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In the last couple weeks I’ve finished three of Carl Sagan’s books: Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and The Demon-Haunted World. In a weird twist of fate I had never read them before. Even as an undergraduate in the physics program at Cornell (where Sagan taught) I was so devoted to my schoolwork that such extracurricular reading never happened.

Personal Digression

So perhaps it was odd then that my first reaction to finishing Cosmos was one of sadness…here was an engaging and imaginative mind that I barely missed contact with…I wonder if I would’ve gone into planetary science instead of high energy physics, or astronomy instead of astrophysics. Of course I’ll never know but reflecting back I sorely miss meeting the man.

In a similar vein, I wonder if I would have left professional science had I read these books. When I withdrew from my graduate program to attend seminary, my adviser Dr. Boulware pulled me aside and said, “that’s interesting Zack because we tend to not inculcate such belief.” I still remember that day, standing before the esteemed professor’s desk, full of hope that I was pursuing a truth deeper than Science via a Masters of Theology…but his point was sound…one was a matter of belief and the other didn’t care what I believed.

My life, of course, took a different path, certainly not one that I regret…as a result of luck, hard-work, and other factors, I’ve been able to do some very exciting things in the Internet age. Anyway, I write all this to say that sometimes a young scientist needs hope…that spending their life in the pursuit of pure research can be worthwhile as part of the long chain of advancement that pushes us forward. I can only wonder what reading Cosmos as a freshman and The Demon-Haunted World as a grad student would have done. Ok, enough personal digression.


The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

If the first reaction was one of sadness, the second was definitely exhilaration. Drawing from a huge swath of scientific and artistic inquiry, Carl Sagan writes a magnum opus of accessible and intriguing science. I have never read a book so sweeping in scope that at the same time manages to integrate its parts into a compelling vision for the purpose of humanity, while at the same time presciently addressing climate change and other challenges. There is no doubt that this is a world-view book, it reaches beyond the scope of what science can say into an integrated world-view which makes sense of the science and more. I’m not saying I agree or disagree, but that’s what it does.

Who we are and where we came from

We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost between two spiral arms in the outskirts of the galaxy which is a member of a sparse cluster of galaxies, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies then people.

Sagan will elucidate the “great demotions” in his book Pale Blue Dot, but here he introduces the concept of the humility of humanity as a keystone to its progress. Rather than diminishing us, recognizing our role in a universe much larger than us opens us up to break out of the petty squabbles and ideologies which hold us back, into a more unified future.

Whether you want to be demoted or not…think through the final part of the quotation for a second…

far more galaxies than people

This is quintessential Sagan: wondrous phrasing. The counterpoint to this idea, of course, is a world view where the earth is the central, pardon the pun, and humanity the most important (often via the anthropic principle), but sadly this view has historically led to scientifically backwards thinking. I’m not saying it’s impossible to synthesize, only that it’s hard. Needless to say, it’s good to have some humility no matter what you believe.

Where are we going

If we do not have a divine mandate, as Sagan presupposes, then what is our purpose? What is this whole thing for anyway?

We hope that very soon in the perspective of cosmic time we will unify our planet peacefully into an organization cherishing the life of every living creature on it and will be ready to take the next great step, to become part of a galactic society of communicating civilizations.

I think the meta-theme in Cosmos is belonging. We are star stuff, we are connected to everything out there and everything down here. We are all connected, there is no alien anywhere in the Multiverse, for they are us.

We clearly have challenges before we accomplish the objective here at home, only some of which are technical, but it is the second part of the challenge that informs the first. In Pale Blue Dot, much more is said about the “space race” being a unifying force amongst the nations, but that finds its origin here. Should we choose to explore the stars, mirroring the trend of all humanity to explore, then we will need to do it together because space travel is just that difficult!

But can we make it? Can we overcome population growth, climate change, the threat of nuclear winter in order to explore the Cosmos? Sagan makes use of some self-acknowledged generalizations in order to approximate the number of civilizations in the Galaxy by means of the so called Drake Equation…such that there are possibly 10 civilizations that probabilistically our like ours (the subject of “aliens” and the search for them are intrinsic Sagan). Sadly, the Drake Equation only gives 1% likelihood of surviving technological adolescence. I think this hammers home the importance of unified purpose.

Who speaks for Earth?

If I could, my dear reader, I would sit down with you and read the whole of this the final chapter of the book aloud. It is at once majestic in its scope, awe inspiring in its vision, and so well written that it stirs the soul.

We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the center of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the air 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 the galaxy is formed 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 Earth.

Its speaks of the importance of continuing to strive for the stars, and to recognize our connectedness to them. It’s beautiful, and well worth reading again and again. Bravo, Mr. Sagan.

If you even remotely wonder if funding or doing pure science is worthwhile, this is the book for you.

Tagged with: science