And so we come to the final episode of Cosmos. I remember learning, when I was 12 and watching Cosmos for the first time, that Cosmos wasn’t so much a series like the Waltons, that would return year after year (after year after year), but instead was a one-time event, never to be repeated. Sad.
This is one of my favorite episodes. There’s not a lot of new information, but I love the Hypatia story (true or not) and the comparison of the loss of Sophocles’ plays with Shakespeare. Suppose, Sagan says, we had only “A Winter’s Tale” and “Coriolanus” but had heard that a few other of Shakespeare’s works, like Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, were pretty good, too.
Would a humanities television program make such a point about the contributions of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Curie, and Heisenberg? Maybe it would. The point is, it certainly should. Science is one of the things humans do. Science is a humanity.
In this episode, I feel Sagan talking directly to me. He says that when the mob came to burn the Great Library of Alexandria, there was no one there to stop them. Why? Because the findings of science were not used to help the population. Yes, but also because the discoveries of science, the wonders and beauties and deep truths it revealed, were not made available to the population. Learning was for the elite, toil and drudgery and slavery the burden of the masses. If we want people to appreciate science, we must present it to them as a wondrous, thrilling story. We must show them that science is worth saving, beyond its monetary return. That which you love, you protect.
Sagan also makes the point that the scientists at the time of the Library of Alexandria made no challenge to the political, economic, or religious assumptions of the time. “The permanence of the stars was questioned. The justice of slavery was not.”
I’m usually with Richard Feynman on this. He said that when someone really smart in one field tried to say something smart in another, he usually sounded just as dumb as anyone else. Should scientists try to use science to challenge non-scientific assumptions in fields like religion and politics? I don’t know. I think it is very dangerous to draw non-scientific conclusions from the findings, or even the methods, of science. I, for one, would not want to live in a world in which Darwinian natural selection was the basis for morality.
But the processes of science can provide some important ideas. I’m always amazed at the cosmopolitan nature of science. Scientists work with others from all over the world, regardless of race, religion, or time zone. Also encouraging is the way that scientific ideas become accepted not through any formal democratic process, but rather through consensus developed over time and much discussion.
Yet I think it’s so important to remember that science describes the world as it is, not at all the world as it should be.
This is a struggle I go through again and again. I believe that giving people a more scientific world view is a good thing. But having a scientific world view is not, cannot be, any guarantee that the owner of such view will be a good person. And even “good people” do bad things.
I’m thinking about a book on cd I re cently listened to, from a historical, rather than scientific, point of view. The particular incident discussed was the Homestead Steel Strike of the late 1800s. The historian linked this strike and other labor unrest of the era to the “scientific management” ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Here was a man, in the historian author’s point of view, whose application of science to work made life worse, not better, for the worker.
I’m also reminded of Jared Diamond’s point in “The Third Chimpanzee” that the invention of agriculture did not make humans healthier. Eating mostly one thing – the particular grain that was first cultivated in any particular area – and through overcrowding becoming more vulnerable to disease made the residents of the agricultural community less healthy. Yet these sedentary humans were more numerous than their nomadic rivals. A large number of less-healthy city dwellers could protect their wares from a smaller number of more-healthy nomads – nomads who would otherwise steal it. As a result, sedentism, and agriculture in particular, spread. Simple survival of the “fittest”, where in this case fittest meant the ones who made the most babies, not necessarily the healthiest ones.
The point of all this is that it would be naive to state that the application of science automatically makes life better. Sometimes it do, sometimes it do not. And so again another reason not to celebrate so much the products of science as to celebrate the stunning ideas revealed by science.
And yet. And yet and yet and yet. We are all lucky to be alive today, instead of the time when we lived a nomadic existence. There are many reasons you might believe this. I believe it for many reasons. One is that technology itself leads to scientific discovery. We know more of the great secrets today because technology allows us to ask the questions. Telescopes, microscopes, particle accelerators, lasers that can “freeze” an electron around an atom. Clocks that can reveal the reality of Special Relativity. Spacecraft that can take us to the surface of Titan, the tail of a comet, or to the deepest of deep space, where we might find new Earths around distant stars. These are technological triumphs. The wonders of science, quite often, come from the application of technology to scientific questions. Technology drives science, at least as much as the other way around.
In the end, I think, science does not give us humanity. But scientists must retain their humanity. They must remember that the curiosity that leads to discovery, and the joy, the wonder, the amazement they feel at discovery are feelings open to us all. Science is one of the things that humans do.
I have to finish my review of the thirteen extraordinary episodes of Cosmos with Sagan’s own final words in the series, some of the most beautiful science writing – I would say some of the most beautiful writing – in existence. Here’s to Carl.
“It has the sound of epic myth, but it’s simply a description of the evolution of the Cosmos as revealed by science in our time. And we, we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the Cosmos, we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins, starstuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of ten billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and, perhaps, throughout the Cosmos.
“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and fluorish is owed not just to ourselves, but also to the Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”