Happy Birthday Carl

CosmosIn honor of Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday, I watched an episode of Cosmos: The Backbone of Night.

“The exploration of the Cosmos is a voyage of self discovery.”

Watching this episode, I am convinced that no one was better at popularizing science than Carl Sagan. He knew how to keep the discussion personal. In the episode, he travels to his hometown, getting a glass of milk at a general store. He talks about how in his childhood he had questions about the stars. When he was young, he asked adults about what they were, and he went to the library to get books about them. The show then transitions into Carl’s sixth grade classroom in the present day. Sagan is visiting, teaching the children in the class about our solar system. A child asks if the sun is considered part of the Milky Way galaxy. Carl responds, saying the sun is considered part of the galaxy. He also says that the child is part of the galaxy too. We are all part of the galaxy.

“It was argued that the universe was knowable. Why? Because it was ordered. Because there were regularities in nature that permitted secrets to be uncovered. Nature was not entirely unpredictable. There were rules that even she had to obey. This ordered and admirable character of the universe was called Cosmos, and it was set in stark contradiction to the idea of Chaos.”

Carl travels to Greece and talks about the history of science. He mentions the heavy hitters of early scientific discovery: Democritus, Pythagoras, etc. He talks about these men in their social context, how they went against the commonly accepted beliefs of sun gods and stars made out of milk. Sagan had an amazing ability to put our current pursuit of knowledge into the context of our entire human species.

“Plato expressed hostility to observation and experiment. He thought contempt for the real world and disdain for the practical application of scientific knowledge Plato’s followers succeeded in extinguishing the light of science and experiment that had been kindled by Democritus and the other Ionians.”

Sagan goes into an explanation of how Plato and his followers treated scientific thought as an ability that only elites could pursue. Most of what he covers in this episode he also wrote in A Demon-Haunted World. But in his book, he did not emphasize how Plato caused a division in western culture for so long. It is an interesting point that I have not really thought about.

In the end, he brings it back to the kids.

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species. And, in each generation, asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We begin as wanderers and we are wanderers still.

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