If you want to go back to school to learn all there is to know of the known and unknown universe, you can’t do much better than the 365 pages of Cosmos by Carl Sagan.
“The Cosmos television series and this book represent a hopeful experiment in communicating some of the ideas, methods and joys of science.” This, at least in print form, is completely accomplished.
I plan on revisiting the original Cosmos television series soon, but for now, this book was a primer in all of the science I remembered and a good chunk I had forgotten. It is an academic book to be sure, but it’s written by the cool professor who isn’t above having a laugh or making statements about the state of modernity that retain their relevance more than four decades later.
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
There exist plenty of ways to completely oversimplify this book, but it’s not atoms or galaxies or math or love or peace. It isn’t looking up or down, it isn’t micro or macro – it’s something more fundamental.
“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”
And in that style, Sagan asks just as many questions as he gives answers in this book.
Truthfully, one of the most uplifting pieces of this book is that Sagan discusses our cosmic, planetary, and evolutionary histories in a few theories but also through the prism of random chaos, which could have forever altered our present depending on how far back the change occurs. This has been simplified into the butterfly effect but on a massive scale. This leads to even more questions. Where Sagan doesn’t have answers, he infers that they may exist and there is a subtext challenging readers to do some work.
Yet, even Carl Sagan can’t get away from his own roots. He’s a scientist, after all, and everything returns to math in its simplest form at some stage or another. The equations of “is there life elsewhere in the universe?” and “the countdown to doomsday” are both explained. Of course, the two are related, which also is explained.
Actually, the one thing that Sagan does better than most is connect not just the dots but everything in between. Each chapter refers to a previous one, and as we zoom in on the electrons of an atom and zoom out to see the universe with its many points of light, we see through Sagan’s book that it all is connected.
Perhaps the television series – the original hosted by Carl Sagan himself or the remake hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson – is enough to help engage you in the sciences, but if you need more, this book has it. It’s not some stuffy lecture: this is engaging the synapses of your brain through storytelling and a compelling narrative that can leave you with a healthy respect for the sciences, if not a touch of enlightenment.