September 19, 2010

Cosmos Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

A spectacular opening to the series by Sagan as he provides a historical perspective about ourselves. Clearly, he is doing a conscious job of not presenting a Western-centric worldview or looking at the world as merely comprising of Westerners.

Sagan's knowledge of history would seem to suggest that he is a historian and not a scientist as he tours the Library of Alexandria and mourns the loss suffered as the result of the destruction of that temple of knowledge.

There's a message there for those who wish to understand it. The Library was the glory of the ancient world for seven long centuries. Yes!

How many monuments of the modern world can claim to have lived for that long. All that we would be able to think of as great have been built perhaps in the last one hundred years.

I can think of everything from the great skyscrapers to the great bridges to the space vehicles and the great cities.

But which of these will remain great seven centuries hence ... and therein lies the strange dichotomy. Humans, as Sagan so beautifully illustrates with his cosmic calendar, have made an appearance on the cosmic stage very recently indeed ... all of recorded human history has happened in the last few centuries which is like the last day of the cosmic calendar comprising the entire 15 billion years of our cosmos.

From the perspective of a single human life, centuries appear like eons ... many generation are born and die in the span of centuries and in recent times, our civilization is making progress in such an accelerated fashion that it is more impossible than ever before to predict where we'll be in the next 500 years from now.

And yet, the true history of the world comprises not centuries or millennia but millions of years. That's how long time is needed for the great forces of evolution to work their wonders.

Hundreds of millions of years have passed since the time of the great dinosaurs roaming this Earth. It is a fantastic fact, isn't it, to imagine this Earth during the time of the dinosaurs.

Life took even longer to reach the stage of those complicated reptiles ... the Cambrian explosion of 500 million years ago can be pinpointed as the epoch since when evolution has happened in an 'accelerated' fashion. And yet, clearly, 500 million years for humans to evolve is not a cakewalk on the scale of a human lifetime.

And, oh, evolution is not a certain affair. There are unpredictabilities and randomness built into the evolutionary process. The appearance of humans hinges on many chance occurrences not the least of which was the 'lucky' extinction of the dinosaurs.

Naturally, one wonders as one ponders these great time spans ... what lies in our future? We live in an universe where a thousand years is merely two seconds on the cosmic calendar.

We indeed have thousands of years ahead of us. Even a hundred thousand years. And a million years. And 10 million years. And 100 million. And 500 million. And a billion. And five billion years.

Then of course the Sun will die and we will have to find a new home as the Earth will die along with the Sun.

It amazes me as to why these scientific reflections don't seem to hold so much attraction for much of humanity as it does for Sagan and for me and a few others like me. Perhaps that is all right. Perhaps the contemplation of the cosmos is a scary business somehow and people might get scared if they contemplate it too much.

It's perhaps good that humans are happy to live their humdrum lives without worrying too much about the origin and evolution of humans or of the cosmos.

But it gives me a sense of calm ... some perspectives to counteract the pulls and pressures of the rat race of life.

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