Of Atoms and Void

The Crab Nebula

When I first read Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos (1980), it was like a match struck in a dark room, making the shape of things emerge out of the dark of night. Certain books can illuminate the world: dispel our delusions and unveil the monsters in the closet as tricks of the mind. “Books permits us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors […] they connect us with the insights and knowledge […] of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us”. Cosmos is one of them. Sagan mastered the art of clear communication, he had the ability to make his readers feel the same enthusiasm he clearly felt for his subject — “When you’re in love you want to tell the world,” as he wrote in The Demon-Haunted World (1995).

Cosmos contains clear traces of the era it was written in: the first edition was published in 1980, in the midst of Cold War tensions, and the fear of nuclear war is palpable. It is a cautiously optimistic book, but although it has inspired generations of both researchers — as popularisers like Neil Degrasse Tyson can attest to — and space cowboys with infinitely more than an uncharted Western frontier to explore, Sagan also reminds us of the dark sides of our curiosity and desire for adventure. Exploratory voyages to the “new world” and expansion across the Western frontier was accompanied by the extermination of natives, either as a result of deliberate policy, or as an unintended consequence. Perhaps, we should get our own house in order before colonizing space.

On our journey, Sagan leads us from the beginning of time and space 13.8 billion years ago, to now. He guides us through the barely visible and miniscule. He explains in beautiful prose how physics works on a subatomic and macroscopic level. In 13 chapters, he ponders the possibility of extraterrestrial life on Mars and Jupiter; he speculates about travelling faster than the speed of light; he explains how life emerged on earth roughly 4 billion years ago in the first self-replicating molecule, and how all life on earth is retraceable to this single origo.

“There is grandeur in this view of life […] whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” — Charles Darwin

From infancy we have gazed upon and pondered the heavens in awe and fear. We have read the celestial poem, the book of the universe, and tried to discern its message. We have observed the recurring patterns and cycles of vagabond stars, passages of celestial showers, and the orbit of the moon. In them we have seen signs and predictions. The court astrologers of Babylon interpreted the inexplicable as harbingers of death, destruction and catastrophes, fortune and happiness: our fates etched and sealed in the stars: writing on the firmament, a celestial mene mene tekel upharsin. And Sagan speculates about what our distant ancestors might have felt when they gazed upon these distant campfires, seemingly fixed in the heavens, and the vagabond tribes of hunters-gatherers travelling across it; how this greatest of mysteries may have been the crucible of our gods. He covers many other topics, and does it with brilliant erudition and clarity, but it is his humanism I will focus on in this article.

“From the point of view of a star a human being is a tiny flash, one of billions of brief lives, flickering tenuously on the surface of a strangely cold, anomalously solid, exotically remote sphere of silicate and iron.”

This is home. This is us. A pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam. When we examine our immediate neighbourhood, Earth seems like a lovely oasis in a galactic desert. Only here do we know for sure that life exists. Each human life is at once completely insignificant, and immensely meaningful, considering how rare and how improbable our existence is on this mote of dust. We are endowed by evolution with brains capable of understanding the structure of the universe and the building blocks of life. But we are at times arrogant and full of hubris, and compared to a star we are like mayflies, fleeting ephemeral creatures who live out their whole lives in the course of a single day. Rather than arrogance, we should display humility.

We have accomplished great things in a short time — yes — but we are fallible creatures, and we have only just recently embarked on our journey.

We have ventured out to the nearest island in this vast cosmic ocean.

We have deciphered the language of reality and discovered that the laws that govern life on earth are equally valid in the rest of the Universe: that there is a resonance between the way we think and the way the world works.

We look within ourselves and see the Cosmos; we observe the Universe and see a reflection of ourselves.

We were born in the stellar furnaces of the universe, in the hearts of faraway quasars.

We have peered into the past and witnessed the moment of our birth with radio telescopes.

We are thinking matter, stardust with consciousness, a way for the Cosmos to know itself.

A neuron and the observable universe

Sagan’s books — Cosmos especially — are permeated by a profound humanism; an awe and reverence for life and all its “endless forms most beautiful” on Earth. When we first encounter the world around us, it might seem stable and primordial. But as we learn, we realize how precious life is, how rare, how fragile, and how easily it can be broken. Yes life on Earth has proven to be remarkably tenacious, adaptive and resilient when faced with immense catastrophes and destruction — having faced 5 mass extinctions so far, and now being the cause of the sixth — we’ve survived and evolved despite often adverse conditions. But we — a tribe of upright naked apes with big brains and opposable thumbs — have managed to become the most consequential force on Earth. While we might have made great progress, we are infinitely foolish at times: a danger to ourselves and our planet. We invest our vast knowledge, resources and creativity in self-destructive endeavours, driven by mutual distrust and rivalry: by our primal, reptilian instincts. Sagan did not trust that the better angels of our nature will necessarily emerge victorious out of the battle between our higher and lower selves, between civilization and barbarism, concern for the well-being of life on earth and unfettered self-interest. The risks and responsibilities associated with a technological civilization are immense. The result of a billion year long process could end in a single moment, a miscalculation: “a World War II every second for the length of a lazy summer afternoon.” We’ve invented vast deposits of conventional and nuclear weapons, we’ve utilized chemicals harmful to everything that sustains us: the air we breathe, our oceans, and our forests. We are hostages to genies of death, waiting for the rubbing of the lamps: a nuclear sword of Damocles looms over our heads.

Sagan offers no easy solutions to these seemingly intractable problems. But he warns against both fatalism, apathy, and naive optimism. History does not obey the same laws as nature: foresight is necessary; prophecy is the business of fools and frauds. Progress is not continuous and linear, but exhibits conjectures and discontinuities. We can’t extrapolate from the present and conclude that our knowledge and development have reached their ends. Thinking this way only favors those with an interest in preserving the status quo, those who reap the largest advantages from existing conditions.

Rather, we must acknowledge that truth is transient and provisional. Sagan believes in progress, but does not claim it to be inevitable. He acknowledges that we are endowed with the ability to change our lives and societies for the better, and that we can achieve this by employing the methods of science, incremental improvement by trial and error. But for this to be possible, opportunity, hope and will must exist. It takes collective effort and common goals. We must realize that our loyalties ought to be devoted to humanity and the planet as one. We must preserve the diversity of life and the health of our planet, having become the most consequential force on earth: this is our responsibility, nay, duty.

The benefits reaped from science and technology must be put to the service of the common good, they must be used to battle social and economic injustices, and power and authority must be questioned and challenged. Scientists can’t distance themselves from society, confine themselves to their own little tribes, lock themselves up in their “ivory towers” with their sacred knowledge. Knowledge must be accessible, says Sagan, new discoveries — results and methods — must be proliferated and popularized, communicated in a clear way by trusted figures. Secrecy breeds distrust; obscurity breeds confusion; lack of knowledge breeds ignorance. Distrust, ignorance and confusion results in regression to mysticism, fear, hatred of the unknown, isolation, selfishness: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos.




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