First published:- 1980
I wonder what Carl Sagan may have thought of 9/11 and the world in the new millennium, a strife-torn place which is being shaken up and shaken out every moment. I imagine the civil but slightly horrified and slightly bemused tone he may have employed while talking about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the antics of the Bush administration which have become such excellent fodder for stand up comedians the world over. And I can almost detect the note of boyish enthusiasm in his voice while he may have spoken of the Higgs Boson and explained the reasons behind the incorrect observation readings of the 'neutrinos being speedier than light particles' experiment that had made the headlines a few years ago.
I can only imagine because he wasn't there to witness these watershed events and he isn't here to offer comment, criticism or share his inexhaustible repository of knowledge with us any longer. His time in the Cosmos had run out within two decades of the publication of this work - a testament to his own belief in the staggering inferiority of our evanescent lifetimes in the scheme of the universe(s).
"Our familiar universe of galaxies and stars, planets and people, would be a single elementary particle in the next universe up, the first step of another infinite regress."
It would be nice if I could summarize each one of the 13 chapters of 'Cosmos' and give readers the lowdown on our painstakingly slow but rewarding crawl through the fabric of space and time, the civilizational hurdle race towards a finish line which we can neither begin to envision nor fully comprehend yet.
I could write a review in the conventional format, leaving you with a gentle nudge to read this book as soon as you can.
Or, instead, I could simply write about how, despite being more than 30 years outdated, Carl Sagan's voice of reason rings truer than ever, cutting through the heart of all the din and chaos of our troubled times. I could just tell you how Sagan's deep and abiding love for nature and humanity reverberates in every page of this work and how our scientific endeavours across timelines and geographical boundaries, across the unending void which surrounds us on all sides, symbolize our collective pursuit of knowledge.
"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."
The Cold War is a now defunct appendage of our history, the Soviet Union is no more, America has achieved a milestone in its race relations by welcoming its first Black President. But turmoil in the world order persists - the nuclear arms race between the Americans and the Soviets has been replaced by a newer dance of dominance in the Asia Pacific region. The world is as much embroiled in a mesh of steadily growing list of challenges as it was in the past, if not more. Preposterous decrees issued by fanatical outfits, blatant human rights violations, infringement on freedom of speech and expression, diplomatic arm-wrestling, the ever-enthusiastic decriers of science, 'War on Women', the shouts of the global-warming deniers reign supreme still. The players may have changed faces but the game of petty one-upmanship in the arena of global politics still continues unabated.
Which is why Sagan's rousing call for all of mankind to unite under the identity of citizens of the Cosmos and not as citizens of a nation moves me to the core of my being. His recapitulation of our scientific advancements achieved against the tide of adverse circumstances, of the victories won in the face of persecution by religious authority, impresses upon us a sense of urgency - that with the exponential increase in the defense budgets of the global powers, the incentive given to the greatest minds of our times to devote time and energy to unraveling the mysteries of the Cosmos is reduced. As the concept of 'nuclear deterrence' receives a pat on the back, the global arms sales numbers continuing to soar despite hollow promises of arms control, more and more scientists are being engaged in improving weapons technology rather than validating the fact of our existence against the intimidating presence of the stars, galaxies and universes. The NASA budget cuts of recent times are proof of this ignominy.
Is it to this end that the ancient advanced cities like Alexandria, the destroyed civilizations of Ionia and the Aztecs and pioneers such as Eratosthenes, Democritus, Aristarchus, Hypatia, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Christiaan Huygens, Issac Newton and Albert Einstein worked tirelessly for? To further intensify mutual national antagonism and increase our probability of complete self-annihilation?
Sagan thinks not.
"Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.We speak for the Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring."
This is why I can't help but agree quite heartily with someone who says 'If I had a religion, I would be a Carl Saganian.'
"If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."
If there is only one worldly diktat we must abide by with unquestioning faith, let it be this one.