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Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Billions and billions, 11 Jan. 2006
This review is from: Cosmos: The Story of Cosmic Evolution, Science and Civilisation (Paperback)
How many people who watched the 'Cosmos' series on television (PBS in America - perhaps the best astronomy and general science series ever produced by them) could ever forget Carl Sagan's intonation at proclaiming the wonders of the universe in grand terms, billions and billions of stars and galaxies and planets (and consequently, everything else).
While this book was published in 1980 to be a companion to the television series, there is nonetheless a certain timelessness about it. Many science texts (even general readers such as this) become dated fairly quickly. Yet this book remains a volume to which I refer time and again for its history, philosophy and insight into scientific method and personality.
This book more than anything provided the inspiration for me to study astronomy. While I did not take a degree in it (when I arrived at university I was informed that I had already studied more than their undergraduate curriculum provided; that I should take some physics and mathematics courses and then take a Master's degree later if interested--which may happen after the my current degree progress is completed), my interest in astronomy has remained strong and permeates many of my other interests, including my current work in theology and philosophy.
The visual presentation of this book is stunning. Pictures, particularly those from telescopes, space probes, and dramatic artistic renderings of phenomena not yet captured on film give a real feel for the subject.
Sagan begins the book with a grand tour of the universe, starting at the outermost edges with quasars and unknowns, and travelling back through galaxies and stars, passing interesting objects such as nebulae, black holes, stellar nurseries, planetary systems, finally to arrive back on earth, the unique planet (from our perspective) because it has life.
From here, Sagan goes back in history to the great library of Alexandria, which remains an object of fascination (current archaeological excavations continue in Alexandria, and there are various plans for memorialising the library). He introduces early efforts at scientific method and investigation by discussing Eratosthenes, a librarian who investigated reports in the various texts for himself, rather than taking things at face value.
Chapters include explorations of planetary astronomy, with special attention to Mars; stellar astronomy and the life cycle of stars; issues of space and time; issues of observation and epistemology (how do we know what we know, and why do we think we know it?); the origin and fate of the universe; the idea of life on other planets (Sagan confesses to a prejudice--the idea that life must be based on carbon, and not other elements); and the idea of SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) which due to Sagan's work and influence continues today in various ways around the globe. Finally, Sagan discusses the politics of science (and politics in general) giving a cautious hope for the fate of the earth--this was the height of the Cold War, after all.
'We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organised assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.'
Intelligent, written with grace and humour, the narrative is largely non-technical but not condescending and lends itself well to understanding.
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