The search for Cosmos, through the eyes of Carl Sagan [Book Review]

The first edition Cosmos (1980)

It’s impossible to talk about the book “Cosmos” without mentioning the research and ideas of the astronomer Carl Sagan. The first time I’ve heard about him was in the TV series called “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”. The documentary aired in the United States in 1980, along with the release of the book “Cosmos”. The series was fantastic and the content was very different from what we usually had on TV at that time. It was a series about the Universe! About humanity, about nature, about the planet Earth. Who doesn’t want to learn about the Universe? I was very young when I first watched Cosmos (it “arrived” here in Brazil around 1983), but I remember the feeling of having my mind opened in a way my formal education at school never did.

If you’ve never saw Cosmos (the TV series) I highly recommend giving it a try. Carl Sagan is one of those brilliant charismatic persons, and you can’t help but be fascinated about his speech, sense of humor and open minded ideas. [UPDATE!] Last year we had the release of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” which is a follow-up to the 1980 television series presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Available on Netflix, yay!

So, the book. “Cosmos” is defined like this:

“Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things.”

The author constantly teases us about concepts like “infinity”, “universe” and “imagination”. He tells us about the big and small things and beings, the huge and tiny worlds using anecdotes and amusing examples. We are invited to imagine the miniature scale of atoms and its subatomic particles as well as the major scale of star clusters, galaxies and mysterious black holes.

And all this “teasing” is accompanied with history. We hear about the ancient findings and philosophy, long forgotten maybe, but that have changed our world forever. Like the findings of Eratosthenes on the Earth’s circumference:

“Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent, a remarkable achievement for 2,200 years ago. He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.”

We hear stories about the great Library of Alexandria, the Rosetta Stone, Kepler’s Law of Planetary Motion and the astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe. And many others, cited shortly in the following paragraph, and detailed throughout the book:

“In addition to Eratosthenes, there was the astronomer Hiparchus, who mapped the constellations and estimated the brightness of the stars; Euclid, who brilliantly systematized geometry and told his king, struggling over a difficult mathematical problem, ‘There is no royal road to geometry’; Dionysius of Thrace, the man who defined the parts of speech and did for the study of language what Euclid did for geometry; Herophilus, the physiologist who firmly established that the brain rather than the heart is the seat of intelligence; Heron of Alexandria, inventor of gear trains and steam engines and the author of Automata, the first book on robots; Apollonius of Perga, the mathematician who demonstrated the forms of the conic sections — ellipse, parabola and hyperbola — the curves, as we now know, followed in their orbits by the planets, the comets and the stars; Archimedes, the greatest mechanical genius until Leonardo da Vinci; and the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, who compiled much of what is today the pseudoscience of astrology: his Earth-centered universe held sway for 1,500 years, a reminder that intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong. And among those great men was a great woman, Hypatia, mathematician and astronomer, the last light of the library, whose martyrdom was bound up with the destruction of the library seven centuries after its founding, a story to which we will return.”

He brings us the notion (or his belief) that science was truly born in Ionia, and he shows extreme admiration of the Ionians and their development:

“As it turned out, Ionia was the place where science was born. Between 600 and 400 B.C., this great revolution in human thought began. The key to the revolution was the hand. Some of the brilliant Ionian thinkers were the sons of sailors and farmers and weavers. They were accustomed to poking and fixing, unlike the priests and scribes of other nations, who, raised in luxury, were reluctant to dirty their hands. They rejected superstition, and they worked wonders.

And exemplifies:

“Anaxagoras was an Ionian experimentalist who flourished around 450 B.C. and lived in Athens. He was a rich man, indifferent to his wealth but passionate about science. Asked what was the purpose of life, he replied, ‘the investigation of the Sun, the Moon, and the heavens,’ the reply of a true astronomer.”

Also, he brings us his involvement as consultant and adviser of the American Space Program (NASA), specially at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He was there in the management and design of various probe missions to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and outer space. He was very interested in extraterrestrial life, so he incites us to imagine how life would be in other planets considering totally unearthly atmosphere conditions and different biological principles. And these musings are quite entertaining.

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander — Credit: NASA

And he questions us: do we humans here, on Earth, understand our place?

“How would we explain the global arms race to a dispassionate extraterrestrial observer? How would we justify the most recent destabilizing developments of killer-satellites, particle beam weapons, lasers, neutron bombs, cruise missiles, and the proposed conversion of areas the size of modest countries to the enterprise of hiding each intercontinental ballistic missile among hundreds of decoys? Would we argue that ten thousand targeted nuclear warheads are likely to enhance the prospects for our survival? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth? We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?

I consider the last chapters of the book very profound and totally applicable to our world, 35 years later. We are questioned about humankind choices, about our position as a “global race”, as a huge group of a species that spread around the world, and that accidentally (or not, actually) have taken the place of other species and occupied the environment in a very distinct way if compared to other living beings in our planet.

“Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as superpowers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character-building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.”

And what about our efforts in developing new technologies? Where do we need to make progress? To what end?

“The choice is stark and ironic. The same rocket boosters used to launch probes to the planets are poised to send nuclear warheads to the nations. The radioactive power sources on Viking and Voyager derive from the same technology that makes nuclear weapons. The radio and radar techniques employed to track and guide ballistic missiles and defend against attack are also used to monitor and command the spacecraft on the planets and to listen for signals from civilizations near other stars. If we use these technologies to destroy ourselves, we surely will venture no more to the planets and the stars. But the converse is also true. If we continue to the planets and the stars, our chauvinisms will be shaken further. We will gain a cosmic perspective. We will recognize that our explorations can be carried out only on behalf of all the people of the planet Earth. We will invest our energies in an enterprise devoted not to death but to life: the expansion of our understanding of the Earth and its inhabitants and the search for life elsewhere. Space exploration — unmanned and manned — uses many of the same technological and organizational skills and demands the same commitment to valor and daring as does the enterprise of war.“

In short, if that’s even possible, the book is an amazing universal history class of science. And since science is a human endeavor, it is a must-read universal history of mankind, for everyone.

Since I can’t get enough quotes from this book, here goes a final one:

“There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true.”

Note: all the quotes in this text were cited from the book “Cosmos” (1980), by Carl Sagan.

“If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like The Retro-futuristic world of “The Demolished Man” [Book Review]

(Text originally posted here)

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