Revisiting Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

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  • Karan Bhatta

Picture the year 1977. A tiny spacecraft called Voyager launched from the Earth was taking pictures of the various planets of the Solar System along with other astronomical bodies. On this spacecraft were collection of classical music, some brilliant paintings, the sound of birds, drawings of a human being, and much more. These were for any alien civilization that might stumble upon it. On February 1990 when Voyager, on its slow and tortuous journey in the infinitude of space was just about to pass Saturn, the cameras on the Voyager turned Earthwards and took a picture. The earth is barely perceptible in the photograph. One extraordinary man took a look at the picture, pondered long and hard, and carved out some imperishable lines that read:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

These words, and the words that follow, will go down in the history of science writing as a folklore- some of the best it has to offer- carved out by a man who is amongst its best practioner Carl Sagan, who is also known as the Cosmos Man.

“The Cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” With these rather unforgettable lines begins the COSMOS- a book replete with scientific reflections upon profound questions like “Where did the earth come from?”, How did life begin? Who were our very first ancestors? Are there lives beyond the Solar system? When can we finally begin to travel through space and settle on other planets? What is the ultimate fate of the universe? It is undoubtedly true that these questions are the oldest in all of human thought. None of these questions have definitive answers and it will be a long time before we can get there. But they need to be asked and tried to be answered. As Sagan himself remarks, “ We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” The range of answers that Sagan gives have a careful mix of science, philosophical musings, awe and transcendence.

His popularization of the Cosmic Calendar with the corresponding TV series named the same has almost the same effect. The Cosmic Calendar is a way to realize the immensity of the age of the cosmos against our own. Take the age of the universe that is 13.6 billion years. As our minds and bodies are tune into grasping time scale of only a few decades not even of thousands let alone millions or billions of years, we get into more relatable terms with the Cosmic Calendar by scaling down the age of the whole universe into 1 year. The technique is not dissimilar to drawing the map of the world to see how the size of your country stacks itself upon the vastness of the globe.

So consider January 1, 2019 12:00 am in the night time when the Big bang took place, and the present time to be January 1, 2020, 12:00 am. In this modified time scale, photosynthesis would start only at September 30 and the first molecular life originating on December 5. Dinosaurs would be in their full flush only to die out on the 30th of December. The whole history of the human life could be traced in the last one and a half hours with agriculture beginning 28 seconds ago. Buddha was born a mere six seconds ago and the rest of the 2500 years since could be condensed into the last six seconds with the lives of ordinary human beings no greater than a blink of the eye. To put this in one of the many magical sentences by Sagan: “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.”

Cosmos is replete with many such brilliant scientific notions. Sagan describes one of the famous experiments known as the Miller-Urey experiment that he was involved at Cornell University which was designed to discern the origin of life. The research team there took a giant Conical flask that had a mixture of water, ammonia, hydrogen, methane, all of which are found abundantly on the earth. The mixture was then pummeled with electric discharge that was to mirror lightning flashes. Although the experiment did not yield life itself, it did give rise to complex molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it.

But what about the life that we do not know i.e. “the life of aliens”. Sagan muses about this after reflecting upon an anecdote of an astronomer who was asked to contribute to a magazine with a 500 word article about Alien life on Mars. The Newspaper got a reply with the words “NOBODY KNOWS” written 250 times. This is almost in parallel with one of Sagan’s famous interviews where he claimed that the evidence to answer the question about alien life had been scanty. When asked what his gut feeling was, Sagan famously pronounced that he didn’t think with his guts.

But he does point out how we could speculate about the presence of life in the universe. There is a strong subsection of a chapter on the scientific deliberations about the Drake equation, which is an attempt to estimate the probability of the presence of alien life. This equation uses numerous variables such as the number of stars, the number of stars with habitable planetary system, the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life etc. The further you move to the right of the equation, the more difficult the value of the variables are to predict.

There is also a heartbreaking account of a microbiologist who lost his life trying to find the answer to the question whether life existed on Mars. Vishniac, his friend, had speculated that if microbes that were native to Antarctica were found, it would possibly hint that Mars could harbor life too. This would be because the atmosphere of Mars and Antarctica were very roughly similar. Although Vaishnac lost his life trying to collect some samples, scientists were able to find samples of microbes in Antarctica after his death, pointing out that lives on other planets was not hopelessly impossible after all.

Cosmos, often dubbed as the magnum opus of Sagan, is also a rich treasure trove of mini-biographies of the events that spurned the great discoveries of scientists such as Kepler, Huygens, Eratosthenes, Anixamender, Tycho Brahe etc. In doing so, he points out not simply their greatness but their follies too: Newton was almost blinded trying to figure out the composition of the Sub by repeatedly staring at the naked sun for prolonged hours, Kepler who had almost alienated from his household responsibilities, David Hume, the great rationalist who fiddled with the notion that “comets were the reproductive cells – the eggs or sperm – of planetary systems, that planets are produced by a kind of interstellar sex”, Plato and Aristotle whi did nothing to denounce the ownership of slaves etc.

Carl himself was not immune to such personal foibles. During the first week of the production of the corresponding TV series COSMOS, Sagan went off, rather irresponsibly, on a holiday in Paris. In and around that time, he was going through a rough divorce. He was also struggling to come to terms with Cancer that his father was fighting against. While writing Cosmos and its corresponding TV series, he also was editing a magazine along with some vestigial duties at Cornell. There were also personal riffraffs along with the producer of the TV series as Carl tried to meddle a bit too much in the producer’s work. With so much going on, it beggars belief that Cosmos and the series came out with such aplomb. This might have been mainly down to the fact that he had discovered the love of his life-Ann Druyan- during that time. It was with her that he’d set off to Paris. The book opens gloriously with a dedication to her: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.”

The rest of the book gleams with Sagan’s first love: ideas. ( It was Druyan who later in Carl’s life admonished him to prefer people over ideas). Sagan urges us to pay greater attention to global warming and greenhouse effect drawing parallels with Venus’ loss of atmosphere due to enhanced “greenhouse effect” which was also his PhD thesis. It is also remarkable how he looks at things we take for granted such as the symbiosis between plants and animals:

“What a marvelous cooperative arrangement- plants and animals each inhaling the other’s exhalations, a kind of planet-wide mutual mouth-to-stoma resuscitation, the entire elegant cycle powered by a star 150 million kilometers away”

Or when he writes about the question “Who Speaks for Earth”:

For we are the local embodiment of Cosmos that has grown into self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star-stuff pondering stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.

It would be almost impossible not to feel sad after reading the accounts of the “Library of Alexandria”, which had an immense storage of scientific and philosophical insights of philosophers such as Democritus, Epicurus, Sophocles. The library was eventually desecrated. Even with the paltry bits of what survives, it is a great source of natural philosophy. Cosmos urges to look at our technological advancements, not take our achievements for granted, and be a tad more attentive to the forces that might lead to its downfall.

With so many brilliant scientific insights and the fact that the book cuts through the traditional boundaries of a highly specialized field of study to paint a greater picture, it is no wonder that Sagan inspired a new generation of scientists to work at the forefront of its most challenging problems. He might also have helped carve out fields of studies such as planetary science, astro-biology, astro-chemisty etc. or as Niel Degrasse puts it, “some (subjects) still donning their hyphens”.

At one point, he does remark his astonishment at holding a book quite lyrically when he says, “Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic”. Although not every book is capable of working magic, COSMOS certainly is.

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