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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Reread: Cosmos

 I checked out Cosmos from the library in the hopes of reading it to Bowen. To say that the book and the TV series was influential in my life and shaping my thoughts as an adolescent is an under-statement. The book's telling of the story of Hypatia, for instance, has haunted my thoughts and understanding of the price scientists and truth-seekers have paid for their unswerving allegiance of the truth.  Sad to say, Bowen got bored after I read him the story of how you could use sticks to measure the size of the Earth, but I found myself getting sucked in the book again.

It's a truism that science moves on, and one would expect that books written decades ago are obsolete today, but to my surprise, Carl Sagan picked such a good job picking topics and materials that are timeless and resistant to obsolescence that the book still reads well. Perhaps the only fault I might even consider picking on is the Drake's equation, where today we know that most stars close to the center of the galaxy are likely to have been sterilized constantly by the presence of supernovas nearby and wouldn't be able to harbor life, but doing the math even reducing those numbers by a third doesn't really make a huge difference in the end result.

But what comes through even more is how poetic the book is, and how much the book is a paean to the scientific endeavor and the sense of wonder it brings:

We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos. Think of the Sun’s heat on your upturned face on a cloudless summer’s day; think how dangerous it is to gaze at the Sun directly. From 150 million kilometers away, we recognize its power. What would we feel on its seething self-luminous surface, or immersed in its heart of nuclear fire? The Sun warms us and feeds us and permits us to see. It fecundated the Earth. It is powerful beyond human experience. Birds greet the sunrise with an audible ecstasy. Even some one-celled organisms know to swim to the light. Our ancestors worshiped the Sun,* and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe. (Kindle loc 4021)

Even the final chapters, written near the end of the cold war about the threat of nuclear extinction, still reads relevantly today: 

The chief danger of adopting a credible pose of irrationality is that to succeed in the pretense you have to be very good. After a while, you get used to it. It becomes pretense no longer. (Kindle loc 5400)

 If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies? From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization 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? (kindle loc 5452)

In today's post-truth society, the ethos of science and scientists is under attack more than ever.  But Sagan still reminds us that science is the framework that lifted civilization out of the dark ages, and that of the essential properties that have made it far different from the philosophy that came before:

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. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. (Kindle loc 5516)

 In the final chapter, you can hear the pleading in Sagan's voice, begging scientists not to abandon public discourse, for fear that the story of Hypatia would become a common-place one. And today, we need it more than ever before. For me anyway, this is a much needed reminder after reading the biography of Enrico Fermi.


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