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 planet. In many important ways, Cosmos is a cautionary tale.
Yet, it is also a journal celebrating human vision and the will to endure and triumph. Ultimately, Cosmos is a book of heroes—not military, religious, or political heroes, but heroes whose acts survive because of their conviction that truth can be found in applying human logic to sensory data and observation, all the time somehow ignoring social convention. Such renowned figures as Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sir Isaac Newton are covered in the book, but Sagan also has a delightful knack of elevating lesser-known individuals to the status of their famous colleagues, conscious always to retain their humanity. From the ancient world, readers meet Hypatia, Eratothenes, and Democritus (the true “discoverer” of atoms about 430 b.c. ). They also encounter Christiaan Huygens, Jean François Champollian (the decoder of the Egyptian hieroglyphs), and Johannes Kepler from past centuries. From the twentieth century, readers are introduced to scientists such as Robert Goddard and Wolf Vishniak (a researcher working on the Viking Mars probe who died during the experiments). Humans are...
(The entire section is 644 words.)