Cosmos by Carl Sagan

January 25, 2015

Mind-bending, perspective-altering, fact-startling perfection. From the moment you begin reading this to the moment you finish it, you recognise just how crucial a read this is for all members of the human race.

Carl Sagan is more than a scientist, astro-physicist, cosmos-contemplating sentient, he’s a masterful poet and craftsman, stringing together the overwhelming task of making sense of who we are and where we sit in the largest of all contexts; the cosmos. Read this and you’ll be forever changed. You’ll wonder why you spend the majority of your time on Earth trapped in rootless desire, painful anguish and meaningless pursuit of invisible things and feelings. Put in the context of what surrounds us, how fragile we are, how little time and space we occupy, you’ll witness your ego come crashing down and something overtly spiritual and communal take its place.

Cosmos is one of those reads that beats to a pulp any other casual guide on mindfulness, spirituality or self-help; it delivers just the cold hard facts of existence (well, based on what was known in the late 70′s anyway) and in doing so supersedes any modern day populist effort designed to make us feel better and promote someone’s agenda or fortify their fleeting fame.

Choice Quotes

Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together.
Loc 342
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated.
Loc 1295
Imagine yourself a visitor from some other and quite alien planet, approaching Earth with no preconceptions. Your view of the planet improves as you come closer and more and more fine detail stand out. Is the planet inhabited? At what point can you decide? If there are intelligent beings, perhaps they have created engineering structures that have high-contrast components on a scale of a few kilometres, structures detectable when out optical systems and distances from the Earth provide kilometer resolution. Yet at this level of detail, the earth seems utterly barren. There is no sign of life, intelligent or otherwise, in places we call Washington, New York, Boston, Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and Peking. If there are intelligent beings on Earth, they have not much modified the landscape into regular geometrical patterns at kilometre resolution.
Loc 1941
Democritus invented the word atom, Greek for ‘unable to be cut.’ Atoms were the ultimate particles, forever frustrating our attempts to break them into smaller pieces. Everything, he said, is a collection of atoms, intricately assembled. Even we. ‘Nothing exists,’ he said, ‘but atoms and the void.’
Loc 3055
A handful of sand contains about 10,000 grains, more than the number of stars we can see with the naked eye on a clear night. But the number of stars we can see is only the tiniest fraction of the number of stars that are. What we see at night is the merest smattering of the nearest stars. Meanwhile the Cosmos is rich beyond measure: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.
Loc 3332
But other physicists propose that two alternative histories, two equally valid realities, could exist side by side – the one you know and the one in which you were never born. Perhaps time itself has many potential dimensions, despite the fact that we are condemned to experience only one of them.
Loc 3546
Compared to a star, we are like mayflies, fleeing ephemeral creatures who live out their whole lives in the course of a single day. From the point of view of a mayfly, human beings are stolid, boring, almost entirely immovable, offering hardly a hint that they ever do anything.
Loc 3627
Cosmic rays, mainly electrons and protons, have bombarded the Earth for the entire history of life on our planet. A star destroys itself thousands of light-years away and produces cosmic rays that spiral through the Milky Way Galaxy for millions of years until, quite by accident, some of them strike the Earth, and our hereditary material. Perhaps some key steps in the development of the genetic code, or the Cambrian explosion, or bipedal stature among our ancestry were initiated by cosmic rays.
3908
The fate of the inner solar system as the Sun becomes a red giant is grim enough. But at least the planets will never be melted and frizzled by an erupting supernova. That is a fate reserved for planets near stars more massive than the Sun. Since such stars with higher temperatures and pressures run rapidly through their store of nuclear fuel, their lifetimes are much shorter than the Sun’s.
Loc 3945
All the elements of the Earth except hydrogen and some helium have been cooked by a kind of stellar alchemy billions of years ago in stars, some of which are today inconspicuous white dwarfs on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
Loc 3881
Billions of years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth. Thereafter the Sun will slowly become red and distended, presiding over an Earth sweltering even at the poles. The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps will melt, flooding the coasts of the world. The high oceanic temperatures will release more water vapour into the air, increasing cloudiness, shielding the Earth from sunlight and delaying the end a little.
Loc 3840
The study of the galaxies reveals a universal order and beauty. It also shows us chaotic violence on a scale hitherto undreamed of. That we live in a universe which permits life is remarkable. That we live in one which destroys galaxies and stars and worlds is also remarkable. The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent to the concerns of such puny creatures as we.
Loc 4183
The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, no doubt by accident, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long, longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang.
Loc 4342
We can imagine these wormholes as tubes running through a fourth physical dimension. We do not know that such wormholes exist. But if they do, must they always hook up with another place in our universe? Or is it just possible that wormholes connect with other universes, places that would otherwise be forever inaccessible to us? For all we know, there may be many other universes. Perhaps they are, in some sense, nested within one another.
Loc 4495
