Friday, January 06, 2006

Carl Sagan's Cosmos

Just a few weeks ago, the Science Channel re-aired the full "Cosmos" series, by Carl Sagan. It was the 25th anniversary of the original airing on PBS, and Cosmos was the show that educated and changed the lives of many, including myself.

It was Cosmos that began a deep interest in the nature of the universe, of life, in science, in the search for truth, in astronomy, and in history. Watching it inspires almost religious feelings, and challenges you to think deeply about almost everything.

Carl Sagan died December 20, 1996, so this holiday season past was also the 9th anniversary of his death.

Here are one of many great quotes from Sagan:

"As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and sky. In our tenure of this planet, we have accumulated dangerous, evolutionary baggage -- propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders, all of which puts our survival in some doubt. We have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience, and a great, soaring passionate intelligence -- the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity.

National boundaries are not evidenced when we view the earth from space. Fanatic ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our planet as a fragile, blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.

The discovery that there is order in the universe, that there are laws of nature, is the foundation on which science is built on today. Our conception of the cosmos -- all of modern science and technology --is traced back to questions raised by the stars. Yet, even 400 years ago we had still no idea of our place in the universe. The long journey to that understanding required both an unflinching respect for the facts and a delight in the natural world.

Johannes Kepler wrote: "We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens. The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh enrichment."

It is the birthright of every child to encounter the cosmos anew in every culture in every age. When this happens to us, we experience a deep sense of wonder. The most fortunate among us are guided by teachers who channel this exhilaration. We are born to delight in the world; we are taught to distinguish our preconceptions from the truth. Then, new worlds are discovered as we decipher the mysteries of the cosmos.

Science is a collective enterprise which embraces many cultures and spans the generations in every age and sometimes in the most unlikely places there are those who wish with a great deal of passion to understand the world. There is no way of knowing where the next discovery will come from, or what dream of the mind's eye will remake the world. These dreams begin as impossibilities. Once, even to see a planet through a telescope was an astonishment; but we studied these worlds, figured out how they moved in their orbits, and soon we were planning voyages of discovery beyond the earth and sending robot explorers to the planets and the stars.

We humans long to be connected with our origins so we create rituals. Science is another way to experience this longing. It also connects us with our origins, and it too has its rituals and its commandments. Its only sacred truth is that there are no sacred truths. All assumptions must be critically examined. Arguments from authority are worthless. Whatever is inconsistent with the facts -- no matter how fond of it we are -- must be discarded or revised. Science is not perfect. It is often misused. It is only a tool, but it is the best tool we have -- self-correcting, ever changing, applicable to absolutely everything.

With this tool we vanquish the impossible; with the methods of science we have begun to explore the cosmos. For the first time scientific discoveries are widely accessible. Our machines -- the products of our science -- are now beyond the orbit of Saturn. A preliminary spacecraft reconnaissance has been made of 20 new worlds. We have learned to value careful observation, to respect the facts even when they are disquieting, when they seem to contradict "conventional wisdom".

We depend upon free inquiry and free access to knowledge. We humans have seen the atoms which constitute all of nature and the forces that sculpted this~ work and others. We have found that the molecules of life are easily formed under conditions throughout the cosmos. We have mapped the molecular machines of the heart of life. We have discovered a microcosm in a drop of water; we have peered into the bloodstream and down on the stormy planet to see the earth as a single organism. We have found volcanoes on other worlds and explosions on the sun, studied comets from the depths of space and traced their origins and destinies; listened to pulsars and searched for other civilizations.

We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.

These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution It has the sound of epic myth, but it is simply a description of the evolution of the cosmos as revealed by science in our time. And we, we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we have begun at least to wonder about our origins -- star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms, contemplating the evolution of nature, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet earth, and perhaps throughout the cosmos.

Our loyalties are to the species and to the planet. We speak for earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but
also to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we spring."



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Anonymous clunkyrobot said...

I'm a big fan of Carl Sagan, I find myself being constantly inspired by him. He was all at once compassionate, skeptical, understanding, and doing more than his part to push humans in the noble direction we are destined to travel to, if we don't kill ourselves first.

1:25 PM

Blogger manonwildhorse said...

Carl Sagan brilliantly combined science with the insights of tetrahydrocannabinol. What a marvelous advancement to cosmological thought he could have made had he also been touched by the spirit. His, at times, hard edge could have been softened by the insight that the universe already instructs us on a one to one basis - just like the mystic maintains. However.....
"Small steps Ellie...small steps."

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