The Scientists of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey



I’m sure I wasn’t the only scientist that was excited when it was announced Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was going to host the new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I was excited that American homes everywhere were going to be filled with cutting-edge science that used engaging graphics. And it doesn’t hurt that Tyson already had a well established pop culture presence, he’s relatable with a sense of humor previously demonstrated on shows like Colbert Report and The Big Bang Theory. As an educator, I’m always looking for fresh resources to use, especially because Tyson looks more like many of my former students than most scientists.

But with all the expectations I had about the show, what was a pleasant and unexpected surprise was the level of humanity Tyson brought to science. He puts faces, names, and personalities to the science concepts we navigate through in our everyday life. He shows that scientists had stepparents they didn’t like, had money issues, spent time with their children, enjoyed coffee with friends, squabbled with each other, sought out revenge, had bosses that were jerks, worried about the health of their communities, and sacrificed their life in the name of science. This is a side of science that even I wasn’t fully aware of.  This humanity allows a wider variety of people to potentially see themselves as scientists, which benefits our society as a whole.

Below are a list of all the scientists mentioned in the first season of the show. Some scientists were featured in-depth, while others were only a brief one-time mention. Seeing how Neil had a wealth of scientists to choose from to highlight in the show, I figured anyone mentioned has to be a key figure in the rich history of science. My favorite episode recaps are by Dok Zoom at so I’ll be including the links to those recaps. (I don’t agree with all the opinions but they’re informative and make me laugh, which is a great combo. Plus, I enjoyed reading summaries from someone who isn’t a scientist, it was a refreshing look at science as if I had new eyes.)


-Copernicus (1473-1543) Polish mathematician and astronomer. Learn more.

-Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) Italian philosopher and monk. Learn more.

Bruno’s love for God brought him to explore science and our place in the cosmos. He reasoned that God was limitless, so the universe had to also be limitless. He was burned for heresy and pantheism because he stated that the Sun was just one of many stars. Watch here.

Giordano Bruno

-Lucretius Roman philosopher that wrote “The Nature of Things” in 50 BCE. Learn more.

-Galileo (1564-1642) Italian astronomer placed under house arrest for heresy. Learn more.

-Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American astronomer. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “Gentlemen, Start Your Starships”



-Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist and geologist. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “The One With Evolution In It”



-Jan Oort, (1900-1992) Dutch astronomer. Learn more.

Jan Oort

-Edmond Halley (1656-1742) English astronomer and mathematician. Learn more.

He was a curious child, that was excited instead of scared by a passing comet. As an adult, Halley wanted to know why the planets move the way they do. He became so passionate to know why, that when he learned that Newton had the answer, he paid to publish the book out of his own pocket. His various financial decisions made his wife pretty unhappy.

-Isaac Newton (1643-1727) English natural philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. Learn more.

Newton had a rough childhood. His father died before he was born, his mother left him and returned with a new family and a stepfather that Newton despised. He struggled making friends and took criticism to heart. When Hooke suggested Newton stole an idea from him, Newton became a recluse. It wasn’t until the friendship with Halley that Newton came out of his shell. It’s suggested that once Hooke died, Newton took revenge on Hooke by burning the only painting of him.

Edmond Halley (left) and Isaac Newton (right) building a friendship around their love of the cosmos

-Robert Hooke (1635-1703) English natural philosopher. Learn more.

Hooke liked making claims that he could find the answers to the questions of the cosmos, but wasn’t able to produce the results he promised. He had a habit of accusing Newton of stealing his ideas. It’s suggested that no one knows what Hooke looks like because Newton burned the only painting of him as revenge.

Edmond Halley (left), Christopher Wren (center), Robert Hooke (right) having coffee while discussing the Cosmos

-Christopher Wren (1632-1723) English architect and astronomer. Learn more.

-Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) German mathematician and astronomer. Learn more.

-Nicephorus Gregoras (1295-1360) Byzantine astronomer. Learn more.

-Captain James Cook (1728-1779) British explorer. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Beats Up On God Some More”



-William Herschel (1738-1822) British-German astronomer. Learn more.

