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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.