Quotes From Timeless Science Books: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Image by Erik Jones

That is the brilliant first line from Carl Sagan’s 1980 TV series, Cosmos, as well as the first line of his book of the same name. This series was a clear demarcation line in my life when I watched it a little over a decade ago. There was a before, and an after, where the after was marked by a much more intense desire to understand the world around me.

Sagan has a way of communicating the wonder of the universe and history of science in an erudite, yet down to earth way. He is also able to successfully pull off a level of earnestness and poetic language that feels missing or discouraged in today’s discourse.

To see what I mean, just check out his famous thoughts about our Pale Blue Dot.

I read the book version of Cosmos several years ago and found it to be equally awe-inspiring and cosmically humbling as the TV version.

Before getting to the quotes, here is one more video I would recommend, if only to get a sense of his voice, because it is so much more fun to read the below in his voice and cadence. This explanation from his Cosmos series about Googol, a Googolplex, and infinity is something I honestly still think about all the time all these years later.

The following quotes jumped out to me as I read through the book.

Context and quotes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

This is Sagan on the purpose of science. This is in response to Immanual Velikovsky, a psychiatrist who in 1950. He proposed that Venus was originally a comet that originated near Jupiter and before settling in its current orbit, came near Earth at the time of Moses to help part the Red Sea as well as cause volcanic eruptions and floods.

Many hypotheses proposed by scientists as well as by non-scientists turn out to be wrong. But science is a self-correcting enterprise. To be accepted, all new ideas must survive rigorous standards of evidence. The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that his hypotheses were wrong or in contradiction to firmly established facts, but that some who called themselves scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s work. Science is generated by and devoted to free inquiry: the idea that any hypothesis, no matter how strange, deserves to be considered on its merits. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science. We do not know in advance who will discover fundamental new insights.

His response to a critique of science as a reductionist worldview that removes meaning.

I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity. For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.

On why it’s important for us to keep exploring and pushing our knowledge of the cosmos.

We embarked on our cosmic voyage with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.

Einstein and serendipity.

His latent interest in science was awakened at age twelve by a book of popular science given to him by an impoverished student named Max Talmey, who had been invited to dinner, in an act of charity and compassion, by Einstein’s parents.

Simple explanation of special theory of relativity.

In a universe filled with stars rushing helter-skelter in all directions, there was no place that was ‘at rest,’ no framework from which to view the universe that was superior to any other framework. This is what the word relativity means. The idea is every place is as good as every other place. The laws of Nature must be identical no matter who is describing them.

This quote was played out in his TV series, and is one of the most memorable parts for me. In fact, it inspired the image in the logo of Hurt Your Brain.

To make an apple pie, you need wheat, apples, a pinch of this and that, and the heat of the oven. The ingredients are made of molecules-sugar, say, or water. The molecules, in turn, are made of atoms-carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and a few others. Where do these atoms come from? Except for hydrogen, they are all made in stars. A star is a kind of cosmic kitchen inside which atoms of hydrogen are cooked into heavier atoms. Stars condense from interstellar gas and dust, which are composed mostly of hydrogen. But the hydrogen was made in the Big Bang, the explosion that began the Cosmos. If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

We are starstuff!

All the elements of the Earth except hydrogen and some helium have been cooked by a kind of stellar alchemy billions of years ago in stars, some of which are today inconspicuous white dwarfs on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

A quote on not using science as a tool to demean other cultures. For context, this passage is after several paragraphs that go through the creation myths of the Aranda people of Central Australia, the Popul Vuh of the Quiche Maya, the Maiana of Gilbert Islands, the P’an Ku from third century China, and Huai-nan Tau of first century BC China.

These myths are tributes to human audacity. The chief difference between them and our modern scientific myth of the Big Bang is that science is self-questioning, and that we can perform experiments and observations to test our ideas. But those other creation stories are worthy of our deep respect.

I love the last line of this, but wanted to provide context.

There is a deep and appealing notion that the universe is but the dream of the god who, after a hundred Brahma years [Brahma year in Hindu is 8.64 billion years], dissolves himself into a dreamless sleep. The universe dissolves with him-until, after another Brahma century, he stirs, recomposes himself and begins again to dream the great cosmic dream. Meanwhile, elsewhere, there are an infinite number of other universes, each with its own god dreaming the cosmic dream. These great ideas are tempered by another, perhaps still greater. It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather that the gods are the dreams of men.

An interesting take on one of the reasons we haven’t heard from aliens yet. Sagan would go on to write the novel Contact (Jodie Foster starred in the movie based on Sagan’s story), which was clearly influenced by this line of thinking.

Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish? It may be that we have not been visited because the stars are strewn abundantly in the expanse of space, so that before a nearby civilization arrives, it has altered its exploratory motivations or evolved into forms undetectable to us.

On the way we portray science fiction narratives with alien invaders.

Perhaps our fears about extraterrestrial contact are merely a projection of our own backwardness, an expression of our guilty conscience about our past history: the ravages that have been visited on civilizations only slightly more backward than we.

Lovely sentiment similar to the Pale Blue Dot linked to in the intro.

National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain 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. Travel is broadening.

The importance of science.

‘Superstition [is] cowardice in the face of the Divine,’ wrote Theophrastus, who lived during the founding of the Library of Alexandria. We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times-a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universes and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.

Science is only a tool, although the best tool we have.

There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But 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. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true. Humans everywhere share the same goals when the context is large enough. And the study of the Cosmos provides the largest possible context.

A quote I love from Edward R Harrison is, “Hydrogen is a light, odorless gas, which, given enough time, turns into people.” This is Sagan’s version.

The ash of stellar alchemy was now emerging into consciousness. At an ever-accelerating pace, it invented writing, cities, art and science, and sent spaceships to the planets and the stars. These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution.

The last paragraph of the book.

“For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth, Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Writing about podcasts, science, and art, in no particular order. hurtyourbrain.com for podcast recommendations and thefeaturedimage.com for words + art.

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