Issue 9, You and the Book: On Cosmos by Carl Sagan

by Dhruva Sahasrabudhe

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“The story of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution transforming matter and life into consciousness, of how science and civilisation grew up together, and of the forces and individuals who helped shape modern science.”

I wanted to start this piece off by describing the scope and the essence of this book in a few lines. After several minutes of futility in which I tried to glue together awkward, uncooperative sentences, I felt like a bit of an idiot when I opened the book up to its very first page, and saw that Carl Sagan had something all ready for me to use, expressed in a simple, clean way. Succinct is the word.

But that is the kind of man Carl Sagan was, and that is the kind of book Cosmos is.

Carl Sagan has a way of describing things which just feels right. He exposes to us the heart of things. I do not want to call him incisive, because he is not incisive in the sense of cutting through something, but more in the sense of cutting into something, revealing to the outside world the arrangement of its inner layers. Like cutting a cake, I suppose. This way of writing stems undoubtedly from his scientific background, where clarity of thought and objectivity are a professional necessity, and all the facets of an issue or a phenomenon are analysed and weighed before arriving at even the hint of a conclusion. The topics covered in this book are not exempt from this kind of hawk-eyed scientific analysis. In fact, a large chunk of the third chapter is dedicated to showing us the scientific method of arriving at a conclusion based on the facts, rather than using misleading facts to further a personal belief or agenda. This is elucidated to us through an example of the work of Johannes Kepler, a very religious man who, despite having a spiritual belief that there exists a kind of Divine Geometric Perfection found in the motion of the planets, was forced to recant, because his observations would not allow for perfect circular orbits but rather for ‘less perfect’ elliptical orbits.

All this talk of clarity, objectivity and analysis might make it seem like a sterile, robotic read, but that is far from the case. The book also has warmth, emotion and humanity. There are sections where Sagan’s raw passion and wonder bubble out, and he goes on an impassioned, almost grandfatherly rant about books, or about the immensity of the universe, or about life and humanity. Cosmos is one of the most quotable books I have ever read. On top of that, each chapter begins with quotes from ancient texts, or old scientific works, or journals from the past, which help show how fundamentally and timelessly curious humans have always been about the questions discussed in the chapter, and give us some historical perspective on their understanding.

“We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times – a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universe and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor. ”

“The Cosmos is all that is or 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 height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” 

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

In the book, Carl Sagan takes this combined approach of providing information, while also feeding the imagination as he tries to answer a few classically important and polarising religious, philosophical and scientific questions. He holds our hand as we tiptoe quietly into these misty caves to observe and understand. It is not a loud barrage of facts, data and logic, designed to bend us into submission, but a patient breeze hoping to sway us. There are thirteen chapters in all, in which Sagan covers topics including evolution, the solar system, the idea of life on Mars, ancient Greek scientists, the library of Alexandria, Hindu and Mayan creation myths, cell biology, the early Earth, relativity, star creation, and alien life. Some topics covered in the book may be difficult for the scientifically uninitiated to grasp, but Sagan starts from the basics, patiently and meticulously stacking ideas on top of each other. It is as if he assumes that his readership is exclusively going to be English-speaking aliens, with no Earth based scientific, philosophical or historical intuition or context.  

I read a large part of this book on the sly, during the boring lectures in college. That proved to be an experience in itself. Cosmos is the kind of book which makes you forget your environment, and by extension, yourself. While there was a pleasant sort of continuity in reading about the origin of life, and then attending the biology lecture which followed, it was also somewhat jarring to be yanked from the swirling landscapes of fiery stars and their pious planets and back to the world of microprocessor pin diagrams or cement foundations. It made it all seem kind of small and pointless.

This magnitude and grand nature of cosmos also makes it a little hard to read. Often, it was a little overwhelming, and I needed to take a break. There are some dry technical or descriptive parts which, though necessary, have to be read slowly. In that sense, cosmos is not a flowing book. It is a book of stops and starts, of some stretches when you’re staring at the page but your mind is still hung up on something you read ten minutes ago, and other parts where the pages seem to heat up, blur, liquefy and then cool into a canvas on which Sagan paints his vivid picture.

Carl Sagan called this book ‘a personal voyage’. On the pilgrimage which is underwent by those who try to comprehend the mysteries of the Universe, a kind of a ‘strange loop’ is encountered, a self-referentialism on the grandest possible scale. Only when a bunch of atoms try to understand themselves, can we begin to see ourselves and our lives with any semblance of perspective, set to the backdrop of the Cosmos. 

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

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Illustration by Sawani Chaudhary

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