A while ago I mentioned that Carl Sagan's
Cosmos was "the foundation stone of my brain." After I wrote
that, it occurred to me that it'd been over a dozen years since I'd read the
book cover to cover, and that I'd never actually seen all thirteen episodes
television series in a row. So I did both those things.
Cosmos appeared on PBS in 1980. I don't think I saw it then; the
first memory I have of it is of catching the end of the fourth installment,
and that memory is datestamped April 1981. It seems reasonable to infer that
PBS affiliates reran it over and over for years. I know it reran yet again
in 1982 or '83, because that time it was appointment television for me.
I was in fifth grade that year, and my science teacher showed us a taped episode
once a week. Ten years later the series was rerun with updates at the end, and
the whole thing came out on VHS; the DVDs ten years after that, annoyingly,
went an extra step and replaced some of the original footage with clips on
entirely different film stock, replacing, for instance, the shots of 1979
mainframes with video of guys surfing the web on laptops.
I have read that Cosmos was viewed, at least in part, by 3% of the
population of the world at the time. But it would have played nowhere nearly
as big a role in my life as it did had it not been for the companion book.
I don't know why we had the hardcover version of Cosmos in our house
when I was a kid. Maybe it was a gift for me, or maybe my dad had just
bought it for himself — if I ever knew, I don't recall now. But in
any case, I came to acquire it and read it until it fell apart. The copy
I have now is a trade paperback I got in 1992. It's getting a little
frayed, but aren't we all.
Nowadays, I recognize that a glossy, oversized companion volume to a
television series is a coffee-table book. Reading it at age 31, I found
the prose as elegant as ever but the book as a whole nowhere nearly as
erudite as I'd remembered. Such are the risks of forming one's impression
of a book at age eight, I guess. As a kid I didn't realize that Cosmos
was a popularization aimed squarely at the middlebrow masses. It sure seemed
like hardcore science to me. Some of this impression, oddly, derived from the
way the photo and art credits were incorporated right into the captions.
"Life on Earth: A scanning electron micrograph of a mite, with hibiscus pollen.
Courtesy Jean-Paul Revel, California Institute of Technology." None of the
other books I read had captions that concluded with what seemed to me to be
highly academic citations. Clearly I was reading above my station.
And, in fact, I was — while on this latest reread I found many
passages that I could recite from quarter-century-old memory, and every
painting, photograph, drawing and map was an old friend, there were
certain passages I hadn't processed before. Certainly when I was four
feet tall I was skimming past the stuff about Christiaan Huygens and
neutrino astronomy. That's actually another advantage of the book over
the TV series — as a kid I could skip around and seize on the pages
that sparked my interest. When the TV shows hit dull parts I just had to
sit through them.
I started to wonder why Cosmos was a TV show at all;
since much of the video consisted of long shots of paintings from
the book — it's really astounding to me now how the vast majority of
the astronomical images, being from the pre-Hubble days, are paintings
— or hokey dramatic reenactments of Kepler or Huygens at work,
that sort of thing. Sure, there is a lot to be said for having the actual
Carl Sagan standing in front of you delivering the material in his
sonorous voice. And the cheesy special effects, like the blue-screen
Library of Alexandria or the "spaceship of the imagination," probably
looked really rad in 1980. But all in all I have to assume that the
main reason this was a TV series is that a hell of a lot more people
watch TV than read books, so that's where the audience was. I seriously
doubt Cosmos would have been the phenomenon it was, or for that
matter that anything by Carl Sagan would still be in print, had it not
been on TV; nor would my dad have bought the book; nor would the book
have had the effect it had on my growing brain.
