An invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”
By Maria Popova
“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet / Traveling through casual space / Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns / To a destination where all signs tell us / It is possible and imperative that we learn / A brave and startling truth…” So begins Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, one of the most beautiful and poignant poems ever written — a poem that flew to space, a poem that came from space: a poem inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot — his lyrical meditation on the landmark photograph of Earth, which the Voyager spacecraft took in 1990 as an afterthought upon completing its unprecedented photographic survey of our Solar System, and which Sagan spent years petitioning NASA to permit.
The Voyager, which had sailed into space thirteen years earlier, carried alongside its instruments The Golden Record — a visionary, intensely poetic effort to capture the essence of Earth in sounds and images that would convey to another planetary civilization across spacetime, and, perhaps even more vitally in the middle of the Cold War, mirror back to us who and what we are: a single symphonic species.
Tasked with the impossible, inspired work of distilling that essence was the project’s creative director, Ann Druyan. In the course of composing the record, Sagan and Druyan, to their own wonder-stricken surprise, found themselves composing a stunning love story with their lives. They spent the remaining two decades of Sagan’s life fathoming and figuring the universe together — writing poetic inquiries into the origin of comets, dreaming up children’s book ideas, collaborating on the iconic 1980 television series turned book Cosmos, which The Library of Congress listed among 88 books to have shaped the country’s conscience, alongside epoch-making triumphs of courage and vision that have changed the course of culture and the understanding of nature — books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Two decades after Sagan’s death — decades coruscating with dazzling scientific discoveries that have disquieted us into shedding more myths and beholding more of reality — Druyan picked up the thread of wonder to write and produce a continuation of Cosmos, starring astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and soaring into these new frontiers of our ever-evolving understanding of space and time. In the companion book, Cosmos: Possible Worlds (public library), she extends an invitation “to feel more intensely the romance of science and the wonder of being alive right now, at these particular coordinates in spacetime, less alone, more at home, here in the cosmos.”
Tracing our cosmic story — from the cyanobacteria through which life first bloomed on our rocky world billions of years ago to our search for life on possible worlds many lightyears away; from the cave walls on which early humans first mapped their spatial coordinates to the Rube Goldberg machine of discoveries that led to the lasers with which these caves are now studied; from the symbiotic evolution of plants and the pollinators that feast on them to the Russian scientists who starved to death in a murderous dictatorship to protect their precious collection of seeds ensuring our planet’s biodiversity far beyond their lifetimes — Druyan takes up the mission not as a scientist herself but as a lifelong student and steward of the scientific mindscape, a self-described “hunter-gatherer of stories”: stories that begin with the human, with individual scientists or teams of scientists, and beget the cosmic, parting the curtain to let in a few more golden rays of reality, chiseling some precious fragment of knowledge from the immense monolith of the unknown.
At the center of her expansive reach into past and future is a lucid, luminous look at the realities and responsibilities the present is calling us to rise to — an inquiry into what it would take for us to transcend our human limitations and foibles so that we may endure as stewards rather than destroyers of this irreplaceable planet. In a testament to the fundamental fact that science is “a truly human endeavor,” Druyan writes:
Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. The scientific approach to nature and my understanding of love are the same: Love asks us to get beyond the infantile projections of our personal hopes and fears, to embrace the other’s reality. This kind of unflinching love never stops daring to go deeper, to reach higher.
This is precisely the way that science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe — and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable — is out of reach to the arrogant. This cosmos only fully admits those who listen carefully for the inner voice reminding us to remember we might be wrong. What’s real must matter more to us than what we wish to believe.
Learning not to confuse the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence is, of course, one of the greatest, most difficult triumphs of our growth — as individuals, as societies, and as a species. In consonance with the tenets of Sagan’s timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, Druyan offers her simple, elegant formula for telling the two apart:
Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority. Do these things and the cosmos is yours.
If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully, its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of the people.
I am reminded — by Einstein’s words, by Druyan’s endeavor — of John F. Kennedy’s miraculous defense of poetry: “We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” The man whose unassailable vision had landed the first human foot on another celestial body understood that in the poetry of reality, every portal of wonder, be it art or science, is a portal to truth. Sometimes — if our passion and persistence are great enough, if chance rolls its impartial dice suitably enough — it is a portal to “a brave and starling truth.”
