Book Review: Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I’m a little too young to have seen the legendary tv series, from which this book is the spin-off, when it was aired in the 1970s. I only picked this book up because I had ordered the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene but it didn’t get delivered. I spied this in one my local bookshops and, keen to make up for my lack of recent science reading, snapped it up in an instant.

On reading the first few chapters, there are two main things to notice. Firstly, Sagan was an excellent writer. His effusive style is poetic, at times rhetorical and conjures up great images in the mind. The second thing to note is that he wasn’t a very good historian. The anecdotes he uses are often highly anachronistic; an example being that he describes Eratosthenes as being a “scientist” though this term was not coined until about 2 millennia after Eratosthenes. So while his methodology might be akin to what we might loosely recognise as being scientific today, Eratosthenes would not have called himself such (regardless of translations) and would not have been recognised as such by his peers.

His narrative is also peppered with examples of where he sees “religion” as being inherently opposed to science. Though not factually incorrect, Sagan cherry picks his examples to give a metanarrative that agrees with his worldview. An example of this is where he uses a single quote from John Wesley to summarise all of Western religious thought. This is, and other examples like it are, simplistic in the extreme, to the extent that they are misleading; though no doubt many who would like to think of religion as science as being mutually incompatible will be predisposed to disagree with me on this. For a more thorough account I’d recommend James Hannam’s ‘God’s Philosophers’.

With that small critique aside, I can talk about the main substance of the book. There is no overarching narrative to the book, as Sagan jumps around quite a bit in his topics, but this does stabilise about half way into the book. This is, I think, a consequence of the chapters being based on individual episodes of the corresponding tv series.

For the most part, the book is dominated by the idea of space and what’s in it. Sagan gives us a brief guide on a few of the planets in our solar system, as well as looking out beyond the realms where we have travelled into the rest of the galaxy and onto distant superclusters of galaxies. In all this, Sagan stays well away from any hard science. He is purely descriptive and his aim seems to be to evoke wonder, rather than head-scratching.

It’s hard not to compare his writing with one of his contemporaries, Richard Feynman, who is the master of all science writing. How does Sagan measure up? Well, not bad. As already pointed out, he does let his own prejudices get in the way of his objectivity at times, but at all times he is incredibly intelligible. A few of the more puzzling aspects of physics are explained with analogies that have been used by countless pop-science writers following in Sagan’s footsteps.

This particular edition could do with a revision, as the publishers, Abacus, didn’t do much proof-reading of the text and in places there are multiple spelling and grammar errors in addition to the usual Americanisms.

The scale of the work is about as big as anything that could be conceived, from the origins of the universe, to the origins of life, along with discussions of philosophy, religion and science in general. His ebullient style of writing is both engaging and awe-inspiring, encouraging the reader to consider his or her place in the whole cosmos.

Some elements of the book are definitely of its time, already outdated a little some 30 years later. Sagan makes much of the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy, a subject on which he expounded in his fictional work, Contact, later adapted into a film of the same name. His focus is on radio astronomy and even at the time of writing this review, news broke of a giant radio astronomical array that has been given the green light to be built in South Africa. Yet the pall of the Cold War hangs low over the final chapter in which Sagan pleads for sense in the face of imminent nuclear war. He pleads for reason and rationality as necessary measures that will preserve humanity against the unthinking use of powerful technology that could destroy us.

His work is a classic and should be rightly regarded as such. Along with Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, Sagan was at the vanguard of popular science writing, a field which has flourished in the last few decades, taking science out of the preserve of the university departments and making it accessible to the man on the Clapham Omnibus.

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