“[To prefer] the hard truth to [your] dearest illusions, that is the heart of science.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)
Carl Sagan is my hero. Perhaps more than any other single individual in history, Sagan helped to forge the trail that may someday lead to a common understanding of science shared among the masses. He was a champion of that vision, one which proved itself crucial: today more than ever, we desperately need the hope, beauty, foresight, and “hard truth” at the “heart of science.”
Today, the late Carl Sagan‘s wife, Ann Druyan, continues the legacy of Cosmos, their shared magnum opus, with new books and new seasons, one of which is Cosmos: Possible Worlds, now airing on National Geographic. Her continuing mission to open the collective eyes of humanity is a resounding success worthy of celebration, but the task is far from complete. Put simply, she and the scientific community need our help. As with most great societal innovations, the scientific revolution requires widespread dedication; a common commitment to understanding. The information age has set the stage, so that now, more than ever, we are ready. We have irrefutable proof that science is the single greatest catalyst to take us from our humble beginnings of collective ignorance, and begin our journey to the stars. All we have to do is reach out, and take it.
A Ladder to the Stars is, at its heart, a simple story, the same hero’s journey all of us have experienced a thousand times over. This retelling has one crucial element makes this episode, as well as Cosmos as a whole, the single most important story ever told within our collective history: it is the story of us. Cosmos strives to deliver the grandest of messages, and yet it does so with grace and humility, simultaneously showing us the most ambitious visions while reminding us that we are but a small part of the marvelous adventure we call “life.”
The Ship of Imagination takes us from the beginning to the end of the cosmic calendar, from the big bang to the formation of the solar system, to “20 cosmic seconds ago,” when our early hunter-gatherer ancestors took a revolutionary step and began to build one of the first permanent settlements: Çatalhöyük: a simple and beautiful clump of commonly built square buildings, their only entrances on the rooftops. The true beauty of this settlement lies not just in the layout, however, but in the social structure it implies. As host Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains:
“There is no palace here. The bitter price that the invention of agriculture cost human society had yet to be paid. Here, there was no dominance of the few over the many. There was no 1% attaining lavish wealth while most everyone else merely subsisted… They still cherished the Hunter-Gatherer ethos of sharing. Çatalhöyük was egalitarian. The weakest ate the same food that the strongest did, and everyone lived in the same kind of home.”
We’re then taken to the near future, a time when the vision of communication across vast distances becomes a reality. Using tiny vessels powered by a beam of light, we’re able to chart systems like Alpha Centauri after a relatively short turnaround time of only 24 years. As time passes, humanity will get closer and closer to making these great journeys ourselves. In a powerful, symbolic conclusion, we see a vision of that very future, wherein starships are built to accommodate our long-term needs as we travel. We see settlements built on those ships, not with large palaces or vainglorious central structures, but simple, commonly built square buildings, their only entrances on the rooftops.
Cosmos is masterful in striking these simultaneously grand but humbling tones. If we are to unlock that ambitious vision of the future, we must first humble ourselves and realize that a shared society, one like the simple egalitarianism prized by the residents of Çatalhöyük, is the only key. If we insist on perpetuating our current egocentricity, however, we are doomed to fail.
Turning Toward the Stars
“Come with me.”
From the opening pages of Cosmos, as well as the opening scenes of the documentary series, these three simple words extend a beautiful invitation to everyone ready to listen. It strikes me how much three tiny words can mean, and the difference even a small change can make. Consider, for example, the words commonly attributed in Christendom to Jesus himself: “Come follow me.” (Matthew 4:19, 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22, just to name a few, emphasis added)
What is important about the subtle change between these variants of essentially the same phrase? Simply this: that tiny difference, “with” vs. “follow”, is the core of why science, and not religion, is the key to our survival. If we choose to embrace the unsubstantiated words erroneously attributed to some mythical deity, betting our survival on trying to “follow” an abstract figure to which misguided men have ascribed infallibility, we are surely lost.
However, if choose to turn toward the stars, together, working “with” one another, as Sagan and other truly great champions of humanity have admonished, taking on the mantra of science, “[preferring] the hard truth to [our] dearest illusions,” we will survive. We will thrive. We will reach our ultimate state of being, possibly even surpassing the imagined “level” of the deities many among us choose to worship. That, in the end, is the ultimate message behind Cosmos. Ann Druyan and her team once again deliver that message masterfully, and I truly hope we will one day survive to see its grand vision come to pass.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds: Ladder to the Stars aired on March 9th, 2020, on National Geographic.
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