Carl Sagan made television history when he created the 13-hour series “Cosmos”. It is an enlightening education for anyone like me, embarrassingly ignorant of much that young people learn today about the stars and the galaxies, and a re-education for others who might appreciate a refresher course in Cosmology. For all of us each episode offers inspiring insights into the mysteries and marvels of the Universe, and, incidentally, of the only planet we will ever live on.
I have selected a few of the talented astrophysicist’s tastiest morsels, which may serve here as appetizers for potential viewers. I especially appreciated the following :
1. Astrology : “a pious fraud”.
2. Johann Kepler : a Protestant seminarian whom science liberated from “the cloister of medieval thought”. Of him Sagan said : “He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions.” Kepler is quoted as saying : “Geometry is God Himself”.
3. Superstition : “a refuge for people who are powerless”.
4. Whales : bigger than the biggest of the dinosaurs, mammals which entered the sea from the land. “We did the opposite, 350 million years ago”.
5. UFOs, concerning the testimony of “witnesses” : “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” (a challenge broad enough to include the claims of non-atheists …).
6. “Choose life !” (with no reference to abortion) : the recognition by French explorer extraordinaire, La Perouse (who arrived in Australia a week too late to claim New Holland for France), of the human dignity of the Tlingit tribes in Southern Alaska, contrasted with the genocidal Conquistadores under Cortez two centuries earlier, who annihilated the Aztecs and killed their culture (a cautionary tale for our descendants if ever they encounter genuine extra-terrestrials).
Along the way you will pick up precious nuggets of information, as when Sagan actually shows us how Champollion was able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, how fantastic sea-creatures prefigure, perhaps, extraterrestrial forms of life, and a multitude of facts and figures that reveal the immensity and complexity of an apparently limitless Universe. And God’s place in all this ? Sagan leaves little doubt that as another scientist, Laplace, once said to Napoleon, he has “no need of that hypothesis”. He condemns credulity but refrains from ridicule and roundly rejects unfounded beliefs, superstition and what he calls “the abject submission to mysticism”. Sagan clearly was a convinced though not an abrasive atheist. His “Cosmos” is a must for anyone interested in an initiation into, or a reminder of, the magnificence of a Universe which exists without any help from a God who does not.