Cosmos: a review 40 years later

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980.

One day of January 2017, I bought Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show, and decided to read it… in 2019

I wish I could tell you I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it was released but there was no “I” in 1980. As many millenials, I discovered Cosmos through the 2014’s remake of Carl Sagan’s TV program by Neil de Grass Tyson. I loved this series when it was released and how accessible it made it for about anyone to understand the physics of our universe and why it’s important to care about it. I seldom knew about Carl Sagan and his work. I happened to know that he wrote Contact, and co-wrote the script of the film adaptation, and I wanted to watch his TV program, but never managed to find the time⁽¹⁾.

One day of January 2017, while visiting the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum of NYC⁽²⁾, as I was stumbling upon the space shuttle on the deck, I saw that they were selling Cosmos, the book written by Carl Sagan after he made the TV show. So I bought it, and decided to read it… in 2019 (remember, time, and stuff).

I’m not gonna go into the particular, because it is dense, and as NdGT’s show, it goes back and forth between the past and the future, the extremely small and the immensely big. This coming and going is necessary to understand one important aspect of the universe: everything is linked. As Carl Sagan talks about the immensity of the universe, he tells about the probability of sentient life somewhere else, and he argues, according to our propensity to fuck things up, whether other civilisations can go past the nuclear age or if any advanced society is doomed to annihilate itself in an instant.

And that’s the objective of this book/series: tell us to wake the fuck up. Especially in the late 1970s, when the nuclear apocalypse seemed closer than ever, that with the existing nuclear arsenal, all human life (and most life) could be sacrificed in an instant. Not because world leaders wanted to use it, but because they were afraid the other party would use it first. Today, this threat hasn’t disappeared, despite the apparent end of the cold war, but the danger isn’t as immediate as it used to be. Still, the problem is still relevant. We don’t know what conflict might come upon us, and the nuclear weapons are still here.

And he doesn’t shy himself from global warming and climate change either. The problem was forcibly silenced by politics of all sides in the 1980s but nowadays we all see the effects and it’s probably the most pressing matter that we have to tackle if we are to survive on this planet. Carl Sagan talks in a lot of details about this issue and what can be done to deal with it. No need to say that the relevance of his argument is ever more convincing now.

I wanted to talk specifically about one event related by Carl Sagan at the end of the book: the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Even though the world has changed a lot since then, we live in a time when there is a resurgence of obscurantism led by very powerful people. The Alexandrian scholars used to gather every piece of scientific and technological works in a single place, and that’s what doomed it all. Works that didn’t have a copy would be likely destroyed with the library and a huge portion of antique knowledge has been lost forever, only to be rediscovered centuries later when science was again possible.

Today it would be unlikely that all this knowledge would disappear, since our capacity to copy extensively (virtually infinite in the Internet era) in a decentralised system has made it impossible to destroy, but there are still places that could very well get cut from all this important knowledge and still cause problem to the rest of the world (looking at you, US of A). Such an event could have an impact on decades or centuries. Or we could just get nuked.

So I think that Cosmos is an important book to read, even though there are a few obsolete information, mainly mysteries that have been resolved or technological challenges that have been overcome in the last 40 years, but overall, the relevance of the subject is still, well, universal.

(1) Ok, I binge watched the entire Gilmore Girls, and Friends twice since then. Don’t judge me.

(2) That’s a museum on an aircraft carrier. Just the place is incredible. You should check it out if you go to NYC and like technological stuff.