Herschel shared his love of the cosmos with his son John, pointing out that looking at a star is looking into the past.

-John Herschel (1792-1871) son of William Herschel and English mathematician, chemist, and inventor. Learn more.

John Herschel was inspired by the time he spent with his father that he went on to become a scientist himself, continuing exploration of the stars and contributing to photography.

William Herschel with young son, John Herschel

-Galileo (1564-1642) Italian astronomer placed under house arrest for heresy. Learn more.

-Isaac Newton (1643-1727) English natural philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. Learn more.

-Michael Faraday (1791-1867) English physicist. Learn more.

-James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) Scottish physicist. Learn more.

-Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-born theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

-John Michell (1724-1793) British astronomer and geologist. Learn more.

Michell is somewhat of a mystery. He was described as “a little short man, of black complexion, and fat.” But the term black did not always mean of African descent, sometimes it was also used to describeSpaniards, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, Ethiopians, or Jews.”

John Michell is depicted in Cosmos as a black man, but that may not be his true race

John Michell is depicted in Cosmos as a black man, but that may not be his true race

Cosmos Recap: “The Speed of Light Is Very Unfair to Creationists”



This was the first episode of Cosmos where diversity was introduced. Thus far, most of the historical scientists mentioned were European, had a Christian background, and were born into wealthy educated families. Now Tyson begins the story of scientists that don’t fit that stereotype.

-Mozi, or Mo Tzu (470-390 BCE) Chinese philosopher, creator of the camera obscura, and founder of Mohism. Learn more.

Mozi was the creator of the camera obscure and the founder of Mohism, a philosophy that encouraged non-violence, universal love, equality, and the end of blind obedience. He believed in questioning and using the senses to provide the evidence needed to draw conclusions.


-Ibn Alhazen, or al-Haytham (965-1040) Iraqi mathematician, astronomer, and father of optics. Learn more.

Alhazen loved nature and questioned the things that others took for granted. As a seeker of the truth, he advised others to withhold judgement, question and critically examine everything including our own thoughts so that our prejudices don’t cloud our conclusions.

Ibn Alhazen

Ibn Alhazen

-Galileo (1564-1642) Italian astronomer placed under house arrest for heresy. Learn more.

-Isaac Newton (1643-1727) English natural philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. Learn more.

Isaac Newton

-William Herschel (1738-1822) British-German astronomer. Learn more.

William Herschel

William Herschel

Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826) German optician. Learn more.

Fraunhofer was orphaned at 11 years old and was given to a master that wouldn’t let him attend school, forced him to stir the toxic chemicals needed to make glass during the day and clean his house by night. Then, due to his master’s house tragically collapsing, a Bavarian prince took interest in Fraunhofer and provided him a position a the Optical Institute. There he designed lenses, telescopes and discovered the mysteries of light. (As a side note: It turns out I’m not the only one that wondered while watching if working with the toxic chemicals needed to make glass contributed to him dying at the age of 39 from tuberculosis. Especially once you take into consideration what also happened to Faraday in Episode 10 who worked with glass as well.)

Joseph von Fraunhofer

Joseph von Fraunhofer in his youth (left) under the thumb of a harsh master and then as an adult (right) doing what he loves, science

Cosmos Recap: “We Bet You Didn’t Understand All The Stuff About Spectroscopy Either”



-Charles Darwin (1809-1882) English naturalist and geologist. Learn more.

-Thales (620-546 BCE) Greek philosopher. Learn more.


-Democritus (460-370 BCE) Greek philosopher. Learn more.

A philosopher known for being jolly, social, and enjoying lots of wine. He was quoted “Life without parties would be like an endless road without an inn.”


Democritus enjoying people and wine

-Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) Austrian theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “Let’s Get Small”



-Clair Patterson (1922-1995) American geochemist. Learn more.