What effect did it have? As I reread the book and rewatched the
shows, I jotted down the lessons that I learned from Cosmos
as a kid:
All fields of inquiry are interconnected. I went to high school
fifteen miles away from my house because it had a magnet program in
computer science... and yet when our class's hardware got handed out at
the end of my senior year, my big award was in liberal arts. I went
to UC Berkeley because I had no idea whether I'd be majoring in
philosophy or physics or political science or what, and Cal had good
programs in everything. A lot of the people reading this know me through
my involvement with interactive fiction, a hobby which attracts people
who are both right-brained enough to be interested in narrative and
left-brained enough to want to involve computers in the process. I
suspect that a lot of my interdisciplinary inclinations I owe to
In my SAT classes I warn students that their essays are graded too
hastily for them to be able to get away with holding their theses
until the end. Sagan holds his until Part 12 of 13, "Encyclopaedia
Galactica." From the beginning he's made it clear that his main
theme is that humanity is beginning to venture out into space, and
may someday make contact with an alien civilization. Now he presents
the Drake Equation: to determine how many civilizations in this galaxy
are as advanced or more advanced than we, multiply the number of stars
in the galaxy by the fraction with planets, then by the number of planets per
system on which life could arise, then by the fraction of such planets on which
life does arise, then by the fraction of such life that develops intelligence,
then by the fraction of such intelligent life that develops technology, then by
the fraction of such technical civilizations that don't promptly destroy
themselves. "The Drake Equation contains much of the Cosmos," Sagan
And, indeed, it explains the organizing principle of the book. The
first two elements require a knowledge of astronomy: hence Part 1, an
overview of some topics in astronomy; Part 9, on stars; and Part 10,
on galaxies. The third deals with planetary astronomy in particular
and, within that field, with the possibility of life on other worlds:
hence Part 4, on Venus; Part 5, on Mars; and Part 6, on the outer
solar system. Pondering the origin of life requires some familiarity
with evolutionary biology, prompting Part 2, on that very topic. To
discuss the development of intelligence we need to know something
about the brain, which is covered in Part 11. Understanding
how intelligent creatures develop a technological civilization requires
at least a crash course on the history of science, provided in Parts 3
and 7; the feasibility of contacting others cannot be discussed without
a brief grounding in the physics of relativity, which is Part 8. And
finally, the big question of whether civilizations with advanced
technology snuff themselves out as a matter of course: Part 13.
So answering one question, I learned, required study of astronomy,
geology, biology, chemistry, psychology, history, physics, and
politics... not to mention math, to multiply the numbers once you
had them. The development of the Dutch trading empire, I learned,
sheds light on Voyager 1. The fate of Hypatia could teach us
something about the potential causes of World War III. It works
the other way around, too. Artificial and natural selection prove
vital to understanding certain aspects of Japanese myth. Isaac
Newton's laws, probably much to Newton's chagrin, help to quantify
the idiocy of reading horoscopes. Moral: don't become a pure techie;
don't become quantitatively inept. You need both halves to really
It's fun to be smart.
have been written about the deep anti-intellectual streak in American
culture; the country is currently led by a man who snickered "He talks
about numbers" when his opponent pointed out the bad math backing up
his proposals. Repeatedly drummed into the psyches of American children
is the message that if you're smart, you're a loser. Now, there are
subcultures within the US that are exceptions: I've had enough children
of immigrants from South and East Asia as students to know that they
often get the opposite message drilled into them, that they must achieve
unprecedentedly spectacular academic success or be failures, and even then
they'll probably be failures anyway. They've been taught to value
intelligence, but for them it is joyless. (I am the child of such an
immigrant myself, but luckily never had to deal with that kind of pressure.)
So did Cosmos teach me that learning is cool? No. Quite the opposite.
It taught me that a geek's life is richer than a cool kid's, that there's too
much in the universe to greet it with a leather jacket and sunglasses and an
ironic smirk. When Carl Sagan sat in his imaginary spaceship looking at a matte
painting of a spiral galaxy or a crude animation of a pulsar, there was no "been
there done that" — he was agog with wonderment. Watching new data about
Jovian satellites arrive at JPL, there was nothing coolly blasé about
him — he was practically bouncing off the walls.
"Finally, the end
product of this remarkable set of links and relays is a hard copy which comes
out of this machine showing, in this case, the wonders of Europa, which were
recorded for the first time in human history, TODAY." That is
awesome, and not in the sense of "Dude, that's an awesome skateboard."
It gave me a thrill just to transcribe that just now. Here is a world that
has shared a solar system with the Earth for over four billion years. I got
to watch the first photograph ever taken of it arrive at JPL.
