Friday, April 10, 2020

"Cosmos," by Carl Sagan--Nonfiction Review

We’ve made it to another Friday, my dear internet strangers. You all still socially distancing? Still, reading this blog? Good, you’ll survive… that isn’t to imply reading this blog will impact your chances of survival one way or another, or is it?

Anyway, in today’s nonfiction review, we’re talking space stuff, shocking, I know, with Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” It’s one of those books that I believe everyone should read at least once in their life because the gifts Carl Sagan left us with are genuinely precious—chief of which is the gift of perspective.

Carl Sagan

What I love about this book:

It isn’t just a book about astronomy. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some astronomy and could talk about it for many an hour—but Sagan doesn’t limit the topics covered in “Cosmos” to things that happen in outer space. After all, like that stoner you met in freshman year, once said, “like everything man, is like the universe, so like we’re all the universe, man.” He wasn’t wrong—inelegant maybe—but not wrong. Sagan describes it a bit more elegantly by saying that we are all made of star-stuff. He leads you on the journey of why that is true, explaining that all elements making up matter are ultimately forged through the process of fusion in the furnaces of every star. The rarer and very dense elements, further down the periodic table, can only be made via this process, not in normal stars but only after a star dies in a fiery explosion called a supernova.

Without getting too much further into the weeds—understanding that and how matter and energy can’t ever truly be destroyed but only transformed creates an opportunity. The opportunity to realize that not only are we all fundamentally the same, but the greater truth that we are connected to everything, everywhere, for as long as time passes. No one and nothing is ever truly lost, only changed in form and pattern.

Overall, the text of “Cosmos” is accessible for everyone, regardless of personal scientific education level. Carl Sagan wouldn’t have been the arch science communicator we remember him as if he could only express himself in a meaningful way to other astrophysicists. His book is the perfect starting place for anyone interested in the stars, physics, or the universe as a whole. He doesn’t dumb down the concepts presented in the book, more he just slowly and robustly explains them without presupposing the audience all have PhDs. How does he do this? With a lot of metaphors. 

Sagan sometimes even flexes his fiction muscles at various points in the book, for which I’m appreciative. He’s a powerful writer, and his talents with fiction are sometimes forgotten in the face of his nonfiction accomplishments as an astronomer, astrophysicist, and a science communicator—especially in the shadow of the television programs that share a namesake with this book.         

What I don’t love about this book:

Sagan can wax poetic like the best of them, and most of the time, it’s lovely—flowery and so forth, but it can be a bit long-winded. The problem is he takes a while,  getting to his point of whatever he’s describing. When he does get there, it’s usually graceful, sort of like how the Sistine Chapel is elegant—but if all you wanted was a picture, there are no pictures in Cosmos, only Sistine Chapel(s), metaphorically speaking. Literally, there are several pictures in “Cosmos,” and what I’m getting at is the word choice is always elevated, and with elevated language, your audience needs to be in the right mindset to appreciate the product fully. I understand why the author chose to write this book in such a revering way. This is his life’s work, and it’s about the most significant topic possible because it’s about the whole universe—which by definition, is the biggest thing that can be conceived of that we know for certain exists.

Also, “Cosmos” is guilty of one of my primary nemeses when reading—hyper long chapters—right up there with super short chapters in terms of how much it annoys me. I get it—the thirteen chapters of “Cosmos” accompany the thirteen episodes of the original “Cosmos” show, but it still aggravates me for petty reasons.

It’s hard to say what any chapter in the book is precisely about in a concise way. Certainly, they’ve all got individual themes, and they’re about a lot of things, but without breaking them down further, they all become vast self-contained literary adventures in their own right. So my experience reading “Cosmos” wasn’t that I was reading one book but several small books tied together. 

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Parting thoughts:

Carl Sagan lived and died a little before my time—so sadly, I don’t know the experience of him and his work as a science communicator during my formative years. Those figures for me are Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Yes, I was alive in 1996 when Carl Sagan died, but I was in elementary school, and my love for the stars hadn’t been fostered much beyond reruns of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Even still, it has been an emotional journey for me to discover his work and watch his old shows now that I’m older. My introduction to him, was in fact, “Cosmos” but hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I guess technically the first thing I’d experienced by him was “Contact” the 1997 film based on his novel of the same name—but I don’t count it because I hadn’t realized that movie was based on a novel, haven’t seen it since the ’90s, and it went way over my head back then. I’ll have to revisit it at some point.

Why this stuff resonates with me so much is because outer space, the further reaches of our solar system and beyond, is our only logical future as a species. There are no more oceans to cross on Earth, no more lands to discover—this is it, and there are more of us every day. I know it’s a strange thing to say during a pandemic, but even after world wars one and two, and the Spanish flu, which by all accounts was far more lethal than COVID-19, the Earth’s population still grew and grew at ever-increasing rates. It will continue to do so—even after this.

Carl Sagan was ultimately an optimist. He believed in humanity, and that we can be better. Through the rigorous use of the scientific method, one day, we will reach the stars, and it is a beautiful dream. Before that can happen though, we as a species need to do better, to cooperate and learn to let live, better. For me, that is ultimately the perspective Carl Sagan wanted us to adopt—and I hope we don’t let him down.

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