Selected Reads

Carl Sagan Cosmos Book Review

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What Does Cosmos mean?

Cosmos means universe 1. The word cosmos comes from the Greek word Kosmos which refers to  “order, harmony, and the world” 2. For Carl Sagan, “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together”.

Carl Sagan cosmos

Ancient Alexandria: Cradle of Space Exploration

Ancient Alexandria (Egyptian city) is where the journey towards space exploration started. Sagan devoted an important part of his book to talk about the central place the city played in the development of ancient civilisations. As a matter of fact, it was in  Alexandria  that the embryonic idea of space exploration was first conceived and nurtured. 

 “Six hundred years beginning around 300 B.C.”, as Sagan explained, “ that human beings, in an important sense, began the intellectual adventure that has led us to the shores of space.”  Ancient Alexandria, as gracefully depicted by Sagan, was essentially a melting pot of different races, cultures and ethnicities.The cosmopolitan city was founded by Alexander the Great and was built by his bodyguard. 

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great cherished a fond love for knowledge and learning and, according to Sagan, he used to encourage respect for different cultures and religions. He embraced interracial marriage and “encouraged his generals and soldiers to marry Persian and Indian women”. In today’s lingo, Alexander the Great was liberal to the core, or at least that is how Sagan represented him in Cosmos. 

Regardless of whether he indeed embraced those values or not, Alexander the Great was a charismatic leader who turned ancient Alexandria into “the world center of commerce, culture and learning”. Indeed, the succeeding Greek kings of Egypt followed suit. They, too,  encouraged scholarship and maintained one of the world’s oldest libraries ever: the Great Library of Alexandria which was and is till located in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. 

The Great Library of Alexandria

In Cosmos, Sagan talked at length about the great library of Alexandria describing it as “the first true research institute in the history of the world”, one that sparked the learning revolution that would forever transform the world. At its heights, the library contained an estimate of half a million volumes in the form of handwritten papyrus scroll covering different languages and cultures. A huge number of these materials  were bought from libraries abroad. It was also a common practice for police at the time to search docked commercial ships and confiscate books to be copied and returned back to their owners. 

The great library of Alexandria, as Sagan contended, “contained ten large research halls, each devoted to a separate subject; fountains and colonnades; botanical gardens; a zoo; dissecting rooms; an observatory; and a great dining hall where, at leisure, was conducted the critical discussion of ideas.” 

The library attracted the greatest minds of the day turning Alexandria into a mecca for scholars across different disciplines from astronomy and literature, to biology, physics, geography, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. The ALexandrian Library, as Sagan noted, “is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world”.

Reading these historical facts, and as much as I feel an overwhelming sense of respect and admiration for this ancient civilization, I also feel a profound sense of sorrow and sadness for the current fate of what was once the world’s capital of knowledge and scholarship. “Oppression and the fear of learning”, as Sagan argued, “obliterated almost all memory of ancient Alexandria”. Today, only “a few moldering shelves maybe its only physical remains”.

…review to be continued