Anyone who can react to that with a "yeah, whatever" is someone I don't want
Sagan didn't just introduce me to astronomy and biology and chemistry and
history and the rest of the subjects I listed above — he introduced
them exuberantly, made it clear that the pursuit of any one of them
would be full of the giddiness of discovery, the thrill of suddenly seeing
the framework connecting a bunch of different data points. It was quite
a shock to get to college and learn how much drudgery was involved in the
lives of scholars and scientists; Sagan had made the intellectual life seem
like nonstop excitement. American culture teaches kids that education is
something to be avoided or at best endured, and most of them have taken that
lesson to heart. My experience working in public schools suggests that if
kids put half as much effort into their work as they do angling for bathroom
passes, US schools wouldn't lag those in the rest of the developed world.
But, partly thanks to Cosmos, I learned the opposite lesson. Cut
class? These days I fantasize about moving back to Berkeley and sneaking
into lecture halls.
Truth is more wondrous than fiction. I remember that when we watched
Cosmos in fifth grade, some kids complained that Sagan kept explaining
things without recourse to God — sometimes he even brought up God only
to show that trying to fit such an entity into the process would be begging
the question. In retrospect I can see that these kids were in a pretty tough
position: at an age when the brain is geared to soak in whatever messages it
receives, every Sunday they got one explanation of the universe and every
Tuesday they got a very different one. The difference is that in Cosmos,
Sagan repeated over and over that not a word he said should be taken on
authority, that scientists throughout the ages had developed beautiful theories
that turned out to be dead wrong, that every piece of scientific "truth" should
continue to be tested and rejected if it didn't match empirical data. It'd
take an awfully progressive Sunday school to say the same.
I wasn't raised Christian, but my mother's adoptive parents were, and when
I was very small I'd read some of the Christian children's books they'd kept from
the 1940s. I'd also read the cut-rate ten-volume introduction to Islam my dad had
ordered for me when I was five. So I was familiar with what Western
monotheism had to say in the way of miracles. Sagan didn't have miracles
to offer. Instead he had this.
You know that little yellow-brown speck of
light up in the sky? Some people thought it was a campfire far away, some
thought it a war god? It's a place. You can go there. We
know this because we've been there. For thousands of years, and
more likely tens of thousands, people knew of this speck of light; now
we've sent landers, taken photographs, examined the rocks. You can go to
Mars and pick up a rock. It's every bit as real a place as the one you're
in right now. And that's just one world. There are others. Look up at the
stars at night; most of them are surrounded by planets, worlds every bit
as real as this one. And while you're looking at those stars, how about
this? One of the brightest stars in the night sky is called Deneb. It's
about 3200 light years away. That means that 3200 years ago, when the Trojan
War was in full swing and Rameses II was pharaoh of Egypt, some photons escaped
from Deneb's photosphere. Over the course of more than three thousand years,
these photons traversed nineteen quadrillion miles of empty space and
landed smack in the middle of a hole half a centimeter wide: your pupil.
Or try the same experiment with the M31, the Andromeda Galaxy — three
million light-years away. Look at it and realize: light that left the
galaxy's constituent stars when humans had just established themselves as a
species is completing a journey of three million years by landing
in your eyes right now.
One more thing: not only is this kind of stuff is much more awe-inspiring
than magic tricks by an invisible man in the sky, it also has the advantage
of being true.
The reality-based community is the place to be.
I say that Cosmos was the foundation stone of my brain. Tom
DeLay says his mission in life is to propagate a "biblical worldview."
As my worldview largely came from Cosmos, I suppose you could
say that in that sense it is my Bible. But I didn't become a scientist.
I imagine that this would have suited Carl Sagan just fine. Edward Teller
sneered that Sagan was a "nobody" in the scientific world, and while Sagan
did landmark work on topics such as the Venusian atmosphere, the Titanian
surface and nuclear winter, it is true that he entered the public
consciousness mainly through his appearances on Johnny Carson's show.
