(Originially published on July 25th, 2013)
Carl Sagan was of the opinion that the best thing in the world, as a human being on Earth, is coming to understand the universe, or at least parts of it. The reason why the process of science, which just is the process of coming to understand the universe, or at least parts of it, is the best thing in the world is because we are parts of the universe. Not figuratively, I’m not even sure what that would mean, but literally. Those elements that compose our selves, the atoms of the molecules of our bodies, were born in stars that themselves were dying.
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
This is one of those thoughts that is too big to hold on to for long. Each one of the 100,000,000,000,000 atoms of which you are composed was originally born inside of a star, that itself was dying, some trillions of miles away, some billions of years ago. All of them. And now they make you. For some reason that isn’t a regular part of the birds and bees talk, but maybe it should be….
“Mommy, where do babies come from?””Well dear, when a thermonuclear ball of fire a trillion miles away starts to die…”
Cosmos describes the birth of the universe as the evidence, as opposed to the odd and inconsistent opinions of various religiously affiliated people, suggests it might have been. It beautifully illustrates the obviousness of Darwinian evolution by drawing the parallel between artificial selection by humans and natural selection by, well, Nature, showing that the only significant difference is that humans usually work towards some predetermined end, while Nature simply rewards adaptations, however slight, that result in more and more successful reproduction. It contains passages regarding the comings and goings of astronomical phenomena that reads like science fiction, instead of the science that it is. The following is his summation of how black holes come to be.
“A star twenty times the mass of the sun will shrink until it is the size of greater Los Angeles; the crushing gravity becomes1010 g’s and the star slips through a self-generated crack in the space-time continuum and vanishes from our universe”
Damn Nature! You’re incredible. Sagan spares a little patience for the mystical. He does give credit to the mythology humans have created for the imagination involved (while carefully slighting it at the same time).
“There is the deep and appealing notion that the universe is but the dream of the god who, after a hundred Brahma years, dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him-until, after another Brahma century, he stirs, recomposes himself, and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there are an infinite number of other universes, each with its own god dreaming the cosmic dream. These great ideas are tempered by another, perhaps still greater. It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.”
Sagan isn’t always so polite however. He always has been a critic of the superstitious, as any astronomer seeing a daily astrology section in every newspaper, but never a daily astronomy section, would be. In the pages of Cosmos Sagan often speaks of both Nature’s incredible beauty and awe-inspiring reality, and the poor and unfortunately popular alternative devotion of many humans to the mystical, the fantastical, the ego-stroking falsities of astrology and the like.
“‘Superstition [is] cowardice in the face of the divine.’ wrote Theophastrus, who lived during the founding of the Library of Alexandria. We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand new suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightening in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times-a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universes and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience: how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.”
It is the belief that the universe as modern evidence, born on the backs of thousands of years of intellectual struggles and exponentially improving technology, illustrates it to be is far more interesting than the universe as ancient, technology stricken, overtly superstitious humans imagined it that Sagan is most determined to impress on the reader. The fact that we are the result of 15 billion years of universal evolution; that we are simply some of the material of the universe that, because it had enough time and the conditions allowed it, has become aware of itself, and wants to know more about where it came from, where it is, where it is going, should be sufficiently astounding to render archaic fairy tales boring, as well as obsolete. To be smitten with reality will ultimately lead to greater understanding of the fundamental similarities of all human beings, of the importance of preserving those things, like water, air, trees, the ocean, and so on, that matter to us; of the vastness of space and its mirror in our capacity for knowledge. While dedication to the false, superficially soothing, pre-Copernican views of superstition, egotism, and religion will result in nothing more than continuing delusion, confusion, and fear.
“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Theophastrus was right. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”
Beyond just a collection of information, Cosmos challenges us to change our perspective, to see the universe as that thing within us, as well as that thing that surrounds us. Sagan asks throughout the book what an alien culture might think of us, and the unfortunate truth is that they would probably see a society bent on self-destruction, obsessed with power and dominance, and lacking will power to the extent that we wouldn’t sacrifice anything at all even it meant the difference between survival and extinction. But Sagan finishes on a hopeful note, one that recognizes that slavery, as an acceptable social practice at least, has been eradicated, that women have begun again to be seen as human beings equal in all practical respects to men, that people are beginning to advocate on behalf of the environment. It is his hope, and mine, and probably on some level every human being who cares about the future of this lovely planet, that progress continues in the direction of selflessness and curiosity and overwhelming awe of the universe we are of and in, and regression dominates in the direction of anthropocentric idiocy, superstition and negligence. If there comes a generation raised on Cosmos, instead of that silly old book people for some unfathomable reason still take seriously, then us humans might just stand a chance after all.
(Tangentially: In Cosmos Sagan also gives, as poetically as rationality can be, a wonderful reason for the love of books:
“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.”
Well said sir.)