Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: The Greatest Self-Help Book Ever Written

My friends would know this: never EVER lend books to me. I get too immersed in it, I keep it with me at all times and I become anti-social. I apologize to my friends for having to put up with that. But I need to clarify that I do this to books that are really good. I do have attention deficiencies, so for a book to focus and centre me is testament to its worth as a compelling read. Let me tell you a few books that didn’t do it for me: Mark Helprin’s Freddy & Fredericka, 50 Shades of Grey and (I’ve never read them, but probably) the entire Twilight series. Let me tell you the latest book that did it for me: Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

I’ve fallen into the bad habit of bringing it with me everywhere I go, just on the off chance that I might sneak in a paragraph or two in between doing other stuff.

Really. Everywhere.
Doesn’t matter what I do.

Cosmos, written in 1980, preceded Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as the scientific world’s gift to public readership. It was the first science book that became a best-seller, going on to sell half a million copies only to be supplanted just under a decade later by Hawking’s book.

The two books do not deserve any form of comparison, despite an overlap in subject matter, despite the fact that Sagan wrote the foreword in Hawking’s book, and despite the fact that both astrophysicists posited some wondrous hypotheses (Sagan on otherworldly life, Hawking on time travel and wormholes) in their respective books. Fine, maybe some comparison can be conceded here.

Sagan’s Cosmos is the easier read; he has a languid literary style that’s easier on the eye. Hawking always seemed like the purist. His book, undoubtedly brilliant, reads like a slightly more enjoyable textbook. A famous story told of how the editor of A Brief History of Time told Hawking that every equation he put in would halve his readership (as in, halve his total number of readers, not split every individual reader in half), so Hawking only put one in:  E = mc2

But Cosmos is the definitive literary work of popular science because it calls for all of us to be involved. To him, science is an adventure that we need to undertake as a species, to answer some of the most intriguing questions we have concerning the endless expanse of the universe.

In  his show, and in his books, Sagan brings our homogeneity as a species to a cosmic scale with the oft-quoted, “We are all made of star stuff.” In the particularly eloquent second chapter, titled ‘One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue’, Sagan tells us: “All life on Earth is closely related. We have a common organic chemistry and a common evolutionary heritage.” He then challenges us to answer that one question that burns in our minds since the dawn of science fiction: “Is this faint and reedy tune the only voice for thousands of light-years? Or is there a kind of cosmic fugue, with themes and counterpoints, dissonances and harmonies, a billion different voices playing the life music of the Galaxy?” In short, are we alone?

Writer’s Addendum:

One of my favourite quotes by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke goes; “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

“And this is how you do the robot.”

Cosmos is bold in asking the big questions, and Sagan tackles them with equal boldness. Look out for his take on issues such as the confluence of science, human history and religion, on evolution (including a brilliant chronicling of natural and artificial selections), the Hiroshima bombings, among many other issues of the human condition and the cosmos.

Through him, through his very riveting narrative, you walk on Mars, you see the refusal of hydrocarbons to solidify on Venus (the same geological and chemical processes that would produce limestone on Earth, would produce greenhouse gases on Venus due to the difference in atmospheric pressures), you live chapters in the the lives of Johannes Kepler, Copernicus, Sir Isaac Newton. It is the story of people, it is the story of biology, it is the story of the planets. It is the story of star stuff.

It is also the greatest self-help book ever written.

With no disrespect to Stephen Covey and the chicken who died to become soup for various souls , this book is, for the right intellect, the best anecdotal collection of human progress, and an anthology of survival and adaptation.

The human stories in them were moving. Galileo’s conflicts with his beloved church was heartbreaking, and with soaring heart I read of his migration to a more tolerant Dutch society. With a sentimentality I last felt watching It’s A Wonderful Life, I explored the world that might have been had Plato never existed.

My favorite was the story of German astronomer and physicist Johannes Kepler. In 1608, Kepler wrote a work of science fiction, titled Somnius – The Dream. In it, the protagonist Duracotus (a thinly veiled representation of himself) travels to the moon with the help of daemons summoned by his mother. The Germans, unfamiliar with the concept of science fiction at that time, used the story as evidence that his mother was a witch. The seventy-four-year-old woman would be chained and tortured in a Protestant dungeon.

Faith and state are institutions none of us have had to contend with at a level that Kepler did, and yet through this discord, Kepler would go on to publish the very groovy (yes, groovy) Harmonices Mundi, his attempt at explaining the phenomena of existence in musical terms. I know we both want whatever he was smoking.

“Ja, es ist 4:20!”

Kepler’s, and other stories of victory against the odds, are the gravitational and perhaps emotional core of the book. But it’s so much more than that.

Cosmos was made into a 13-part docu-drama series (each chapter in the book corresponding with each episode in the series), hosted by Mr. Sagan himself, titled Cosmos: A Personal Journey (the video below is my favourite episode, titled The Edge of Forever. Watch it if you have time, it’s over an hour long). A Personal Journey is very, very apt. Sure, individually, at a cosmic level, we are smaller than the littlest specks of dust. But the experience of existence is unique to each of us, as it is unique to every living organism that had crawled out of the primordial oceans.

When I was younger, my parents would buy me huge collections of astronomy titles. Most of these books gave me the answers I was looking for everytime I looked up to stars at night – their chemical makeups and processes, their bewildering distances from us, their influences – gravitational, thermodynamic – on their respective solar systems, why they twinkle.

I, however, ended up developing an interest in the theoretical aspects of astronomy – I believe the pursuit of mapping what you do not know and postulating what might be is just as important as the pursuit of knowledge. It defines the silhouette of the unknown, and allows more structured minds to paint in the details. Essentially, it is swashbuckling, manic groping around in the dark, getting intimate with the unknown versus going through the process of creating a light switch.

But mine was a train of thought with various service disruptions (football, sex, partying, career, football, sex, television scripts, sex, football, sex), while Carl Sagan’s was a far more impressive, more finely tuned, scientific bullet train. He managed to explore both sides in the book – the flights of fancy, and the facts, giving each due consideration and weight. He did not discount the science fiction for the science facts, he defended and expounded, for example, convictions of earlier scientists of life on Mars even after the evidence suggested otherwise.

The book would go on to accompany the television series, and both would expand minds. Some of today’s best scientists have mentioned Cosmos as their reason for getting into science. Fittingly, Cosmos: A Personal Journey is now getting a remake, and this new iteration will be called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This time, it will be hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and will be executive produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan, as well as Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (what a team, huh?).

You know how hipsters (I’m probably using the term wrong, but stay with me) like to say, “The book is always better than the show”?

COSMOS, however, transcends hipsterdom and requires you to do both. Each is a unique experience unto its own: the book is a beatific and humane presentation of astronomical science, anthropology, human history and microbiology embellished with poetic nuance. There is a warm intimacy in reading Sagan’s childhood affinity for science fiction (particularly a story about a civilization on Mars, or Barsoom, as it is known in the native tongue), and in his emotional and scientific critique of the various hypotheses on the possibility of life there. From the trailer, and the first episode that I’ve had the distinct pleasure of watching thanks to National Geographic Singapore, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey will be grand and magnificent in scale, a visual extravaganza that utilizes today’s most advanced production techniques in bringing the furthest reaches of the universe to your screen.

It’s going to be fantastic. And epic. And most of all, it’s going to be cosmic.

COSMOS:  A SPACETIME ODYSSEY  premieres on Saturday, 15th March, 10pm, on National Geographic Channel (StarHub TV Ch. 411 & SingTel mio TV Ch. 201).

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