Similarly, while he did write 300 scientific papers, it was mass-market
books like Broca's Brain and The Dragons of Eden that landed
him on the bestseller lists and won him the Pulitzer in the years before
Cosmos. Why'd he bother? Was he just a glory hound? Maybe.
But Cosmos supplies other answers. It is telling that Sagan
introduces Einstein not as the white-maned genius of the posters and
t-shirts, but as a boy wandering around Tuscany thinking about a book.
"His latent interest in science was
awakened at age twelve by a book of popular science given him by an
impoverished student named Max Talmey," reads a caption on page
199; the body text alongside names the book as Bernstein's People's
Book of Natural Science — the Cosmos of its time
and place. Sagan also notes the early reading
material of many other scientists-to-be. It seems unlikely that any
future Nobel prizewinners will have had their interest in science
sparked at age twelve by reading the work of Edward Teller.
But again, it's not all about the scientists. Cosmos is
bookended by discussions of the Library of Alexandria. It was the
glory of the ancient world, attracting scholars from all over the
Mediterranean and points beyond and becoming an incubator of ideas
a thousand years or more ahead of their time... but those ideas never
made it out of the scholarly community. When the Christian mobs came
to destroy the Library, the only ones who stood against them were
the librarians. Today we live in a society utterly dependent on
technology that science and the scientific worldview made possible,
yet the "reality-based community" is fighting a losing battle against
those who, when the facts conflict with their preconceived ideas,
throw out the facts. We're trying to have a societal debate over
cutting-edge developments in biology like cloning and stem-cell
research while school districts are trying to turn the calendar
back 150 years and teach creationism. Climatologists and geologists
warn of potential ecological catastrophes lurking on the horizon
and yet our policies in this regard tend to reflect either ignorance
or willful disregard. Astronomers lobby for funding so that our
species can continue to explore our solar system while Fox specials fool
a gullible public into thinking the moon landings were a big hoax. How
can we build a better future when 95% of the citizenry can't grasp the
underlying issues of our time because they've never learned to think in
a scientific manner? Arthur C. Clarke says that any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable
from magic. How many people know how their I-Pods work, how their
Zoloft works, how their bridges work? How many have been taught
to care? How long can a society survive depending on a tiny guild
of, effectively, magicians?
Cosmos is a popularization. It didn't make me a scientist.
But it did make me something Sagan might consider an even more
desirable feather in his cap: a member of the general public on
the side of science.
We are living at a pivotal moment in the history of the planet.
In my article on The Day After, I wrote,
"In 1983, I was nine years old, and I knew I was going to die in a nuclear
war. We all were, and we all knew it." That article was mentioned elsewhere
on the net (most amusingly on a "Rapture Ready" board) and followed up with
incredulous replies — no way, I knew everything was gonna be okay cuz
a' Reagan, etc. Thing is, in 1983, I and everyone I knew had just watched
Cosmos, which stripped away the comforting illusions and presented
the real stakes. The earth coalesced four and a half billion years ago.
Almost immediately, geologically speaking, life began. In all the time
between then and the years around Carl Sagan's birth, nothing escaped the
Earth to serve as evidence of that life. Then something did: radio and
television broadcasts, and a few decades later, a handful of mechanical
contrivances. But in between those two eyeblinks, we had developed the
capacity to destroy ourselves. If someone in the wrong place makes a
decision based on fear and aggression rather than reason — pretty
good odds, given human history — the only legacy humanity will
leave to the universe will be some electromagnetic waves, a couple of
golden discs attached to spacecraft aimed nowhere in particular, and
a plaque on the moon bearing the name Richard Nixon. In the best-case
scenario following a full nuclear exchange, life on Earth is not
destroyed entirely but merely set back 270 million years, as insects
survive. But of course, that's misleading. Evolution isn't a telic
process; those 270 million years could pass and insects might still be
the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Even if intelligent life
did arise again, it would not be humans, and it would still
be the product of a process that selects for fear and aggression. It
would be no less likely to blow itself up than we are.
