Disclaimer: “Intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong.” ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
At the beginning of a new year, I can’t help thinking that the Gregorian calendar is nothing more than necessary fiction to keep us all on the same page. Even so, 365/6 days is the amount of time the Earth takes to revolve around the sun, and this is all the knowledge I need to appreciate this day. And while it may seem discouraging, I start the new year with the reminder that we are all stardust fit in a tiny lapse of time and that we don’t matter that much in the vast universe. Again, this is precisely the knowledge I need to treasure even more every moment I am alive. And this is Carl Sagan’s lesson for self-awareness:
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
Therefore, I think we all ought to give meaning and purpose to this mote of dust by being the best versions we can. But this was not an epiphany I had on New Year’s Day. In fact, this is the thread I followed on my voyage to self-awareness. I’d instead embrace uncertainty and ambiguity than accept unreasonable explanations. Of course, context played a significant role in determining my unapologetic skepticism. But how did I get to this? Well, I don’t believe in isolated causes or any superstition. It’s always a broken thread of different reasons that stretch from childhood to adulthood that somehow collide and determine who we are. But, for the sake of this narrative, I have to start somewhere, and what is evident right now is that I’ve been immersed in Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”. After watching the TV series many years ago, I decided to read the book. I must confess I’m very drawn to the message it conveys in a way that whenever I feel the urge to talk about it to someone, I let go of the idea because I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to convert someone into “saganism”. This is not a religion, not even a substitute for religion.
“Cosmos” is the simple, cold, and elegant observation that “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star-stuff.” And you don’t have to be an astronomer or a scientist to grasp this. Physics and math were never my forte. Even if I’m always inclined to search for the scientific explanation of phenomena, whenever it comes to interpreting them, numbers are not exactly the way through I understand the world. I always resort to whatever “words” could explain better what the “numbers” have proved. And Carl Sagan just happened to be one of the pioneers who spoke of scientific topics in an engaging, accessible, even poetic way. Everybody could understand the most profound scientific questions on the nature and origin of the world.
“In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos
I genuinely find joy in learning because, like the Cosmos itself, it feels like my “little universe” is expanding too, through new perceptions created by language, i.e., through reading books such as “Cosmos”. But there were other references. For instance, Edgar Morin’s “The Paradigm of Complexity”, when I was around 16. At that age, I could barely grasp the true complexity of this book, but I do remember the joy I felt, even if I could only scrape the surface of its meaning. Going back to the early 90s, I recall the same sense of enjoyment of learning and understanding while watching the French cartoon series “Once Upon a Time… Life/Earth/Man”.
As with any other cartoon, it pictured the struggle between good and evil. On the one hand, you had the “good” characters, represented by the cells and defense mechanisms. On the other hand, you had viruses and bacteria that threaten to attack the human body. Through anthropomorphic representations of cells and cellular functions within the human body, it was easier to understand how the human body worked: almost like a Fordian factory, led by the brain, Maestro, the bearded older man. Following back the thread, I also remember watching Disney’s “Fantasia” countless times, and it did help to put some pieces together and start making sense of the world around me. It portrays the evolution of life from ocean microbes right through to the dramatic extinction of the dinosaurs, to the mythological Roman-Greek era, up to a very phantasmagorical ending, I must say. Combining all these visual narratives, I like to think they must have facilitated my engagement with scientific subjects.
Following now the thread forth to middle school, I recall being eager to read through my science books at the beginning of every school year, anticipating what I was going to learn! Around 95/96, I learned a very worrying piece of information from my unsupervised explorations. There was a note at the back end of the book, like a “Did you know?” section, that mentioned:
“Asteroid Toutatis will visit the Earth in 2004” (originally, in Portuguese).
I mean, who writes that on a science school book? In my mind, “will visit” actually meant hitting the Earth. It reminded me of “Fantasia” and the asteroid that supposedly got the dinosaurs extinct. I didn’t ask the teacher what that meant because I wasn’t supposed to be reading that page yet, but I wondered why nobody else was feeling terrified too. The year 2004 eventually arrived, and no news about Toutatis visiting the Earth. Well, Toutatis passed safely by Earth, but the scientific community considered it a near-miss. Allegedly, it was the closest asteroid to pass by the Earth since homo sapiens started to patrol the sky with telescopes. The fact is, that thought that an asteroid would hit the Earth helped me get that sense of how fragile we are if we start thinking of ourselves within a much larger system: the “Cosmos”. Realizing the complexity of our human body, alongside our insignificance compared with the immensity of the universe, can be a terrifying voyage to self-awareness for a child. Still, I don’t regret the line of events and experiences that led me to what to this sense of wonder and awe.
Having said this here’s another unapologetic quotation from “Cosmos”:
“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos