Cosmos 14: A Personal Voyage

by Shane L. Larson

As I write this, I’m heading home from the PhD defense of a new young mind in Physics, where we argued about how Nature might have created time from gravity. I’m typing this on an iPad, a glossy piece of imagination made of glass and aluminum that instantly connects me to all the collected knowledge of the human race.  I’m sipping a cup of coffee, water infused with flavor and essences of a plant, extracted with one of the oldest human discoveries, fire.  Most impressively, I’m sitting in an airplane as I write this, blazing along at 520 mph.  To quote the comedian, Louis C.K., I’m sitting in a chair in the sky! I’m like a Greek myth right now.

The CRJ700 I flew today; one small bit of a modern Greek myth.

The CRJ700 I flew today; one small bit of a modern Greek myth.

All these things are a result of the human proclivity to know the world around them. Each one is an evocative realization of imagination and creativity. Someone once imagined that we could do what birds do, and fly through the sky — an ancient dream told in the myth of Icarus, unrequited in the notebooks and imaginings of Leonardo da Vinci, realized at last barely more than a century ago. Someone imagined that I should be able to more or less instantly find out when the Slinky was invented, or hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti  on demand (No. 2 in F major is included on the Voyager Golden Record). Someone imagined that we could understand how Nature created time itself, and suggested ways that we could test those ideas. And perhaps most importantly, someone imagined that you should throw an innocuous bean into the fire, pull it out before it is completely destroyed, mash it up, mix it with boiling water and drink it — a stunning tour de force of imagination, perseverance and creativity!

iPad and coffee -- two important and remarkable outcomes of science!

iPad and coffee — two important and remarkable outcomes of science!

These are the kinds of things I think about every day — the trappings of every day life, which we often take for granted.  We overlook how truly remarkable every one of them is. Everything around you in your life we discovered by studying the world and figuring out how it works. That game of curiosity, exploration, discovery and application is what we mean when we say SCIENCE, and it is one of the most important things humans have figured out how to do.  Not just important because we know how to make smartphones and pharmaceuticals and band saws and rubber duckies, but important because in all the vastness of the Cosmos, we are the only form of life that we know of (with certainty) that has figured out how to do science. The methods of science are a natural and inevitable consequence of applying our curiosity to the world, and with it we can improve our lives.  This was one of the central themes of Cosmos.

The frontpiece to my Ph.D. thesis.

The frontpiece to my Ph.D. thesis.

For the past two and a half months, I’ve revisted Cosmos each week, once again walking along the shores of the Cosmic Ocean, turning over interesting shells and poking at bits of cosmic flotsam and jetsam that have washed up on our shores.  I’ve listened to the tales of adventure and discovery; I sailed along side our robotic emissaries once again as they made the first grand voyages to the other planets in our solar system; and I once again learned a little bit of the history of how we came to start thinking about the wonder and mystery of the Cosmos.  And woven throughout it all, I once again soaked in the unshakable belief in our ability to learn, adapt, and make a better tomorrow.

I’ve enjoyed revisiting Cosmos one more time; I’m sure I will do it again, many times in the future.  On this particular visit, I did something I hadn’t done before — I tried to add to the stories, as many of you reading along know (my series started here).  All told, this game produced 31,000 words posted to the blog (not including this post).  I learned some new things along the way, and enjoyed myself immensely. For now, this is the last bit that I’ll write about Cosmos directly, though I’m sure we’ll return to it now and again in the future.

For the moment then, my Personal Voyage has come to a resting point.  In a few short hours, we will all return once again to a broken cliff on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a place where more than thirty years ago we set off on a journey with Carl Sagan to explore the Cosmos.  Tonight, we’ll start the journey anew, with a new guide.  Like that first personal voyage, this one promises to be full of wonder, mystery, introspection, and discovery.  It’s time to get going again.

Carl Sagan, on the Pacific Coast, where the Cosmos journey began.

Carl Sagan, on the Pacific Coast, where the Cosmos journey began.


This post is the last in a series celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:

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