August 23, 2010

Cosmos Episode 13: Who Speaks for Earth

Sagan makes a personal stand in this episode. This episode is kind of like a crescendo of this fascinating series.

Sagan covers an immense and bewildering amount of ground in this episode too as with every other episode. He narrates the story of how French explorers first made contact with a tribe living on an Alaskan coast back in the 18th century and how they had a peaceful interaction and he contrasts this with Spanish explorers and they violent initial contacts they had with the Aztecs in Mexico. This was all awe-inspiringly new found knowledge and discovery for me personally of course.

He uses these earlier encounters to explain how a future initial contact with an extraterrestrial civilization might turn out to be. He daringly attempts to explain the imponderables in the Drake Equation which tries to put a number on the possible existence of intelligent civilizations elsewhere in the universe. I am curious about one of the components of the Drake Equation in particular — the likelihood of a technologically advanced civilization self-destructing. The prognosis in that equation is rather pessimistic. I don't know why that should be so. On Earth and in that particular moment in the history of human civilization when the Cold War was at its zenith or near-zenith, it might have been easy to have a pessimistic outlook about humanity's future. But, I don't know why we should extrapolate that and ascribe similar stupidities to all civilizations that develop technical capabilities. The particular adolescence of humanity arises out of some peculiar evolutionary heritage whereby we have deeply held racial/national allegiances. I don't think that these would necessarily apply to all up and coming technological civilizations on all planets. I sure hope so.

Sagan passionately elucidates the extraordinarily dangers from nuclear war. This was of course a very clear and present danger back in the seventies when the series was first made. This particular danger has receded somewhat since then.

Overall, since this was the last episode, one is tempted to pass judgment on the series as a whole. I am clearly inadequately qualified for that task. Sagan was a professional scientist of course. His speciality lay in extraterrestrial explorations. Other scientists have discovered other stuff. So much has been discovered in biology since we understood the structure of the DNA. So much has been explained and understood in particle physics down to quarks. So much is known now in the realm of the large-scale structure of the universe. We understand perfectly well the evolution of stars and galaxies. Astronomy has advanced so much across much of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Sagan's more fundamental contribution has been his role as the Great Communicator of all this scientific knowledge to the larger public. Of course, the current attitude of the public in much of the world to science is very lucidly and very disappointingly demonstrating the public's absolute ignorance about the scientific enterprise. It's astonishing to see how effortlessly people adopt the fruits of scientific advancements and at the same time do not mind questioning its methods and principles. It's astonishing how scientific and unscientific people can be all at the same time.

In conclusion, one can only say that Sagan was a one of a kind. We have never seen a more passionate and pellucid communicator of science in all of human history. I wonder if there will ever be another one quite like him. Of course, it should not shock anyone if I say that Sagan was way ahead of the times and century that he lived in. Humanity in the 20th century was not quite ready to understand him. I wonder when humanity will grow mature enough to appreciate men like Sagan or Feynman and others of their quality rather than following some demagogic leader blindly like so many uneducated, unskepitcal sheep.

In another 500 years, humanity should still remember Sagan ... or may be only the historians will remember him ... those who would be studying the discipline of 'ancient history' in the 26th century.

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