There is an idea – strange, haunting, evocative – one of the most exquisite conjectures in science or religion. It is entirely undemonstrated; it may never be proved. But it stirs the blood. There is, we are told, an infinite hierarchy of universes, so that an elementary particle, such as an electron, in our universe would, if penetrated, reveal itself to be an entire closed universe. Within it, organised into the local equivalent of galaxies and smaller structures, are an immense number of other, much tinier elementary particles, which are themselves universe at the next level, and so on forever – an infinite downward regression, universes within universes, endlessly.
Loc 4498
Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is coordinated and used.
Loc 4531
The American biologist Roger Payne has calculated that using the deep ocean sound channel, two whales could communicate with each other at twenty Hertz essentially anywhere in the world. One might be off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antartica and communicate with another in the Aleutians.
Loc 4573
Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like the brain of a crocodile. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system or mammalian brain, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in ancestors who were mammals but not yet primates. It is a major source of our moods and emotions, of our concern and care for the young.
Loc 4633
The trick is to know which books to read. The information in books is not preprogrammed at birth but constantly changes, amended by events, adapted to the world. It is now twenty-three centuries since the founding of the Alexandrian Library. If there were no books, no written records, think how prodigious a time twenty-three centuries would be. With four generations per century, twenty-three centuries occupies almost a hundred generations of human beings.
Loc 4717
We have five fingers because we have descended from a Devonian fish that had five phalanges or bones in its fins. Had we descended from a fish with four or six phalanges, we would have four or six fingers on each hand and would think them perfectly natural.
Loc 4734
But is there anyone out there to talk to? With a third or half a trillion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone, could ours be the only one accompanied by an inhabited planet? How much more likely it is that technical civilisations are a cosmic commonplace, that the Galaxy is pulsing and humming with advanced societies, and, therefore, that the nearest such culture is not so very far away – perhaps transmitting from antennas established on a planet of a naked-eye star just next door. Perhaps when we look up at the sky at night, near one of those faint pinpoints of light is a world on which someone quite different from us is then glancing idly at a star we call the Sun and entertaining, for just a moment, an outrageous speculation.
Loc 4994
There is almost no chance that two galactic civilisations will interact at the same level. In any confrontation, one will always utterly dominate the other. A million years is a great many. If an advanced civilisation were to arrive in our solar system, there would be nothing whatever we could do about it. Their science and technology would be far beyond ours. It is pointless to worry about the possible malevolent intentions of an advanced civilisation with whom we might make contact. It is more likely that there mere fact that they have survived so long means they have learned to live with themselves and others.
Loc 5233
Perhaps our fears about extraterrestrial contact are merely a projection of our own backwardness, an expression of our guilty conscience about our past history: the ravages that have been visited on civilisations only slightly more backward than we.
Loc 5237
The Cosmos was discovered only yesterday. For a million years it was clear to everyone that there were no other places than the Earth. Then in the last tenth of a percent of the lifetime of our species, in the instant between Aristarchus and ourselves, we reluctantly noticed that we were not the centre and purpose of the Universe, but rather lived on a tiny and fragile world lost in immensity and eternity, drifting in a great cosmic ocean dotted here and there with a hundred billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars.
Loc 5311
Would we argue that then thousand targeted nuclear warheads are likely to enhance the prospects for our survival? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth? We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?
Loc 5468
From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilisation is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: to preserve the lives and well-being of the citizens of the planet. Should we not then be willing to explore vigorously, in every nation, major changes in the traditional ways of doing things, a fundamental redesign of economic, political, social and religious institutions?
Loc 5475
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.
Loc 5536
Humans everywhere share the same goals when the context is large enough. And the study of the Cosmos provides the largest possible context. Present global culture is a kind of arrogant newcomer.
Loc 5541
We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the worlds of Aeschylus and Euripedes. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitles Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Learn, Romeo and Juliet.
Loc 5600
We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish. And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilisations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. 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.
Loc 5659
Through technical employment and the stimulation of high technology, money spent on space exploration has an economic multiplier effect. One study suggests that for every dollar spent on the planets, seven dollars are returned to the national economy. And yet there are many important and entirely feasible missions that have not been attempted because of lack of funds.
Loc 5696
We were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion…in everyday life such odds are called compelling. Worlds are precious.
Loc 196

Here are all the books I aim to read throughout the coming year. I figure, considering the rate at which I read, I can get through between 60-65. I’ve purposely left space for recommendations that come throughout the year. Compiled this from GoodReads, my Evernote list of recommendations I collected throughout last year and tried to make it as diverse as possible, spanning most of the categories GoodReads lists.

Here’s to hoping my retinas don’t burn. But then there are always Audiobooks too eh? Read More

Who Are You Writing For?

