Cosmos by Carl Sagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm not sure what I could possibly say about Cosmos that hasn't already been said by countless others in the 28 years since its publication, and likely in a far more intelligent and eloquent way than I ever could. But upon recently reading this book for the first time (which may seem a bit belated, but I am, after all, only 23) it instantly became one of my favorites, a status not easily attained by any book, and so I feel compelled to say something, to expound upon its many virtues and why it has endeared itself to me so completely.
"One glance at [a book] and you hear the voice of another person--perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time."
Perhaps prophetically, this is exactly the effect the late great Dr. Sagan acheived with this book. Through the power and fluid elegance of his prose, while reading Cosmos I could almost hear that familiar and somehow majestic voice (which in large part, I believe, made the PBS miniseries of the same name so wholly entrancing), as if the two of us were old friends having a leisurely, albeit profoundly intellectual, chat over coffee. Not exactly what one might expect from a book largely concerned with science, but this is just one of many qualities that makes it not only endearing to the reader, but also--and perhaps more importantly--accessible, making even the smattering of complex equations seem casual and undaunting.
Aside from the beauty of its prose, which is at times poetic in its depth and its eloquence, Cosmos is also wholly engaging and fascinating in the depth and scope of its subects. Sagan succinctly and expertly covers everything from the birth of stars to the birth of science, the origins of life on Earth to the possibility of life on other planets, and our far distant and recent (in the grand cosmic scheme of things) past to the possibilities for our distant future. And yes, because science is constantly evolving and, as Dr. Sagan states, self-correcting, some of the information and theories covered may now be outdated, but I still believe that Cosmos is well worth reading. Not only can it serve as a friendly, accessible, and engrossing jumping-off point for we common folk who are interested in delving deeper into science but may feel a bit intimidated, it is also, if nothing else, worth reading for the beautifully poignant and evocative insights and the oft-philosophical tidbits contained therein.
"We are the local embodiment of the Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars...."
My only complaints about Cosmos are these: the last two or three chapters lag just a bit, incorporating several topics that seem extraneous and unnecessary, and somewhat lose the smooth, easy flow present throughout the rest of the book; and though I feel that, in the current world political climate, the section discussing nuclear arms is still as relevant today as then, I can't help but think that anybody above the age of 12 and possessing a fully-functioning cerebral cortex is already aware of the potential consequences of nuclear war (gamma burst, radiation poisoning, junk in the atmosphere, nuclear winter, death, doom, destruction, we get it already). However, I can concede on this last point that, at the time of publication, the aftermath of a full-scale nuclear war was perhaps still a pretty hot topic. And in the grand scheme, these negative points make up only a negligible fraction of this otherwise fantastic book, and do not in anyway detract from its intrinsic value or from its overall enjoyability.
All in all, Cosmos is a thoroughly enthralling read that takes you on a breath-taking journey from the inception of the Universe to futures that may never be, and allows us to ponder--when considering our own epic journey from starstuff to "assemblages of a billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of atoms"--what it truly means to be human and what our place, our purpose, is in the vast expanse of "this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky".
Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]
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