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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. bbqplatypus318
    May 28, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    Nothing to take issue with here – Cosmos was a truly great show. I had an elementary school teacher who would frequently play excerpts from it on those inevitable "wheel out the old TV set" days. It really opened my mind up as a fourth/fifth grader.

    But as someone with a moderate interest in history (I was two courses short of a minor), the Alexandria bit has always REALLY irked me, because it's wrong in nearly all its particulars. It gets the Great Library wrong. (No, Christians didn't destroy it – it was already lost when the Serapeum was destroyed. And no, we wouldn't be on Mars by now if it hadn't been lost – it didn't contain hundreds of thousands of volumes, most or possibly even nearly all of its volumes were not unique, and natural philosophy was not yet closely tied to practical technology anyway). It gets Late Antiquity wrong (by accepting Gibbon's reasons for the fall of the Empire).

    It gets the Middle Ages wrong (no, it WASN'T a Dark Age of knowledge).

    And it gets the death of Hypatia and even who she was and what she did wrong. Her death was awful and came at the hands of a mob, but she obviously wasn't the "last scientist of the Great Library" – again, it no longer existed. She wasn't killed for being a woman of science – though misogyny could have and probably did play a role. She was killed because it was popularly believed – falsely – that her influence on the Roman prefect Orestes was preventing him from reconciling with the Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril. Alexandria was a very violent place in those times – extremely prone to rioting and assassinations during late antiquity. This doesn't excuse what happened, of course – and it's still very easy to imagine how misogyny could have played a role in her murder (e.g. "That evil witch has cast her spell on the Prefect, etc."). But her study of natural philosophy had nothing to do with it.

    There's an awful lot of terrible things that can be laid on the feet of organized religion – but suppression of science in the Middle Ages and Late Antiquity isn't one of them. The placing of religion and science in binary opposition is a recent idea – sadly, it's one that nobody has embraced more enthusiastically than religious fundamentalists.

    Simply getting the facts wrong would annoy me enough, but as you said, it feeds into a toxic Eurocentric and pro-Imperial narrative that is depressingly prevalent in the popular conception of history. A couple years back there was a movie called Agora which none-too-subtly framed this event as being analogous to the alleged modern struggle between those brave noble Western scientists and the evil brown freedom-hating Muslims. (No, seriously – you can tell who the "good guys" are in that movie by which ones look the whitest). The fact that Alejandro Amenabar pointed to Cosmos's depiction of this event as an influence is a deeply unfortunate indication of how badly he bungled his history here.

    None of this erases the show's many virtues, of course. On the whole, getting this show to air on American television was a very noble endeavor. But it still sticks in my craw personally.

    Forgive me for the length of this post – I wrote a paper on the subject once, and I'll be damned if I don't take the one opportunity I have to make that come in handy. I could've made this CONSIDERABLY longer.


  2. Josh Marsfelder
    May 28, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    Hey, by all means go for it. Or do an essay of your own on it, clearly it's a topic that's important to you. There's only so much I can say in one tangential blog post, and it sounds like you have more to say about Cosmos than I did!


  3. bbqplatypus318
    May 28, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    In all likelihood, it would consist of nothing that Tim O'Neill (who's probably forgotten more about history than I'll ever know) hasn't already said. Though I find his occasional descents into smugness a little annoying, he's never not informative.


  4. Daru
    June 19, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    I watched the clip you suggested and yes it did blow me away – one the best little pieces of TV ever.


  5. Josh Marsfelder
    June 20, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

    Isn't it, though? That's really all you need from this show as far as I'm concerned.


  6. Daru
    June 20, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

    Yeah I think you re right, I maybe have a half-memory in my brain of the rest of the show. But really this fragment is perfect.


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