Patterson was a rebellious boy who didn’t do well in school, but loved science. He started off working with Brown and finding the age of the earth using the radioactive decay of uranium to lead. However, he consequently discovered that the levels of lead were unnaturally high and posed a health risk to everyone. The lead was coming from the leaded gasoline fuel used in the day as well as many other everyday products. He spoke out about it, lost the financial support of his major funder who at the time happened to be the oil industry. And fought a 20 year battle in the courts to get lead banned from commercial products. Because he cared enough to stand up against the unethical use of science by large corporations, we all live in a healthier environment.

Clair Patterson worrying about what the dangerous levels of lead in the environment will do to the health of his community

-Harrison Brown (1917-1986) American geochemist. Learn more.

Brown was depicted as a laid back geologist who would say things to Patterson like finding the age of the Earth would be as easy as “duck soup.”

Harrison Brown

Harrison Brown

-Lorna (Laurie) McCleary American chemist. This is the first mention of a female scientist on Cosmos, is mentioned as wife of Claire Patterson. The two worked on the Manhattan Project together. Learn more.

-Charles Lyell (1797-1875) British geologist. Learn more.

-Michael Faraday (1791-1867) English physicist. Learn more.

-JJ Thomson (1856-1940) British physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

-Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) New Zealand-born physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

-Robert A. Kehoe (1893-1992) American toxicologist. Learn more as well as here.

Kehoe was a medical doctor hired by the oil industry to provide misinformation around the dangers of lead poisoning. He is one of the first documented cases of industry using scientists to to confuse people about science. Kehoe purported that since lead was a naturally occurring element, the levels of lead Patterson found was normal and not dangerous.

Robert A. Kehoe spreading misinformation regarding lead poisoning

Cosmos Recap: “How Calculating The Age of The Earth Saved Us From Lead Poisoning”



This is the first episode that shows women contributing significant bodies of work to science. It’s also the only episode that shows an entire team of people collaborating and working on the same problem at the same time.

-Edward Charles Pickering (1846-1919) American astronomer and physicist. Learn more.

-Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) American astronomer. Learn more.

Cannon was a deaf woman who was one of the key figures in “Pickering’s Harem.” Cannon took Payne under her wing as she started her research about stars.

Annie Jump Cannon

-Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) American astronomer. Learn more.

Leavitt was also a deaf woman who was one of the key figures in “Pickering’s Harem.”

Henrietta Swan Leavitt

-Pickering’s Harem (1906-1920). Learn more.

A group of women that studied and cataloged the stars as part of Pickering’s lab. They were also know as Harvard Computers.

Pickering's Harem

Pickering’s Harem

Cecilia H Payne (1900-1979) British-American astronomer and astrophysicist. Learn more.

Payne left England because women weren’t yet as welcome in academia as they were in America. She worked with Cannon, Leavitt, and the other women of Pickering’s Harem studying stars. Her dissertation concluded that stars are made primarily of hydrogen and helium, and that the composition of stars were very different from the composition of Earth. This went against the thinking of the time. Payne was discouraged by Russell suggesting her conclusions were impossible. And as most graduate students, she doubted herself and double guessed her work. Unfortunately she eventually caved and edited her dissertation to conform to the thinking of the time. (Even more unfortunate, I think many women and minorities in sciences still feel that deep sense of self doubt today.)

Cecilia Payne doubting her work

Cecilia Payne doubting her work

-Henry Norris Russell (1877-1957) American astronomer. Learn more.

Instead of recognizing Payne’s work as revolutionary scientific findings, he found them to be flawed. However, once he realized she was correct, he gave her credit for the discovery.

Henry Russell feeling sorry for Payne because he felt her work was incorrect

Henry Russell feeling sorry for Payne because he felt her work was incorrect

-Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) British astronomer and astrophysicist. Learn more.

-Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-born theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “99 Problems But A Hypernova Ain’t One”



-Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) Flemish cartographer and geographer. Learn more.

-Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) German meteorologist and geophysicist. Learn more.

Wegener fought and was wounded in WWI. He used his recovery time to continue his investigation of fossils which lead him to conclude Earth moves through continental drift, and named the supercontinent Pangea. Even though he became the laughing stock of the scientific community, he died coming back from bringing food to colleagues who were trapped on the Greenland icecap.

