Sagan never had a reputation as one who shies from a controversial issue. Much of the strength of Cosmos rests in his ability to approach a number of social, political, religious, and philosophical issues and think them through critically to a conclusion counter to many populist beliefs. For example, his exposé of the gruesome murder of Hypatia, the last scientist at the library at Alexandria, in 415 a.d. by parishioners of Cyril, the bishop of the city, carries with it an unmistakable warning against religious fanatics: This scientist, dedicated to discovery and truth, had her flesh flayed from her bones, while Cyril was later made a saint by the Catholic church. Sagan is not adverse to tradition, per se; he only expresses his reactions when tradition is contrary to the conclusions of the scientific method. “Evolution is a fact,” he states early in Cosmos, “not a theory,” and, throughout the book, he logically demonstrates his position in a variety of ways.
Perhaps it is in his discussions of humankind’s military proclivities that Sagan becomes most bold and direct. The wars of the ancients impeded the direction of human scientific exploration as much as did the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) for the scientists of the Enlightenment. In the last two chapters of the book, he ironically applies modern society’s postnuclear condition to the many examples that he notes from the past: Today’s political and military establishments have made the discoveries of science the potential destruction of the entire...
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A Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Sagan first became one of the world’s leading scientists, science advocates, lecturers, and teachers in the 1950’s. He worked with the Apollo astronauts and was an instrumental participant in the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions to the planets. His awards include National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award, the Public Welfare Medal (the highest award given by the National Academy of Sciences), and the Joseph Priestley Award, along with many honorary degrees from U.S. colleges and universities. It is with his books, however, that Sagan achieved his most popular acclaim. His works include The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1977), Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1979), Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), and The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995). He was also a writer and producer of the film Contact (1996), based on his 1985 novel of the same name.
Cosmos was conceived and developed simultaneously as both a book and a thirteen-part Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series aired in 1980. The series won both Emmy and Peabody awards and, now on video, had been seen by an estimated 500 million people in sixty countries by the mid-1990’s. Although they can be studied and enjoyed individually, the book and series can effectively complement each other. The success of such an ambitious project is a testament to Carl Sagan and his Cosmos.