Cosmos

Carl Sagan, 1980

What a joy and privilege it was to have read this book. I made my way through it rather slowly because it was so packed full of historical anecdotes, scientific findings, and thought-provoking insights that I needed a break every chapter or so to let ideas sink in. In 13 chapters, Dr Sagan gives us a glimpse into all scales of space and time. From the Big Bang to the formation of the stars and the Earth, through the painstaking evolutionary process that resulted in human beings, to millenia beyond our time where interstellar travel may be a viable means of commute. From quarks to complex molecules to planets, supernovae and black holes, to the idea of an infinite hierarchy of universes all nested within one another.

My Dad's first edition copy from college.

My Dad's first edition copy from college.

This book is far beyond an astronomy general interest read. Its contents incorporate genetics, ancient history, chemical biology, sociology, religion, human psychology and philosophy... Dr Sagan weaves these realms together in the context of the Cosmos, and raises intriguing questions about hypothetical alternate turn of events as well as where we (humankind) go from here. He pays homage to the brilliant minds whose work and courage has contributed to our current technical capabilities. From Erastosthenes' astute calculation of the Earth's circumference, to Kepler’s observations, to Einstein's special theory of relativity (and those in between: Huygens, Brahe, Newton, Champollion etc.), Sagan not only highlights their contribution, but discusses the societal circumstances that these individuals found themselves in. In doing so, he invokes a scrutiny of our current societal climate and behaviours. Are we doing our best to build and maintain a society that values the pursuit of knowledge over one that may eventually crumble under self-destructive greed? Are we investing an adequate amount of resources (both monetary and intellect) on constructive, self-preserving causes? Sagan goes as far as to compare government spendings on military weapons with scientific research funding, and demonstrates how far will have still to go before our loyalties are united not just within nation-states, but as a species of Planet Earth.

Paintings by  Adolf Schaller  illustrating imaginary but possible lifeforms on a Jupiter-like planet.

Paintings by Adolf Schaller illustrating imaginary but possible lifeforms on a Jupiter-like planet.

Dr Sagan’s intrigues are not limited to Western ways of thinking. Instead, he pays deep respect to various cultures, achievements, and creation myths around the world - this was done through anecdotes from ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian history as well as various tribal accounts. By doing so, he demonstrates that human intrigue has more in common than we may first assume. The early civilisations around the Earth, long before they knew of one another, independently devised theories about how we came to be based on their observations of the heavens. These were passed on to their descendants through subsequent generations ultimately resulting in what we may believe or know of today.

 

Cosmos on Amazon

I wonder what Dr Sagan would have thought about the state of the world today… 2016 election results, SpaceX, virtual reality, artificial intelligence/machine learning, Kepler missions, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, instability in the Middle East, the Higgs Boson… My guess is that he would simultaneously be alarmed that we are STILL arguing whether or not climate change is a problem, and amazed at our technological achievements with the internet and a legitimate goal to visit Mars. I would without a doubt recommend this book to everyone. The reader does not need to hold a scientific degree to fully appreciate the lesson and message that this book conveys. Dr Sagan’s literary style is not only comprehensible, but so finely depicts his deep passion for the sciences that it is almost poetic. After having read the book, one could truly dwell on what we can do to unify ourselves as citizens of Planet Earth, with a mutual interest of survival, pursuit of interplanetary/interstellar travel and constant discovery of what our universe has to offer.

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.
— Carl Sagan