June 28, 2014

“My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure each new work was an improvement over the last.” – Haruki Murakami

Known to turn down parties, important engagements and even own family gatherings, Haruki Murakami’s steadfast dedication to his writing schedule, a five to six hour stint beginning at 4am, borders on that of the extreme hermit. Sacrifice for the sake of the reader. That’s the name of the game.

The great Japanese novelist and myself are pretty far apart of course. Not just in terms of quality and output but also in our attitude to our readership. Whereas Murakami toils and sweats to make each of his stories more resounding than the next. I, on the other hand, write principally for myself.

Sure, so the platforms are different — I’m not kidding myself pretending to be a novelist with millions of readers anticipating my next hit.  But isn’t ‘writing’ writing all the same? And something as crude and arguably ego-centric as publishing ones own meandering thoughts on a self-titled blog surely still qualifies.

Like structuring a novel, our blogs still require a certain amount of thought and organisation. We sit down to the work, invest time in words, spend a little time formatting. It’s not too dissimilar.

So what’s this neat little caveat, that ‘I write for myself’, really all about? Surely the very act of hitting publish eradicates any chance of that being true? Read More

As a young man Joan Miró suffered such debilitating depression that he could barely do anything. It took painting, which he discovered later, to shake him out of it. It was this discovery, coupled with vigorous exercise, that Miró attested to being the tonic that prevented him from relapse.

For most creative people it’s the downtime that provides the breaks and spaces in which to really hone the imagination. Setbacks, as crushing as they appear to us at the time, later become gifts. Without them we don’t have the opportunity to feel pain, sadness or disappointment. The things that eventually translate into our work and make it all the more special.

Is our preoccupation with being productive really that healthy for us? Toni Morrison, who juggled writing with work and raising children as a single mother, certainly didn’t seem to think so. According to her, it was the gaps in her day, the downtime spent “driving to work or in the subway when I’m mowing the lawn”, that most allowed her to “brood” on ideas that would later shape her works. Read More

About a year ago I was sitting in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, getting acquainted with the words of Marcus Aurelius in his book ‘Meditations’. Aside from blowing my mind (a familiar reaction for many during a first reading), I knew that life, from then on, was going to feel different. This first introduction into the ancient art of stoicism had me hooked.

During the next several months I began to read a lot about the philosophy, picking up works by Seneca, Epictetus and Rufus Musonius and wondering how all of this might fit together to form some coherent strategy in my life. Where people like Tim Ferriss looked at it as the precept for a kind of ‘operating system‘ that functioned beneath the day-to-day, it wasn’t really working out that way for me. I was still struggling to turn this ancient wisdom into applicable lessons that worked as I jumped from one thing to the next, never being able to decide quite what to do.

In truth, stoicism, as powerful as it seemed when I read it, didn’t seem to stick all that much when life tended to present its challenges. The verbosity of it, coupled with the fact that it was written and followed by people with contrasting backgrounds to my own (I’m not an emperor, or a former slave, or the marketing executive of American Apparel, or Tom Wolfe, or Bill Clinton), often led to me wonder if it had much practical use for someone like me at all.

Just as I was thinking that, that was when I discovered the concept of ‘premeditated evil’. The one stoic concept, above all others, that I think helps anyone regardless of their background, status or direction in life. For me, this forms the key technique of the philosophy. The one that is most useful, above others, when you find yourself in the stickiest pile of shit and everything seems to be falling on top of you.

The best way I’ve seen it outlined thus far is in Donald Robertson’s book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Ancient Tips for Modern Challenges. Referred to here as ‘decatastrophizing’, you’ll have to get over the fact it sounds pretty counterproductive at first. Do that, however, and you’ll get a pretty neat period of clarity and perspective on anything you’ve been struggling with before.
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Bronze statues of pilgrims past - mountaintop after Pamplona

The best experience of my life thus far? Quite possibly. Romantics take whatever schmaltzy way of contextualisation they can. For myself, aggrandised statements seem to work. The camino; just a walk, turned out to be more than just a walk. It was a definitive moment in my swiftly departing twenties. My Christopher McCandless moment. An adventure sacred enough to consider abandonment at any attempt of putting it into words.

Ironic then, that one of the biggest consequences to come out of a near-month of walking, is how much of an absolute necessity it is to share more with others. As the camino teaches; you can do just as much by talking, listening and simply giving your time and attention to others. That’s why I think it’s fundamental for each of us, at some point in our lives, to give something like this a go. To discard our regular labours and habits, albeit temporarily, and to live alongside others. To see just how many different ways a life can be lived.

So, erm, yep, that’s why I’ll try and write.

What follows then is an attempt to try and convey some of the experiences I felt walking The Way over a period of 25 days. Not to totalise, generalise or butcher an experience, but rather to mainly just show two things. The first, what it did for me. The second, what it can perhaps do for you. Thrown in are all sorts of meditations, lessons and observations.

All to be read backed by the soundtrack of Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill… Read More