Start: March 12, 2019
Finish: March 31, 2019
I tried really hard to post this review before the end of March, but as always happens whenever I read a non-fiction book. But my interest in space kept me from quitting this book forever. It’s science-heavy, at least by my standards, making it difficult for me to read quickly like I usually do. But I enjoyed Cosmos and by the end of the book, I fell into a deeper love with the universe.
Part history book, part astronomy book, part psychology book, Cosmos explores many different origins. The origins of our known universe, the origin of our solar system, the origin of life on Earth and finally, the origin of science. Some of the more interesting parts of the book were the history lessons scattered throughout in here. And Sagan fills the pages with anecdotes about the lives of various scientists. One of my favorite revolve around Sir Isaac Newton.
In 1666, at the age of twenty-three, Newton was an undergraduate at Cambridge University when an outbreak of plague forced him to spend a year in idleness in the isolated village of Woolsthorpe, where he had been born. He occupied himself by inventing the differential and integral calculus, making fundamental discoveries on the nature of light and laying the foundation for the theory of universal gravitation. …When asked how he accomplished his astonishing discoveries, Newton replied unhelpfully, “By thinking upon them.”
We learn about how many of the biggest discoveries build off previous discoveries and Sagan moves through the history in a non-linear fashion, where previously discussed scientists and historical figures pop up to explain the successes and failures of their predecessors and successors. My only gripe with these history lessons is how little it focuses on the contributions of women in the science community. In one of the final chapters, Sagan mentions Hypatia, a scholar alive during the time of the Library of Alexandria (one of my favorite ancient wonders of the world). Hypatia is one of the few, if only, women mentioned in the book who contributed in some way to our understanding of the world and universe. It’s unfortunate because it continues the tradition of history overlooking women in STEM and I wonder if Cosmos was written in 2019, would the omission of women still occur or would there be an effort to uplift the discoveries made by women.
There’s a lot of science and math in the book. The two appendices go into greater details about the square root of two and the five Pythagorean solids. (Side note: Pythagorus was an interesting person and I really want to learn more about him and his followers!) I’m can admit that I’m not a mathematical/science-leaning person. I did well in these subjects when I was in high school, but I never fully understood them. Even now, I struggle to explain some these subjects to the students I work with. But I imagine for the people who are mathematically gifted, this book would be interesting. The one science heavy section that did hold my attention comes towards the middle of Chapter 12 where Sagan explores the Drake equation and the possibility of finding another technologically advance society in the universe.
But, if you’re like me and start to doze off when complex numbers or equations are thrown your way, I encourage you to stick with this book. The science and math are spaced out enough that you won’t feel like you’re reading a textbook.
This is a book worth reading at least once. Carl Sagan writes in the introduction “The Cosmos television series and this book represent a hopeful experiment in communicating some of the ideas, methods and joys of science.” It’s accessible to nearly everyone, regardless of how well you did in high school science. And it’s imbued with a sense of wonder, imagination and optimism. Though it was first published in 1980, a lot of the information presented is still relevant in today’s world. In fact, the final chapter, titled “Who Speaks for Earth?” is a call to action for people on this planet to set aside aggression and war and focus on cooperation and discovery.
The cost of major ventures into space–permanent bases on the Moon or human exploration of Mars, say–is so large that they will not, I think, be mustered in the very near future unless we make dramatic progress in nuclear and “conventional” disorients. Even then there are probably more pressing needs here on Earth. But I have no doubt that, if we avoid self-destruction, we will sooner or later perform such missions…even a slight commitment to ventures beyond the Earth…builds over many generations to a significant human presence on other worlds, a rejoicing in our participation in the Cosmos.
Cosmos ends with one of the best final lines. I won’t spoil it here. But it’s gentle encouragement from Sagan to do better in this world and learn more about the Cosmos that we’re intrinsically and eternally connected to.