“There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.”
By Maria Popova
“We hear and apprehend only what we already half know,” Thoreau wrote as he contemplated with uncommon lucidity what it takes to apprehend reality unblinded by our preconceptions. Every once in a rare and rapturous while, the curtain of our preconceptions lifts and we are able to see, as Virginia Woolf did, “behind the cotton wool of daily life” and experience “a revelation of some order” as we apprehend reality as it really is. But such is the paradox of consciousness: Without preconceptions — without having already half-templated and half-mapped the world we are trying to perceive and navigate — we would have to evaluate afresh every smallest object our attention falls upon. We would not see a table but several pieces of wood, a geometry of shapes and surfaces, an arrangement of atoms we would have to process anew each time in order to perceive the object we understand to be a table. Without our preconceptions, we would be so overwhelmed by raw reality as to become paralyzed by our insufficient processing powers.
And so we develop schemata — perceptual shorthands that pre-process what we encounter in order to spare us this impossible cognitive toil. The upside is survivalist; the downside, inescapably, moral: Each thing we preconceive blinds us to what actually is — a tendency that, when it rises to the level of social perception in the form of stereotypes, metastasizes into a status quo that makes the powerful all the more powerful and the power-poor all the poorer. “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin observed in contemplating freedom and how we imprison ourselves — an observation rooted in the knowledge that both the making and the unmaking of this world, both our traps and our freedom, lie in reconceiving these preconceptions that keep power structures in place.
Drawing on the pioneering psychologist William James’s lovely landmark formulation of a baby’s first perception of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” Lippmann writes:
Few facts in consciousness seem to be merely given. Most facts in consciousness seem to be partly made. A report is the joint product of the knower and known, in which the role of the observer is always selective and usually creative. The facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes.
For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
Lippmann considers how we automate the classification of what we encounter into pre-conceived categories of perception:
In untrained observation we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset; rather we notice that the thing is man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subjects.
Those whom we love and admire most are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us rather than the classification into which we might fit. For even without phrasing it to ourselves, we feel intuitively that all classification is in relation to some purpose not necessarily our own; that between two human beings no association has final dignity in which each does not take the other as an end in himself. There is a taint on any contact between two people which does not affirm as an axiom the personal inviolability of both.
The most tainting of our interpersonal relations, Lippmann notes, is that in which we take a single trait of the other and extrapolate from it an entire type, filling in the rest of the picture with the stereotype we already hold of that “person.” We are handed this coloring book of caricatures by our culture, so early in our moral development and so surreptitiously that we grow unwitting of its influence upon our way of being and our regard for others.
The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien… Were there no practical uniformities in the environment, there would be no economy and only error in the human habit of accepting foresight for sight. But there are uniformities sufficiently accurate, and the need of economizing attention is so inevitable, that the abandonment of all stereotypes for a wholly innocent approach to experience would impoverish human life.
What matters is the character of the stereotypes, and the gullibility with which we employ them. And these in the end depend upon those inclusive patterns which constitute our philosophy of life. If in that philosophy we assume that the world is codified according to a code which we possess, we are likely to make our reports of what is going on describe a world run by our code. But if our philosophy tells us that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas, then, when we use our stereotypes, we tend to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly. We tend, also, to realize more and more clearly when our ideas started, where they started, how they came to us, why we accepted them. All useful history is antiseptic in this fashion. It enables us to know what fairy tale, what school book, what tradition, what novel, play, picture, phrase, planted one preconception in this mind, another in that mind.
And yet the great tragedy of human society — a tragedy that has played out in devastating ways in the century since Lippmann, from the Holocaust to the twenty-first century’s various corruptions of democracy — is that those in power are reluctant to hold stereotypes lightly and modify them gladly, because stereotypes are how they stake out their place in the world and maintain the world-order that is the source of their power. Lippmann writes:
The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society.
They are an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves. They may not be a complete picture of the world, but they are a picture of a possible world to which we are adapted. In that world people and things have their well-known places, and do certain expected things. We feel at home there. We fit in. We are members. We know the way around. There we find the charm of the familiar, the normal, the dependable; its grooves and shapes are where we are accustomed to find them. And though we have abandoned much that might have tempted us before we creased ourselves into that mould, once we are firmly in, it fits as snugly as an old shoe.