In Cosmos, Sagan pegs the probability of humanity surviving to
the year 2080 at 40%. The Cold War's over now; I tend not to think that
way anymore. Asymmetric war? Plague? Ecological catastrophe? Population
collapse? Sure. In Zeta Space (still in progress, believe it or
not, though on indefinite hiatus), the human population of Earth in the
year 2100 is 100 million. That's still a lot of people, though. I was
shocked to read Scott McCloud speculate that the probability of there
being any humans in 2100 was around 30%.
It's easy to scoff and
say that the fact that we've had fifty years to destroy ourselves and
haven't indicates that we won't. That's similar to the logic that says
that since in all the time New Orleans has been on the map it's never
been destroyed, the engineers in charge of the levees are worried about
nothing. Of course there's never been a nuclear war; if there had been,
we wouldn't be here to talk about it. Cosmos is big on steering
clear of the fallacy that the way things turned out is the only way they
could have turned out. Scratch one rock 65 million years ago and the
descendants of the shrews never take over the world. Things don't always
turn out for the best, not for T. rex and not for us. So, yes, we live
at a pivotal time. In the history of the planet Earth, maybe 60 billion
humans have lived; add in all the other creatures that have lived and
died and you've got a truly staggering number. The first of those
creatures ever to walk on another world is still alive today. Now
think about this. Chordates have been around for about 550 million
years. For fifty of those years, 0.000009% of its existence, we have
been capable of deliberately extinguishing our entire phylum, something
no other creatures have ever been able to claim. And we happen to
live in that 0.000009% window.
Words can do amazing things. I was about to conclude the preceding
section by pointing out that Cosmos also makes one of the best
cases I have encountered for why the destruction of humanity would be
a bad thing. (A lot of the time it seems like it'd just be less misery
all around.) I wanted to paraphrase the gist of the relevant sequence.
This proved pointless. I might as well have just cued up the video for
"Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and pointed at George Michael's t-shirt.
It wasn't the content of sequence that worked for me — it
was the eloquence of it.
This is the lesson of Cosmos that I've written about elsewhere
but not here, yet. I didn't become a scientist, but I have done some
writing, and Cosmos taught me how to write. Before Cosmos
I had read pretty much exclusively children's books, and whether they
were fiction or non-fiction, I never got the sense that the words on
the pages before me had been crafted. Of course, they must have
been; few authors just dash off a stream of consciousness and then
publish without any editing. But pretty much all the prose I'd ever
read had been either whimsical or painstakingly straightforward. I
had never read anything, to choose more or less at random, like this:
Percival Lowell's notebooks are full of
what he thought he saw: bright and dark areas, a hint of polar cap,
and canals, a planet festooned with canals. Lowell believed he was
seeing a globe-girdling network of great irrigation ditches, carrying
water from the melting polar caps to the thirsty inhabitants of the
equatorial cities. He believed the planet to be inhabited by an older
and wiser race, perhaps very different from us. He believed that the
seasonal changes in the dark areas were due to the growth and decay
of vegetation. He believed that Mars was, very closely, Earth-like.
All in all, he believed too much.
That is a paragraph that didn't just happen — that there
paragraph was made. It has an overarching structure with
a payoff at the end. It has rhythm and alliteration and prosody.
And it is entirely typical of Cosmos. Some passages are
scientifically precise; some are funny; some achieve a lyricism that a
quarter century later I still find moving. Cosmos taught me that
these tones can coexist and even enhance one another. I mostly learned
comedy elsewhere, though I do love many of the lighter moments
in Cosmos, such as Sagan's discussion of a book he'd read as a child
that asserted that the sun was a star: "I was innocent of the notion of
angular size. I was ignorant of the inverse square law for light
propagation. I had not a ghost of a chance of calculating the
distance to the stars. But I could tell that if the stars were suns,
they had to be very far away — farther away than 85th Street,
farther away than Manhattan, farther away, probably, than New Jersey."
But while I didn't learn comedy from Sagan, grace is something else again.
That, to the extent I learned it, I learned right here. "The Cosmos may be
densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear:
there will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We
are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the
cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him
live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."
A lot of the students I encounter have trouble writing because they
never really read much when they were kids and thus never internalized
what good writing is supposed to sound like. I did. And for better or
for worse, Cosmos is the loudest voice in my internalized fugue.
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