Alfred Wegener conducting research even while recovering from being wounded in WWI

Alfred Wegener conducting research even while recovering from being wounded in WWI

-Marie Tharp (1920-2006) American geologist and oceanographic cartographer. Learn more.

As an early female scientist, Tharpe encountered plenty of discrimination but she never let it stop her from believing in her work. (As a side note: She had to rely on Heezen’s sonar data because women were not allowed on research vessels. Learn more.When Tharpe first noticed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in this Cosmos episode Heezen responded “aww jeez Marie, this is just more girl talk.” But she refused to be dissuaded, she convinced Heezen when she overlaid the epicenter of oceanic earthquakes onto her seafloor map.

Marie Tharp presenting the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to Bruce Heezen

Bruce Heezen (1924-1977) American geologist. Learn more.

Heezen worked alongside Tharpe and initially dismissed her conclusions as “girl talk” but then realized she was correct. (He continued working with her until his death on a research vessel.)

Marie Tharpe (left) and Bruce Heezen (right) working as a team

Marie Tharpe (left) and Bruce Heezen (right) working as a team

 This episode also produced one of the most popular quotes from the entire Cosmos series:

Oh snap! Tyson let's us know about ourselves! #climatechange

Oh snap! Tyson let’s us know about ourselves! #climatechange

Cosmos Recap: “The One With Geology And Also Too Global Warming”



-Michael Faraday (1791-1867) English inventor and electrical pioneer. Learn more.

Faraday was born poor in squalid slums, he hated school, and prayed. He then went to work binding books and read everything he bound. His thirst for knowledge led him to attend the science shows that Davy offered to the public. Faraday thought Davy was so cool, he made a book from the notes he took during one of Davy’s shows. When Davy became injured, he took Faraday on as an assistant. But the moment Faraday proved to be too intelligent for his humble beginnings, Davy became threatened and shipped Faraday off to slave over perfecting glass (which he never did perfect). Once Davy died, Faraday was finally able to pursue science on his own terms. But, he became mentally ill with memory loss and struggled to complete his work. During this time his wife was depicted as being encouraging and supportive. (As a side note: I suspect his memory loss and mental illness may have been triggered by working in the toxic environment while making glass. Especially since Fraunhofer, as seen in episode 5, who also worked with glass became ill as well.) Even with a disadvantage, Faraday went on to make revolutionize science. What’s really interesting is his biggest discovery about electromagnetic energy could not have been made if he hadn’t gone to make glass. He also started the tradition of the Christmas lectures for the youth that carry on even today.

A young Michael Faraday revolutionized science inspite of his humble beginnings and a crappy boss

-Isaac Newton (1643-1727) English natural philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. Learn more.

-Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-born theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

-Humphry Davy (1778-1829) Cornish chemist and inventor. Learn more.

In this episode Davy was definitely depicted as an arrogant man (watch this) that was an insecure, jealous and a crappy boss to Faraday. However, many of his failings actually catapulted Faraday into a position where he could make his groundbreaking scientific findings. If it wasn’t for Davy’s arrogance he may have never started the public science shows where Faraday first met him. And if it wasn’t for his jealousy and insecurity he wouldn’t have sent Faraday to work on recreating Fraunhofer’s famous Bavarian glass. If Faraday hadn’t worked with glass, he would’ve been missing that final element to make one of his largest scientific breakthroughs. (So I guess that jerk that you work with has a purpose after all, even though it doesn’t seem obvious at first.)

Humphry Davy during one of his public science shows, which helped inspire Faraday to pursue science

-Robert Stawell Ball (1840-1913) Irish astronomer. Learn more.

-Julian Huxley (1887-1975) English evolutionary biologist. Learn more.

-Desmond Morris (1928-present) English zoologist. Learn more. 

-David Attenborough (1926-present) English naturalist and broadcaster. Learn more.

-Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American astronomer. Learn more.

-Richard Dawkins (1941-present) English evolutionary biologist and ethologist. Learn more.

