsar in the center
as the supernova's core remains.
The details of what a pulsar is
kick off the episode's final segment of wilder ideas of various
space phenomena that may be out there, and the wilder branch of
physics that may support those types of objects. There's quite
a large variety of things here, such that new things continue to
pop out on subsequent viewings. Before it's all over,
Sagan gets quite poetic and excited about it all, and the episode
comes to a grand, exciting, and once more visually exquisite conclusion.
In terms of having any content I might have a disagreement with,
the episode is also fairly pure. There are a few hints
at limiting evolutionary possibilities, but these are quite
faint ghosts of material already tackled head-on in
episode 2. There's also a tiny bit
about Einstein's theories to support the concept of
black holes. I don't know if any aspect of this might
one day seem dated, but black holes currently still work for me,
and Sagan does present them in a milieu of fascinating speculative ideas.
But, you've gotta love the supernova sequences, the pulsars,
the discussion of the Crab Nebula as it was observed down
through history, and the sequence of wrapping Cambridge up
in a Googolplex as though it was a sophomore prank.
Yes, episode 9 here is one of the better ones,
and a good highlight to look forward to during the later
parts of the run.