Revisiting Carl Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection

The Cosmic Connection, published in 1973, was the first popular book by Carl Sagan, after some academic tomes and an anthology of essays about UFOs, who later gained much fame as the author and host of the 1980 book and TV series Cosmos (recently remade with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan as author), and who wrote numerous other books, including the novel Contact, before his premature death in 1996 at the age of 62.

It was a foundational book in my own experience, likely the first nonfiction book I read aside from those by SF authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, certainly the first (aside from those authors) that explicitly evoked the vastness of the universe and humanity’s place in it. And it was one of the first hardcover first editions I acquired, in days when I bought mostly paperbacks and SF book club editions.

(I had requested the book as a birthday gift from my grandmother, in fact. Thinking back, I can reconstruct how I heard of the book in the first place (since the bookshops I frequented did not carry hardcovers at all). In Fall 1973 I began college at UCLA, and soon discovered the original Change of Hobbit bookstore a few blocks away in Westwood, and at that store, copies of a (then) biweekly newsletter (it was mimeographed and stapled together, not yet a magazine) called… Locus. And Locus, in due time, reported the winners of the second annual (1974) John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which included a special award for Nonfiction Book to… The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan. The awards were made in April, and likely reported in Locus in May. I had never heard of or seen the book, but made a birthday request to my grandmother on the basis of the Campbell win. My grandmother had to special order it from a local bookstore (in Apple Valley CA), which entailed waiting for 2 or 3 weeks for it to be shipped by the publisher from New York. That’s how those things worked in those days. She got it in June, and went ahead and gave it to me, even though my birthday wasn’t until August. (Knowing nothing about the content or subject of the book, she was a tad mortified to see that back dust jacket depicted the Pioneer plaque, which included line drawings of a nude human male and female.)

The Cosmic Connection, subtitled “An Extraterrestrial Perspective”, has an unusual co-author credit, “produced by Jerome Agel”. I gather “producer” is some combination of editor and packager; Agel’s earlier credits included The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, a fat paperback compilation of background material, reviews, and commentary on that film (which I read obsessively after seeing the film twice on its initial release in 1968), and the Sagan book was apparently commissioned by Agel. The contents of Sagan’s book, some 39 chapters in three sections, are shortish essays on related themes, but semi-independent as if composed in response to (I’m speculating) a list of specific topics Agel developed with the author…. and which can mostly be read in any order.

So how does the book hold up 40 some years later? There’s still lots of inspiring stuff. The entire middle section, on The Solar System, is understandably dated, concerning then current discoveries about Venus and especially Mars, via Mariner 9. There is a certain you-are-there historical thrill in the chapters about Mars, as observers decipher various kinds of data and realize for the first time that there are some *really big* volcanoes on Mars…

The opening section, Cosmic Perspectives, and the final section, Beyond the Solar System, are mixtures of casual thoughts, provocative insights, and profound speculations. Here are some highlights:

  • From the first chapter, “A Transitional Animal”, describing the 5-billion year history of Earth.

    In Man, not only is adaptive information acquired in the lifetime of a single individual, but it is passed on extra-genetically through learning, through books, through education. It is this, more than anything else, that has raised Man to his present pre-eminent status on the planet Earth.

    We are the product of 4.5 billion years of fortuitous, slow, biological evolution. There is no reason to think that the evolutionary process has stopped. Man is a transitional animal. He is not the climax of creation.

    (Note the outmoded, déclassé use of the word ‘Man’ to refer to the human species; this was 1973.)

  • Three chapters explore motivations for space exploration on three points: scientific interest, public interest, historical interest. Pages 51-52:

    The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.

    The planets are no longer wandering lights in the evening sky. For centuries, Man lived in a universe that seemed safe and cozy — even tidy. Earth was the cynosure of creation and Man the pinnacle of mortal life. But these quaint and comforting notions have not stood the test of time. We now know that we live on a tiny clod of rock and metal, a planet smaller than some relatively minor features in the clouds of Jupiter and inconsiderable when compared with a modest sunspot.

    These realizations of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are profound — and, to some, disturbing. But they bring with them compensatory insights. We realize our deep connectedness with other life forms, both simple and complex. We know that the atoms that make us up were synthesized in the interiors of previous generations of dying stars. We are aware of our deep connection, both in form and in matter, with the rest of the universe. The cosmos revealed to us by the new advances in astronomy and biology is far grander and more awesome than the tidy world of our ancestors. And we are becoming a part of it, the cosmos as it is, not the cosmos of our desires.

    Page 53.6:

    A fundamental area of common interest is the problem of perspective. The exploration of space permits us to see our planet and ourselves in a new light. We are like linguists on an isolated island where only one language is spoken. We can construct general theories of language, but we have only one example to examine. It is unlikely that our understanding of language will have the generaltiy that a mature science of human linguistics requires.

    And as an aside, topics that are controversial today are not new, they’ve been around for decades, e.g. p57:

    But we live in a time when the atmosphere of Earth is being strongly modified by the activities of Man. It is of the first importance to understand precisely what happened on Venus so that an accidental recapitulation on Earth of the runaway Venus greenhouse can be avoided.

