A Yangshao Culture statue from China, dating back about 6,000 years. Image: Wikimedia
Every week, Becky Ferreira, your hostess with the cosmostest, hones in on the most important science and history topics the hit show Cosmos glosses over. Previously: What 'Cosmos' Got Wrong About Thales of Miletus, the World's First Scientist.
“The Clean Room” was the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to focus entirely on one scientist: Clair Cameron Patterson. It was a smart choice, as Patterson's life story exemplifies how science, like any other endeavor, can be easily corrupted by money. That's some gritty territory that the show hasn't really explored, and I hope we see more of it in the remaining episodes.
For those who aren't familiar, Patterson discovered that leaded gas was poisoning practically every life form on Earth. His research was widely suppressed by the lead industry (surprise, surprise), and he was even ridiculed and excluded from major scientific organizations, like the Public Health Service and the National Research Council.
A weaker person would have given up, but Patterson kept swimming against the tide until he finally helped pass the Clean Air Act in 1970. We owe the 80 percent drop in blood lead levels to him, not to mention that his legacy—both moral and scientific—has inspired many scientists to continue lobbying against the use of fossil fuels.
But saving countless people from early graves wasn't Patterson's only gift to humanity. He also pioneered the technique of uranium-lead dating, and used it to estimate the accurate age of Earth for the very first time. Using samples from the Canyon Diablo meteorite, he calculated that the planet must be around 4.55 billion years old.
Neil deGrasse Tyson positively reveled in explaining how Patterson arrived at this answer and, again, called out creationists directly. He pointed out that Archbishop James Ussher had calculated the Earth's birth date by adding up all the “begets” in the Bible, and proposed that adding up the begets of sedimentary layers was a scientific way of applying the same logic. The big difference, of course, is that scientists get an answer in the billions, while Ussher came to the conclusion that Earth's birthday was October 22, 4004 BCE at 6 PM. “It was a Saturday,” Tyson wryly noted.
Tyson and his co-creators are clearly having a great time refuting the creationist timeline, and though it is undeniably low-hanging fruit, I want to get in on the action too. “The Clean Room” was too focused on Patterson's scientific methods to really get into what was going on, historically speaking, when October 22, 4004 BCE rolled around. But rest assured, the people living at the tail end of the fifth millennium BCE were busy, and I bet they would be peeved to find out that 6,000 years later, a group of extremists would deny that they existed on the grounds that the planet hadn't even been born yet.
For example, October 22, 4004 BCE fell right in the middle of a centuries-long pivot point in Mesopotamia. It was the tail-end of the Ubaid period (5500-4000 BCE), which was characterized by large-scale settlements in the alluvial plains of Iraq. People of this time were apparently as obsessed with lizard-headed humans as conspiracy theorist David Icke is today. Loads of clay figurines of humanoid reptilians have been uncovered from the period, along with early currencies, temples, and mud-brick architecture.
A map of Ubaid cultural sites, via John D. Croft
The Ubaid people were in for a shock though, because the 5.9 kiloyear event would rear its head around 3800 BCE. This period of intense aridity forced people out of the parched southern lands to re-settle in river valleys like the Nile. This migration was the catalyst for the revolving door of great city-state empires that would take hold in the Fertile Crescent, beginning with the Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE). Uruk is considered by many archeologists to be the first true city, and the people who built it would also find the time to invent cuneiform writing.
The Nile wasn't the only river breathing new life into human civilization on October 22, 4004 BCE. The Yangshao people of China's Yellow River were in their peak at that time, having first settled the area at the tail end of the sixth millennium. They were a sophisticated bunch of farmers, architects, and crafters, and they left behind a wealth of artifacts, including a strikingly modern tripod pot. Unaffected by the desertification of North Africa, the Yangshao thrived in the region until 2000 BCE, though they would be known as the Longshan people at that point.
Theta Boötis was the pole star on October 22, 4004 BCE, not Polaris. Sophisticated rice farms had been built in Asia, and maize cultivation was in full swing in Mexico. Beer was definitely imbibed in communities across the ancient world, solidifying alliances as much as it does today.
Point being: Saturday was definitely interesting enough on its own merits without shoehorning the mythical birth of a planet into the mix. It was a rich period of cultural curiosity that would plant the seeds for the Bronze Age, and all that came after. Once again, Cosmos provocatively debunked the foggy thinking of the anti-science crowd, and on Easter Sunday no less. Let's hope nobody changed the channel.