the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
November the 9th was the great Carl Sagan’s birthday – he would have been 75. His death in 1996 has been a great loss to the scientific community and to humanity. His message still lives on today in his many works, but particularly in his magnum opus – the wildly successful and unmatched Cosmos television series. Though it was broadcast to the world in 1980, its message – the grandeur of nature and the evolution of the cosmos still carries significance. It is an enduring message; that we are ways the universe can know itself.
In Cosmos, Sagan guides us on a personal journey from the beginning of time to the planets and beyond. All of science is unified into one seamless story of nature and the special effects allow us to catch a ride and be part of the poetic cosmic story Sagan weaves for us.
What is immediately striking when watching or listening to Carl Sagan is his passion for the cosmos and the science that has revealed it to us. He had a multi-faceted personality. That is why he is what such a great scientist – at once speculative about what might be, yet reflective and skeptical at the same time. Here was a man who knew that nurturing our innate curiosity is of the utmost importance. To Sagan, there were no stupid questions, for questions are the portals to knowledge and understanding.
His approach can be summed up in the following quote, from the opening stanza of Cosmos:
We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.
Sagan wove great tales about the cosmos because he could tap into the core of the human experience of the infinite. Cosmos was not a story of separation, man vs universe, no, Cosmos is tale based on the human species coming to the realisation that “the cosmos is also within us, we are made of star stuff. We are ways the cosmos can know itself”. This was perhaps the most life affirming aspect of Sagan’s work. We are all connected. In the first stanza of Cosmos, Sagan continues:
The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite inter-relationships of the awesome machinary of nature… some part of our being knows this is where we come from; we long to return.
From the infancy of our species, people have looked to the heavens and sought to find the meaning of questions such as “what is a star?” – the question that Sagan himself became engrossed with as a curious youth in New York. Sagan was adept at explaining not only what we know but the incredible journey from ignorant and superstitious beings to sending space missions to other worlds. The power of his explanations lay in how he could weave narratives by bringing all of science together to present an integrated and beautiful story of nature. He succintly related the unfathomable immensity of space to our little cosmic home and even the atoms that make up our bodies.
Another striking realisation one may chance upon when watching Cosmos is the cosmic perspective at once affirms the pettiness of human affairs and also the significance of our species. The realisation that we are just a speck in the cosmos – situated in the countryside on the outside of a fairly average galaxy – just one of billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars- is a humbling perspective, yet an ennobling one also. For we are as part of the cosmos. Sagan is far from cynical about the human mammal. He is upbeat about our prospects while recognising that some of our instincts, when nurtured, can flourish to our detriment:
If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.
And that is this mans lasting message that can’t help but reverberate from within each of us. We are the cosmos, albeit a small part of it, yet an important part because we are the eyes of the cosmos. Perhaps we are just one of a multitude of civilisations across the vastness of space. And since there is no division between us, all other forms of life and the entire cosmos, then there are grand implications to that view. Above all, I think Carl Sagan’s message to his own species is that when science surplants superstition and questions are elevated above easy and comforting answers, the human mammal is at its most alive.
Interesting Carl Sagan site: Be sure to take a peak at this site – Symphony of Science – where Sagan and other luminaries sing the poetry of nature.