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.”
“Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is… each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.”
By Maria Popova
“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his classic 119-page essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else… is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”
Sometimes, life asks this question not as a thought experiment but as a gauntlet hurled with the raw brutality of living.
That selfsame year, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) was taken to Auschwitz along with more than a million human beings robbed of the basic right to answer this question for themselves, instead deemed unworthy of living. Some survived by reading. Some through humor. Some by pure chance. Most did not. Frankl lost his mother, his father, and his brother to the mass murder in the concentration camps. His own life was spared by the tightly braided lifeline of chance, choice, and character.
A mere eleven months after surviving the unsurvivable, Frankl took up the elemental question at the heart of Camus’s philosophical parable in a set of lectures, which he himself edited into a slim, potent book published in Germany in 1946, just as he was completing Man’s Search for Meaning.
As our collective memory always tends toward amnesia and erasure — especially of periods scarred by civilizational shame — these existential infusions of sanity and lucid buoyancy fell out of print and were soon forgotten. Eventually rediscovered — as is also the tendency of our collective memory when the present fails us and we must lean for succor on the life-tested wisdom of the past — they are now published in English for the first time as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).
Frankl begins by considering the question of whether life is worth living through the central fact of human dignity. Noting how gravely the Holocaust disillusioned humanity with itself, he cautions against the defeatist “end-of-the-world” mindset with which many responded to this disillusionment, but cautions equally against the “blithe optimism” of previous, more naïve eras that had not yet faced this gruesome civilizational mirror reflecting what human beings are capable of doing to one another. Both dispositions, he argues, stem from nihilism. In consonance with his colleague and contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence that we can only transcend the shared laziness of optimism and pessimism through rational faith in the human spirit, Frankl writes:
We cannot move toward any spiritual reconstruction with a sense of fatalism such as this.
Today every impulse for action is generated by the knowledge that there is no form of progress on which we can trustingly rely. If today we cannot sit idly by, it is precisely because each and every one of us determines what and how far something “progresses.” In this, we are aware that inner progress is only actually possible for each individual, while mass progress at most consists of technical progress, which only impresses us because we live in a technical age.
Insisting that it takes a measure of moral strength not to succumb to nihilism, be it that of the pessimist or of the optimist, he exclaims:
Give me a sober activism anytime, rather than that rose-tinted fatalism!
How steadfast would a person’s belief in the meaningfulness of life have to be, so as not to be shattered by such skepticism. How unconditionally do we have to believe in the meaning and value of human existence, if this belief is able to take up and bear this skepticism and pessimism?
Through this nihilism, through the pessimism and skepticism, through the soberness of a “new objectivity” that is no longer that “new” but has grown old, we must strive toward a new humanity.
Sophie Scholl, upon whom chance did not smile as favorably as it did upon Frankl, affirmed this notion with her insistence that living with integrity and belief in human goodness is the wellspring of courage as she courageously faced her own untimely death in the hands of the Nazis. But while the Holocaust indisputably disenchanted humanity, Frankl argues, it also indisputably demonstrated “that what is human is still valid… that it is all a question of the individual human being.” Looking back on the brutality of the camps, he reflects:
What remained was the individual person, the human being — and nothing else. Everything had fallen away from him during those years: money, power, fame; nothing was certain for him anymore: not life, not health, not happiness; all had been called into question for him: vanity, ambition, relationships. Everything was reduced to bare existence. Burnt through with pain, everything that was not essential was melted down — the human being reduced to what he was in the last analysis: either a member of the masses, therefore no one real, so really no one — the anonymous one, a nameless thing (!), that “he” had now become, just a prisoner number; or else he melted right down to his essential self.
In a sentiment that bellows from the hallways of history into the great vaulted temple of timeless truth, he adds:
Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.
