Cosmos By Carl Sagan: Exploring The Beauty of Life and Universe


Picture the year 1977, a tiny spacecraft called Voyager 1 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 much more. These were for any alien civilization that might stumble upon it.

On February 1990, Voyager on its slow and torturous journey, in the infinitude of space was just about to pass Saturn. Its cameras turned earthwards and took a picture. The earth is barely perceptible in the photograph. One extraordinary man took a look at it, 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.

Pale Blue Dot, as seen from the Voyager 1 Spacecraft.

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 was amongst its best practitioner. Carl Sagan, who is also known as the Cosmos man. "The cosmos is all there is, who ever was or ever will be", with these rather unforgettable words begins Cosmos. A book replete with scientific reflections upon the most profound questions like where did the earth come from, how did life begin, who are 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 has a 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 name 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 13.7 billions years. As our minds and bodies attune into grasping timescale of only a few decades, not even thousands let alone millions of billions of years. We get into more relatable terms with the cosmic calendar by scaling down the size of the whole universe into one 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. 

The Cosmic Calendar - Forged Into A Single Earth Year

So consider January 1st, 2021 at 12 A.M. In the middle of the night to be when the Big Bang took place and the present time to be January 1st, 2022 and 12 A.M. 

In this modified timescale, photosynthesis would start only at September 30th and the first molecular life originating on December 5th, Dinosaurs would be in their full flush, only to die out in the 30th of December. The whole history of the human life could be traced the last one and a half hours with agriculture beginning merely 28 seconds ago. 

Buddha was born a mere 6 seconds ago and the rest of the 2,500 years since could be condensed into the last 6 seconds, with the lives of ordinary human beings no greater than the blink of an 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 The Miller-Urey Experiment, that he was involved at Cornell University. Which was designed to discern the origin of life. the research team there had the giant conical flask, that had a mixture of water, ammonia, hydrogen, methane. All of which are abundantly found on the earth. The mixture was then pummeled with electrical discharge that was the 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. That is the life of aliens. 

Sagan muses about this after reflecting upon the anecdote of an astronomer who was asked to contribute to a magazine with a 500 words 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 the answer to 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. 

Drake Equation exploring the possibilities of extraterrestrial life.

There is also a heartbreaking account of a microbe biologists who lost his life trying to find the answer to the question, whether the life existed on Mars? Wolf Vishniac, his friend had speculated that if microbes that were native to Antarctica were found, it could possibly hint that Mars could Harbor life too. This would be because the atmosphere of Mars and Antarctica were very roughly similar. Although Vishniac lost his life trying to collect some samples in Antarctica, scientists were later able to discover microbes there.

Cosmos is a rich treasure trove of mini biographies of the events that spurned the great discoveries of scientists such as Kepler, Huygens, Eratosthenes, Anaximander, Tycho Brahe etcetera. In doing so, he points out not simply a bare greatness but therefore follies too.
 
Newton was almost blinded trying to figure out the composition of the Sun by repeatedly staring at the naked Sun for prolonged hours. Kepler who had almost alienated himself from his household responsibilities in search for a definite laws of planetary motions. David Hume, the great rationalist who fiddled with the notion that comets were the reproductive cells. The eggs of sperm of planetary systems, that planets were produced by a kind of interstellar sex and Plato and Aristotle, who did nothing to denounce the ownership of slaves.

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 around that time, he was also going through a rough divorce. There were also personal riff-raffs with the producer of the TV series. As Carl tried to meddle a bit too much with the producers. With so much going on, it beggars belief that Cosmos and the series came out with such aplomb. This might have been down to the fact that he discovered the love of his life Ann Druyan, during that time. 

It is with her that he had set off to Paris. The book opens gloriously with the 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.

 

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.

The rest of the book gleams with Sagan's first love. Ideas Sagan urge us to pay greater attention to: global warming and greenhouse effect, drawing parallels with Venus's lost atmosphere due to enhanced greenhouse effect. It is also remarkable how he looks said the things we take for granted such as the symbiosis between plants and animals.

What a marvelous cooperative arrangement - plants and animals each inhaling each 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. 

 


In the last episode of Cosmos TV Show, Who speaks for Earth, he says 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. Organize 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 to name a few. The library was eventually desecrated. Even with the poultry bits of what survives, it is a great source of natural philosophy. 

Sagan's narration of the Alexandria Library's History.

Cosmos urges us to take a look at our technological advancements and the vast reserves of knowledge we've produced and to not take them for granted. With so many brilliant scientific insights, Sagan inspired a new generation of scientists to work at the forefront of its most challenging problems in the fields such as planetary science, astrobiology and astrochemistry, to name a few. 

At one point he does remark his astonishment at holding a book quite lyrically when he says

Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Although not every book might be capable of working magic, The Cosmos most certainly is.
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Pritam Chakraborty

As I was moving through life, I occasionally saw brief glimpses of beauty.

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