Originally published May 11th, 2015
I’d heard the skies singing with its praises for years before I finally got the opportunity to read this book. If it wasn’t non-fiction I would describe it as having a cult following, and maybe it does among scientists. The foreword in this edition is by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is probably the coolest guy I’ve never met. So I had pretty high expectations for it, and for the most part it met them. I’m discovering that I want my non-fiction books to be very linear and direct; I want the line of knowledge and discovery and mistakes to start at the beginning and trundle along until the end. Side trips are acceptable, shaking up the timeline is not. But that’s not really the way Sagan writes. He’ll start at one point and wander forwards and back in that general area before hopping over to something different. Maybe he’ll come back later. Maybe he won’t. So if you don’t have a decent grasp of the timeline before you start out it can be challenging to keep everything straight in your head. The other part I had a tough time with was the math. I haven’t dealt with any theoretical math, algebra, or proofs since I was in high school. I don’t remember Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, if indeed I ever learned them. Sagan discusses them all, in detail, along with how Kepler discovered them. Which was useful. He also includes two appendices: “Reductio ad Absurdum and the Square Root of Two,” and “The Five Pythagorean Solids.” They’re both discussed in other chapters but not in the level of detail the appendices provide. They are pretty complex. Fascinating, but complex. Speaking as someone who hasn’t done algebra for over a decade, even reading step by step I had a tough time following the math. I just can’t quite remember how to make 2 E/r – E + 2 E/n = 2 into 1/n + 1/r = 1/2 + 1/E, even knowing I’m dividing both sides by 2 E. Maybe if I took the extra time to sit down and write it all out? When he says 2 E/r is that 2(E/r) or (2E)/r? Because they’re not the same! I’m guessing it’s the latter, based on the result in the next step, but speaking as someone who doesn’t do a whole lot of algebra anymore it’s not printed out as clearly as it could be. I mean, what if someone wants to try this at home?
Then again, maybe I’m being alarmist. It’s just an appendix.
Most of Sagan’s side trips are fascinating. I wouldn’t have expected to learn about Champollion making the breakthrough that finally allowed scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, but it was in here. Sagan uses it as a metaphor for communicating with an alien civilization, to give us an idea of the difficulties we could face if we ever got the chance to do it, but also to prove that it could be possible. Just start by looking for patterns. The human brain excels at finding patterns. The thought that we may one day use that skill to allow us to decipher the language of an alien civilization and communicate with them is extravagantly exciting. Even if the chances that it will be in my lifetime are slim to none. Sagan holds out a lot of hope for the future of the human race, and his desire to explore and discover is contagious. It’s heart-breaking to read Cosmos knowing the funding for NASA has been obliterated, in part because of Sagan’s insistence that spectacular, ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of the universe aren’t that expensive, compared to the funding given to the defense budget, and that every science dollar spent will come back to us sevenfold. (363) He makes clear his belief that if we continue down the path we’re on we may destroy ourselves. His final point is that we can either focus on nuclear and conventional weaponry, or space. Not both. That’s a complicated issue, and it’s not going to be an easy decision to make. If we fund science at the expense of defensive and offensive weaponry, will we be able to protect ourselves? What does protection mean in an age of nuclear bombs? If we fund defense at the expense of science, will we make the kind of progress needed to solve the looming problems of the global future? Will we have a planet left to explore from? Or will we suddenly discover we’re going to space whether we’re ready or not, because while we were busy building bombs the world melted beneath us? Can we break the barriers between our countries, unite our leaders and our scientists, and work together for a common goal? Can’t we all just get along?