-Susan Greenfield (1950-present) English neuroscientist and broadcaster. Learn more.

-James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) Scottish physicistLearn more.

Maxwell came from a wealthy family and had the schooling Faraday lacked to do the math to complete his work on energy. Maxwell used Faraday’s work to return the favor that Faraday had done for Davy, Maxwell presented Faraday with a book of his work, including the math that Faraday couldn’t do.

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell

Cosmos Recap: “Finally, How The Motherf***ing Magnets Work”



-Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American astronomer. Learn more.

-Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-born theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: “Live Forever Or Die Trying”



-Charles David Keeling (1928-2005) American oceanographer. Learn more.

-Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) French mathematician and physicist. Learn more.

-Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) Swedish physicist, chemist, and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

-E.O. Hulburt American physicist. Learn more.

-Guy Callendar (1898-1964) English engineer and inventor. Learn more.

-Gilbert Plass (1920-2004) Canadian physicist. Learn more.

-Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American astronomer. Learn more.

-Wallace Broecker (1931-present) American geologist. Learn more.

-James Hansen (1941-present) American astrophysicist and climatologist. Learn more.

-Augustin Mouchot (1825-1911) French math teacher and inventor. Learn more.

Mouchot was a showman at the fair that knew how to show off his solar powered freezer to the public by making ice for a hot day. He took the gold medal home from the fair. But because the price of coal plummeted, there was no need to further develop solar power. Mouchot lost his funding.

Augustin Mouchot

-Frank Shuman (1862-1918) American inventor and engineer. Learn more.

Shuman created a solar power plant to irrigate the desert, that was a success. It was cheaper than coal, but then oil became the fuel of the time. When WWI broke out, Shuman’s power plant was dismantled so the meta could be used for weapons.

Frank Shuman

Frank Shuman

Cosmos Recap: “The Big Damn Climate Change Episode”



-Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE) Greek mathematician invented geography. Learn more.

-Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) Greek philosopher and mathematician. Learn more.

-Hypatia (350-415) female Greek astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher. Learn more.

-Euclid (325-270 BCE) Greek mathematician. Learn more.

-Martin Behaim (1459-1507) Portuguese geographer. Learn more.

-Victor Hess (1883-1964) Austrian-American physicist and Nobel Laureate. Learn more.

Hess tried to solve the mystery of cosmic rays.

Victor Hess

Victor Hess

-Fritz Zwicky (1898-1974) Swiss astronomer. Learn more.

Tyson described Zwicky as “the most brilliant man you’ve never heard of.” Zwicky discovered supernovas and neutron stars, and dark matter. Zwicky kept making scientific discoveries that no one payed attention to, thinking it was just “another one of Zwicky’s crazy ideas.” But he always turned out to be correct.

Fritz Zwicky

-Vera Rubin (1928-present) American astronomer. Learn more here and here.

-Edward Hubble (1889-1953) American astronomer. Learn more.

-Carl Sagan (1934-1996) American astronomer. Learn more.

Cosmos Recap: TBA

Thanks for taking this journey with Neil deGrasse Tyson and myself as we explore the humanity behind the science. I’d love to hear your opinions on the choice of scientists. Do you feel it’s a fair representation of the diversity of science and science history? Are there any key figures you feel are missing? What “science are people too” stories do you wish had been shared?

PS: Please comment below or email me at if I have left out a scientist, summarized a scientist incorrectly, you have links to better resources about the scientists mentioned, or know of any great Cosmos video clips of these scientists I can include.

PPS: Yes, I am also currently working on a blog post on the geoscience presented in Cosmos. Because the geosciences kicked butt throughout the series!


One thought on “The Scientists of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

  1. “He was burned for heresy and pantheism because he stated that the Sun was just one of many stars.”

    Not actually. See The Renaissance Mathematicus’ post on Cosmos’ handling of the Bruno story at

    It’s a great blog for history of science and mathematics and a great deal of the popular ideas of those have as much to them as the Bugs Bunny cartoon’s version of Columbus’ supposed dispute with Spanish churchmen over the shape of the Earth.

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