  • Chapter 9, about the historical interest of space exploration:

    But it is remarkable that the nations and epochs marked by the greatest flowering of exploration are also marked by the greatest culture exuberance. In part, this must be because of the contact with new things, new ways of life, and new modes of thought unknown to a closec culture, with its vast energies turned inward.

    Followed by historical examples, especially how the age of European exploration to the ‘new world’ coincided with Montaigne, Shakespeare, the authors of the King James Bible, Cervantes, et al.

    And this striking observation about our current era (p69). As long ago as I read this and have not reread it until now, you can see echoes of these thoughts here in my blog commentaries.

    In all the history of mankind, there will be only one generation that will be first to explore the Solar System, one generation for which, in childhood, the planets are distant and indistinct discs moving through the night sky, and for which, in old age, the planets are places, diverse new worlds in course of exploration.

    A human infant begins to achieve maturity by the experimental discovery that he is not the whole of the universe. The same is true of societies engaged in the exploration of their surroundings. The perspective carried by space exploration may hasten the maturation of mankind — a maturation that cannot come too soon.

    He’s being optimistic about the pace of interplanetary exploration, perhaps, but the principle is valid.

  • Chapter 10 is a cute account of giving a talk to first-graders who do, to author’s surprise, understand why we know the Earth is round.
  • Chapter 11 describes the crank mail the author receives, from all manner of crazies, and a case study about a man in an asylum and how he was certain the planets are inhabited. (Because of his personal encouter with “God Almighty”.)
  • Other chapters in Part II involve the incompetence of the CIA and/or Air Force Intelligence; Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels as the inspiration for so many; more comments about humanity’s influence on the environment (p142b); a restatement of the passage from p69, on p155 (“There is a generation of men and women for whom, in their youth, the planets were unimaginably distant points of light…”); and Sagan’s ‘belief’ that there would be semi permanent bases on the Moon by the 1980s.
  • Section III includes chapters about dolphins, concerning John Lilly, how the author was ‘propositioned’ by a dolphin, and how our disregard for dolphins and whales parallels the dehumanization of human enemies to make them easier to kill, and what this implies about potential contact with extraterrestrials; one about Sagan’s advice to Stanley Kubrick about depicting the aliens in 2001 (don’t depict them, imply their presence indirectly, advice which seems to have been taken)… and Chapter 26, the title chapter, “The Cosmic Connection”, which contrasts the presistent interest in astrology (“In his vanity, Man imagined the universe designed for his benefit and organized for his use” and p186.7, “It satisfied an almost unspoken need to feel a significance for humans beings in a vast and awesome cosmos…”) with the reality of our heritage, as a species on a planet of relatively heavy elements, elements the result of stellar evolution:

    The fate of individual human beings may not now be connected in a deep way with the rest of the universe, but the matter out of which each of us is made is intimately tied to processes that occurred immense intervals of time and enormous distances in space away from us. Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

    The last sentence a central quote which made it to the dust jacket.

  • Other chapters concern extraterrestrial life as an “idea whose time has come”, focusing on the likelihood of other planetary system [he would so gratified by the recent Kepler discoveries]; a dismissal of the idea that UFOs are evidence of ETs having visited us, mostly on statistical grounds…. artifacts put forward as evidence, especially by Erich von Däniken in Chariots of the Gods, a bestselling book that has since languished into obscurity (I still own the paperback edition depicted on the Wikipedia page), of visitations by alien astronauts in ancient times… p207:

    These artifacts are, in fact, psychological projective tests. People can see in them what they wish. There is nothing to prevent anyone from seeing signs of past extraterrestrial visitations all about him. But to a person with an even mildly skeptical mind, the evidence is unconvincing. Because the significance of such a discovery would be so enormous, we must employ the most critical reasoning and the most skeptical attitudes in approaching such data. The data do not pass such tests.

  • Sagan contemplates what it would mean if we succeeded in contact with ETs, via radio signals, even considering the likely decades-long pace of the exchange. p218:

    The scientific, logical, cultural, and ethical knowledge to be gained by tuning into galactic transmissions may be, in the long run, the most profound single event in the history of our civilization. There will be information in what we will no longer be able to call the humanities — because our communicants will not be human. There will be a deparochialization of the way we view the cosmos and ourselves.

  • Final chapters expand into considerations of astroengineering (Dyson spheres), classifications of cosmic civilizations, how long it would take for a ‘galactic cultural exchange’ to happen [always assuming the speed of light limitation for communication and travel], and speculation that (the then recent idea of) black holes might serve as a kind of cosmic transportation system.
  • The last three chapters are expansions on the idea of “starfolk” — histories and projections of the universe and mankind’s place in it. Here’s the last paragraph of the second of those chapters (p262).

    The births of stars generate the planetary nurseries of life. The lives of stars provide the energy upon which life depends. The deaths of stars produce the implements for the continued development of life in other parts of the Galaxy. If there are on the planets of dying stars intelligent beings unable to escape their fate, they may at least derive some comfort from the thought that the death of their star, the event that will cause their own extinction, will, nevertheless, provide the means for continued biological advance of the starfolk on a million other worlds.

And that is what I was reading at age 18.

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