Frankl then turns to the question of finding a sense of meaning when the world gives us ample reasons to view life as meaningless — the question of “continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness.” Writing in the post-war pre-dawn of the golden age of consumerism, which has built a global economy by continually robbing us of the sense of meaning and selling it back to us at the price of the product, Frankl first dismantles the notion that meaning is to be found in the pursuit and acquisition of various pleasures:
Let us imagine a man who has been sentenced to death and, a few hours before his execution, has been told he is free to decide on the menu for his last meal. The guard comes into his cell and asks him what he wants to eat, offers him all kinds of delicacies; but the man rejects all his suggestions. He thinks to himself that it is quite irrelevant whether he stuffs good food into the stomach of his organism or not, as in a few hours it will be a corpse. And even the feelings of pleasure that could still be felt in the organism’s cerebral ganglia seem pointless in view of the fact that in two hours they will be destroyed forever. But the whole of life stands in the face of death, and if this man had been right, then our whole lives would also be meaningless, were we only to strive for pleasure and nothing else — preferably the most pleasure and the highest degree of pleasure possible. Pleasure in itself cannot give our existence meaning; thus the lack of pleasure cannot take away meaning from life, which now seems obvious to us.
I slept and dreamt
that life was joy.
I awoke and saw
that life was duty.
I worked — and behold,
duty was joy.
In consonance with Camus’s view of happiness as a moral obligation — an outcome to be attained not through direct pursuit but as a byproduct of living with authenticity and integrity — Frankl reflects on Tagore’s poetic point:
So, life is somehow duty, a single, huge obligation. And there is certainly joy in life too, but it cannot be pursued, cannot be “willed into being” as joy; rather, it must arise spontaneously, and in fact, it does arise spontaneously, just as an outcome may arise: Happiness should not, must not, and can never be a goal, but only an outcome; the outcome of the fulfillment of that which in Tagore’s poem is called duty… All human striving for happiness, in this sense, is doomed to failure as luck can only fall into one’s lap but can never be hunted down.
At this point it would be helpful [to perform] a conceptual turn through 180 degrees, after which the question can no longer be “What can I expect from life?” but can now only be “What does life expect of me?” What task in life is waiting for me?
Now we also understand how, in the final analysis, the question of the meaning of life is not asked in the right way, if asked in the way it is generally asked: it is not we who are permitted to ask about the meaning of life — it is life that asks the questions, directs questions at us… We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life. With this mental standpoint nothing can scare us anymore, no future, no apparent lack of a future. Because now the present is everything as it holds the eternally new question of life for us.
Frankl adds a caveat of tremendous importance — triply so in our present culture of self-appointed gurus, self-help demagogues, and endless podcast feeds of interviews with accomplished individuals attempting to distill a universal recipe for self-actualization:
The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realize the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.
We can, therefore, see how the question as to the meaning of life is posed too simply, unless it is posed with complete specificity, in the concreteness of the here and now. To ask about “the meaning of life” in this way seems just as naive to us as the question of a reporter interviewing a world chess champion and asking, “And now, Master, please tell me: which chess move do you think is the best?” Is there a move, a particular move, that could be good, or even the best, beyond a very specific, concrete game situation, a specific configuration of the pieces?
One way or another, there can only be one alternative at a time to give meaning to life, meaning to the moment — so at any time we only need to make one decision about how we must answer, but, each time, a very specific question is being asked of us by life. From all this follows that life always offers us a possibility for the fulfillment of meaning, therefore there is always the option that it has a meaning. One could also say that our human existence can be made meaningful “to the very last breath”; as long as we have breath, as long as we are still conscious, we are each responsible for answering life’s questions.
The fact, and only the fact, that we are mortal, that our lives are finite, that our time is restricted and our possibilities are limited, this fact is what makes it meaningful to do something, to exploit a possibility and make it become a reality, to fulfill it, to use our time and occupy it. Death gives us a compulsion to do so. Therefore, death forms the background against which our act of being becomes a responsibility.
Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it — or leave unfulfilled — that gives our existence significance. But it is not only the uniqueness of an individual life as a whole that gives it importance, it is also the uniqueness of every day, every hour, every moment that represents something that loads our existence with the weight of a terrible and yet so beautiful responsibility! Any hour whose demands we do not fulfill, or fulfill halfheartedly, this hour is forfeited, forfeited “for all eternity.” Conversely, what we achieve by seizing the moment is, once and for all, rescued into reality, into a reality in which it is only apparently “canceled out” by becoming the past. In truth, it has actually been preserved, in the sense of being kept safe. Having been is in this sense perhaps even the safest form of being. The “being,” the reality that we have rescued into the past in this way, can no longer be harmed by transitoriness.
Two weeks later, Byrne took the stage at the National Sawdust gala to celebrate their largehearted mission of using music as an instrument of change, as a movement toward a more beautiful and inclusive world. Accompanied by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and the transcendent harmonics of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — that bright young voice of the future — he performed a coruscating version of his song “One Fine Day,” originally released in 2008 on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, co-written with Brian Eno, and reimagined a decade later on Byrne’s Whitmanesque-spirited 2018 record turned Broadway musicalAmerican Utopia — one part of his wondrous multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful.
With poetic lyrics that feel both staggeringly prescient (“In a small dark room — where I will wait / Face to face I find — I contemplate,” “I complete my tasks, one by one / I remove my masks, when I am done”) and of sweeping timelessness (“In these troubled times, I still can see / We can use the stars, to guide the way / It is not that far, the one fine day”), this buoyant hymn of optimism ripples against the current of our time as a mighty countercultural anthem of resistance and resilience, worthy of Whitman.
ONE FINE DAY written by David Byrne and Brian Eno
Saw the wanderin’ eye, inside my heart
Shouts and battle cries, from every part
I can see those tears, every one is true
When the door appears, I’ll go right through, oh
I stand in liquid light, like everyone
I built my life with rhymes, to carry on
And it gives me hope, to see you there
The things I used to know, that one fine
One fine day
In a small dark room, where I will wait
Face to face I find, I contemplate
Even though a man is made of clay
Everything can change that one fine —
One fine day
Then before my eyes, is standing still
I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done
Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —
A two-verse love letter to the night sky fixture which “our eyes must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.”
By Maria Popova
For as long as we have been raising enchanted eyes to the night sky — that is, for as long as we have been the conscious, curious, wonder-stricken animals recognizable as human — we have marveled at seven bright stars outlining the third largest constellation in the Northern hemisphere, and humanity’s most beloved one. Ursa Major — Latin for “the great she-bear” — has enraptured the human imagination since before we had the words to call it the Big Dipper or the Great Bear or the Plough. In the second century, Ptolemy included it in his pioneering star catalogue — antiquity’s sole surviving major work of astronomy. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad relied on it as a cosmic compass — traveling toward freedom under the cover of night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, the constellation’s African name, for that would keep them moving northward. We have painted it on cave walls and in beloved picture-books; we have woven it into every major mythological tradition; we have seen it freckled on the forearms of our great loves. Its instantly recognizable asterism, spare and elemental, is an emissary of time itself — a blazing bridge between the ephemeral and the eternal, between the scale on which we live out our brief, impassioned human lives, and the vast cosmic scale of this unfathomable, impartial universe.
Slung between the homely poplars at the end
of the familiar avenue, the Great
Bear in its lighted hammock swings,
like a neglected gate that neither bars admission nor invites,
hangs on the sagging pole its seven-pointed shape.
Drawn with the precision of an unknown problem
solved n the topmost classroom of the empty sky,
it demonstrates upon the inky blackboard of the night’s
immeasurable finity the focal point of light.
For though the pointers seem to indicate the pole,
each star looks through us into outer space
from where the sun that burns behind and past us
animates immediately each barren, crystal face
with ravaged brilliance, that our eyes
must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.