Thursday, 3 December 2009

On the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

This is a great voice-modulated cut-up of Carl Sagan lines from Cosmos which brought memories flooding back. Cosmos had a huge impact on me when I was a boy. Sagan really opened my mind to the immensity and the beauty of the universe. He was a great communicator, and I still vividly remember many of the sequences. Perhaps more unusually for someone not blessed with any inherent scientific literacy, I remember their content in some detail. I could tell you how the ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was able to measure the circumference of the Earth using just two sticks and a length of thread. I’m liable to fly into a rage at the barbarians who burned down the Alexandrian library, from the remains of which were recovered a fragment of papyrus upon which the astronomer Aristarchus had tentatively speculated that maybe, just maybe, the earth wasn’t at the centre of the universe after all, that honour falling upon the sun. I can picture Carl standing at the furthest corner of his cosmic calendar of the lifespan of the Earth, in the last few seconds of December 31st, telling us that this was when man finally emerged. And his vivid description of the hellish surface of Venus, with its sulphuric acid rain. This last included his concise description of the workings of the greenhouse effect, which he proceeded to warn was taking effect on Earth due to our over-reliance on fossil fuels. This was 1979.

The music was great too. The lives of the Renaissance astronomers (including the colourful, golden-nosed Tycho Brahe) and the insights they had into the workings of the universe were accompanied by Bach violin sonatas. A sombrely atmospheric extract from Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony wonderfully conveyed the vast emptiness of space. And there was lots of Vangelis, particularly the music from L’Apocalypse des Animaux which propelled Carl’s dandelion seed spacecraft into the far corners of the universe. This device was something I loved as a child, although the critics over here were very snooty about such contrivances. But you got the sense that Carl was an unabashed romantic. This was after all, the man who put a recording on the side of the Voyager spacecraft which attempted to condense the entirety of human culture into the space then available (you’d presumably just attach an I-pod now, as if anyone would be bothered with such expansively optimistic gestures any more) in case anyone out there should happen to stumble across it. I love this poetic approach to science, this almost religious joy in the sheer bloody marvel of it all. If astronomers don’t get a shiver down their spine every now and then when their looking up at the stars then…well, they should. And the same goes for sub-atomic particle physicists, too. There was also some great artwork from artists Adolf Schaller and Jon Lomberg, which depicted spiral armed galaxies, icy caves on Neptune and what lifeforms cruising around the clouds of Jupiter might possibly look like.

Carl wrote a great book towards the end of his life (and the terminal nature of his illness was something he bravely confronted in some of the essays in his final collection) called The Demon-Haunted World. This was his confrontation with the forces of the irrational which were on the rise in the world (and this included political demonology, as a chapter titled ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’ suggests). But his rallying call was a very human one. He was concerned with how people were manipulated in the real world by charlatans who preyed on superstition and ignorance. But he had enough humility to admit to the narrowness of the range of human knowledge. As he said in Cosmos, with typical poetical flourish, we have only just dipped our toe into the shore of the cosmic ocean. He wasn’t out to trash anyone’s beliefs, as readers of his novel Contact will know. His interest in the possibility of alien life, which I’m sure exposed him to much ridicule amongst fellow scientists, demonstrated a certain degree of faith in an intelligence beyond, and presumably vastly different from, mankind’s. He was, in a sense, a rationalist mystic (a mystical rationalist?) How wonderful if he were still around to provide an alternative advocacy of rationalism and enlightenment values to that of the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins, whose supercilious air conveys the sense that all who disagree with him do so because they are pitiful fools, intellectual inferiors. Sagan sought to share his wonder at the universe with everyone. Dawkins, with his ‘it is nothing but…’ approach returns us to the idea of science as a reductive force which is the provenance of a disdainful priesthood. And memes…well, they’re just his way of annexing the humanities department. Destroy religion and the whole world of the mind will be under his control. AhahaHaHaHAHAHAAAA. (That’s an outburst of megalomaniacal laughter, by the way).

Cosmos has been released in its entirety on DVD recently, which is probably what occasioned this lovely video. It’s clearly inspiring a whole new generation, and I can’t wait to have my sense of wonder re-awakened. God bless him, wherever he may be.

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