No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.
These warped maps of the universe — like all maps — limit the landscape of possibility by substituting a dominant worldview for a representative and equitable depiction of reality. They hold power in place and keep the disenfranchised in their place. Lippmann examines their blinding and fracturing effect:
A pattern of stereotypes is not neutral. It is not merely a way of substituting order for the great blooming, buzzing confusion of reality. It is not merely a short cut. It is all these things and something more. It is the guarantee of our self-respect; it is the projection upon the world of our own sense of our own value, our own position and our own rights. The stereotypes are, therefore, highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them. They are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.
The stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.
Even Aristotle, whose ideas endure as the scaffolding of modern democracy, was afflicted with this gruesome blind spot of social consciousness — he too was unwilling to relinquish his map of the universe, arguing that slaves were enslaved because it was their nature to be slaves and women were subordinate because it was their nature to be subordinated. Lippmann admonishes against this notorious stubbornness of stereotypes:
There is nothing so obdurate to education or to criticism as the stereotype. It stamps itself upon the evidence in the very act of securing the evidence.
This system of preconceptions informs our code of being and our entire interface with the world:
Morality, good taste and good form first standardize and then emphasize certain of these underlying prejudices. As we adjust ourselves to our code, we adjust the facts we see to that code. Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.
At the core of every moral code there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.
And yet there comes a point when the code and the facts diverge, and the facts cannot be ignored. No manufacturing of “alternative facts” is strong enough to blunt the stereotype-severing edge of reality. Pointing to these moments as the crucible of change, Lippmann writes:
There is always such a point, because our images of how things behave are simpler and more fixed than the ebb and flow of affairs. There comes a time, therefore, when the blind spots come from the edge of vision into the center. Then unless there are critics who have the courage to sound an alarm, and leaders capable of understanding the change, and a people tolerant by habit, the stereotype, instead of economizing effort, and focussing energy… may frustrate effort and waste men’s energy by blinding them.
The pattern of stereotypes at the center of our codes largely determines what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them.
Lippmann considers our responsibility as citizens and social beings who are prone to and, in some deep sense, dependent on these patterns of stereotypes — how we can hold them in a way that aids us and others without encumbering us with the moral downside of this cognitive technology:
Yet a people without prejudices, a people with altogether neutral vision, is so unthinkable in any civilization of which it is useful to think, that no scheme of education could be based upon that ideal. Prejudice can be detected, discounted, and refined, but so long as finite men must compress into a short schooling preparation for dealing with a vast civilization, they must carry pictures of it around with them, and have prejudices. The quality of their thinking and doing will depend on whether those prejudices are friendly, friendly to other people, to other ideas, whether they evoke love of what is felt to be positively good, rather than hatred of what is not contained in their version of the good.
Because these prejudices are part of our cultural mythology, Lippmann reminds us that we ought to treat them the way we treat all myths:
What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. For that power comes only by realizing that no human opinion, whatever its supposed origin, is too exalted for the test of evidence, that every opinion is only somebody’s opinion. And if you ask why the test of evidence is preferable to any other, there is no answer unless you are willing to use the test in order to test it.
“We are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”
By Maria Popova
In our recent On Being conversation, NASA astrophysicist and exoplanet researcher Natalie Batalha said something that stopped me up short: as sentient beings endowed with awareness, we are “the universe itself becoming aware.” Echoing poet Diane Ackerman’s lovely notion of “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” Dr. Batalha added: “It took 13.7 billion years for the atoms to come together to create the portal to the universe which is my physical self. So in that statement is this idea, or the fluidity of time and space. And I kind of see it all at once. And I don’t know what ‘me’ is. I just feel part of everything. And I feel such deep gratitude for being able to take this conscious look at the universe — at myself as being part of the universe.”
The sentiment reminded me of a beautiful interview Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) gave shortly after the premiere of his epoch-making documentary Cosmos, later included in Conversations with Carl Sagan (public library).
