Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Cosmos

Allegedly the most popular science book ever written in the English language, Carl Sagan's Cosmos has been the most compelling demonstration I've found of why the natural world is more interesting than superstitions and myths. With incredible elegance and grace, Carl takes readers on a journey more timeless than his even-more-popular television series ever could. While the TV version of Cosmos had an enormous scope, the book's scope deserves the word cosmic.

Cosmos by Carl Sagan book Read more reviews on Amazon By cosmic scope I mean that Sagan interweaves history with philosophy, science with politics, astronomy with personality. He explores great minds and lost cultures—even lost futures, like the future we lost when the Library of Alexandria burned to the ground. By connecting the dots of such diverse natural phenomena and human creations, Sagan empowers readers to break free of a parochial interpretation of life. Reading Cosmos is like viewing the Earth from space; in fact, Sagan includes a photo of Earth taken from the Moon and labels it as "the home planet of an emerging technical civilization, struggling to avoid self-destruction." Who will ever replace Carl Sagan?

While most readers will appreciate Carl's enthusiasm for science, his optimism on the human future, unfortunately, is more problematic. He suggests that humans ought to work out their differences so that civilization may progress, but he often declines to make a judgement on who should back down when conflicts arise. Also problematic is Sagan's baseless assumption that intelligent extraterrestrials would be benevolent to humans. Despite these weak points, Cosmos is transformational. In the final chapter Carl asks, "Who speaks for Earth?" More than anyone else, Carl Sagan speaks for Earth.