In late August of 1980 — two years after he conducted Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview and nine years before his magnificent conversation with Leonard Bernstein — interlocutor extraordinaire Jonathan Cott visited Sagan’s home in Los Angeles to interview him for Rolling Stone. In the soaring the conversation that followed, Sagan stepped into his native nexus of the scientific and the poetic to contemplate our understanding of the universe and of ourselves, the nature of reality and of human knowledge, and how to live with the unknown.
Sagan tells Cott:
It’s a critical moment in the history of the world… We are the representatives of the cosmos; we are an example of what hydrogen atoms can do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution. And we resonate to these questions. We start with the origin of every human being, and then the origin of our community, our nation, the human species, who our ancestors were and then the riddle of the origin of life. And the questions: where did the Earth and Solar System come from? Where did the galaxies come from?
Every one of those questions is deep and significant. They are the subject of folklore, myth, superstition, and religion in every human culture. But for the first time we are on the verge of answering many of them. I don’t mean to suggest that we have the final answers; we are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects, and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.
To be sure, understanding the whole of the universe seems like too grandiose an aspiration when we are continually struggling to understand the tiny subset of the universe that is ourselves. Three summers before this interview, Sagan had spearheaded The Golden Record — a poetic attempt at such self-comprehension, mirroring humanity back to itself. Now, with an eye to another landmark triumph of self-reflection made possible by scientific progress — the iconic Earthrise photograph taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in 1968 — Sagan considers the immense and paradoxical gift of cosmic perspective:
You saw [Earth] for the first time as a tiny blue ball floating in space. You realized that there were other, similar worlds far away, of different size, different color and constitution. You got the idea that our planet was just one in a multitude. I think there are two apparently contradictory and still very powerful benefits of that cosmic perspective — the sense of our planet as one in a vast number and the sense of our planet as a place whose destiny depends upon us.
In this awareness resides a humbling and disquieting reminder of our creaturely limitations. We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. We have mistaken our sensorial intuitions for facts of the universe — for millennia, we held wrong beliefs about Earth’s shape, motion, and position, because it feels flat and static beneath our feet, and central to the order of the cosmos. We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses — from evolution, which unfolds on scales of time too vast to be visible within a human lifetime, to quantum mechanics, which operates on subatomic scales imperceptible and almost inconceivable to the human observer. Long before Sagan equipped us with an antidote to the “common pitfalls of common sense” in his timeless Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking, he tells Cott:
Common sense works fine for the universe we’re used to, for time scales of decades, for a space between a tenth of a millimeter and a few thousand kilometers, and for speeds much less than the speed of light. Once we leave those domains of human experience, there’s no reason to expect the laws of nature to continue to obey our expectations, since our expectations are dependent on a limited set of experiences.
We have to be very careful not to impose our hopes and desires on the cosmos, but instead, in the scientific tradition and with the most open mind possible, see what the cosmos is saying to us.
Sagan points to one particularly blatant obfuscation of reality driven by our self-centered hopes, desires, and delusions — astrology:
[Astrology is] like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group, as long as someone is an Aquarius, Virgo or Scorpio, you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.
Sagan ends by considering the nature of human knowledge itself. Drawing on its past, he projects its future:
Human knowledge is a set of successive approximations… There are all sorts of things that we’ve gotten wrong, and all sorts of mind-boggling things that we can’t even glimpse that will be the established fact in a century or two.
There are two extremes to worry about. One is the extreme in which everything is known and there’s nothing left to do. The other is where everything is so complicated you can never begin to do anything. We are lucky to live in a universe were there are laws of nature and things to discover, but they’re not impossibly difficult, so we can understand them to some extent. But they’re also difficult enough so that we’re nowhere near understanding them all. There are exhilarating discoveries yet to be made. It’s the best possible world.
With his wide cosmic lens, Sagan places the nascent miracle of the written word in evolutionary perspective:
For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.
Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.
Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia wrote in 1671:
“I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!”
Considering the complex socioeconomic forces that conspire in constricting opportunity and the powerful way in which books counteract those forces — power to which James Baldwin so beautifully attested — Sagan reflects on his own experience:
Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York public schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutrition recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as if they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government book on children’s health had been repeatedly taped together as its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, my parents gave up smoking — one of the few pleasures available to them in the Depression years — so their infant could have vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky.
With an admiring eye to the example and legacy of the freed slaved turned pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass, Sagan concludes:
The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and low self-esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin…. Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.