Cosmos - Carl Sagan (1980)
Chapter 13. WHO SPEAKS FOR EARTH?
To what purpose should I trouble myself in searching out the secrets of the stars, having death or slavery continually before my eyes?
—A question put to Pythagoras by Anaximenes (c. 600 B.C.),
according to Montaigne
How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of Reflection, for those Kings and Princes who sacrifice the Lives of so many People, only to flatter their Ambition in being Masters of some pitiful corner of this small Spot.
—Christiaan Huygens, New Conjectures Concerning the Planetary
Worlds, Their Inhabitants and Productions, c. 1690
We look back through countless millions of years and see the great will to live struggling out of the intertidal slime, struggling from shape to shape and from power to power, crawling and then walking confidently upon the land, struggling generation after generation to master the air, creeping down into the darkness of the deep; we see it turn upon itself in rage and hunger and reshape itself anew, we watch it draw nearer and more akin to us, expanding, elaborating itself, pursuing its relentless inconceivable purpose, until at last it reaches us and its being beats through our brains and arteries … It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening … Out of our … lineage, minds will spring, that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves. A day will come, one day in the unending succession of days, when beings, beings who are now latent in our thoughts and hidden in our loins, shall stand upon this earth as one stands upon a footstool, and shall laugh and reach out their hands amidst the stars.
—H. G. Wells, “The Discovery of the Future,” Nature 65, 326
The Cosmos was discovered only yesterday. For a million years it was clear to everyone that there were no other places than the Earth. Then in the last tenth of a percent of the lifetime of our species, in the instant between Aristarchus and ourselves, we reluctantly noticed that we were not the center and purpose of the Universe, but rather lived on a tiny and fragile world lost in immensity and eternity, drifting in a great cosmic ocean dotted here and there with a hundred billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars. We have bravely tested the waters and have found the ocean to our liking, resonant with our nature. Something in us recognizes the Cosmos as home. We are made of stellar ash. Our origin and evolution have been tied to distant cosmic events. The exploration of the Cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.
As the ancient mythmakers knew, we are the children equally of the sky and the Earth. In our tenure on this planet we have accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, hereditary propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders and hostility to outsiders, which place our survival in some question. But we have also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and our children’s children, a desire to learn from history, and a great soaring passionate intelligence—the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our vision and understanding and prospects are bound exclusively to the Earth—or, worse, to one small part of it. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars. Travel is broadening.
There are worlds on which life has never arisen. There are worlds that have been charred and ruined by cosmic catastrophes. We are fortunate: we are alive; we are powerful; the welfare of our civilization and our species is in our hands. If we do not speak for Earth, who will? If we are not committed to our own survival, who will be?
The human species is now undertaking a great venture that if successful will be as important as the colonization of the land or the descent from the trees. We are haltingly, tentatively breaking the shackles of Earth—metaphorically, in confronting and taming the admonitions of those more primitive brains within us; physically, in voyaging to the planets and listening for the messages from the stars. These two enterprises are linked indissolubly. Each, I believe, is a necessary condition for the other. But our energies are directed far more toward war. Hypnotized by mutual mistrust, almost never concerned for the species or the planet, the nations prepare for death. And because what we are doing is so horrifying, we tend not to think of it much. But what we do not consider we are unlikely to put right.
Every thinking person fears nuclear war, and every technological state plans for it. Everyone knows it is madness, and every nation has an excuse. There is a dreary chain of causality: The Germans were working on the bomb at the beginning of World War II; so the Americans had to make one first. If the Americans had one, the Soviets had to have one, and then the British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis … By the end of the twentieth century many nations had collected nuclear weapons. They were easy to devise. Fissionable material could be stolen from nuclear reactors. Nuclear weapons became almost a home handicraft industry.
The conventional bombs of World War II were called blockbusters. Filled with twenty tons of TNT, they could destroy a city block. All the bombs dropped on all the cities in World War II amounted to some two million tons, two megatons, of TNT—Coventry and Rotterdam, Dresden and Tokyo, all the death that rained from the skies between 1939 and 1945: a hundred thousand blockbusters, two megatons. By the late twentieth century, two megatons was the energy released in the explosion of a single more or less humdrum thermonuclear bomb: one bomb with the destructive force of the Second World War. But there are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. By the ninth decade of the twentieth century the strategic missile and bomber forces of the Soviet Union and the United States were aiming warheads at over 15,000 designated targets. No place on the planet was safe. The energy contained in these weapons, genies of death patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps, was far more than 10,000 megatons—but with the destruction concentrated efficiently, not over six years but over a few hours, a blockbuster for every family on the planet, a World War II every second for the length of a lazy afternoon.
The immediate causes of death from nuclear attack are the blast wave, which can flatten heavily reinforced buildings many kilometers away, the firestorm, the gamma rays and the neutrons, which effectively fry the insides of passersby. A school girl who survived the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima, the event that ended the Second World War, wrote this first-hand account:
Through a darkness like the bottom of hell, I could hear the voices of the other students calling for their mothers. And at the base of the bridge, inside a big cistern that had been dug out there, was a mother weeping, holding above her head a naked baby that was burned bright red all over its body. And another mother was crying and sobbing as she gave her burned breast to her baby. In the cistern the students stood with only their heads above the water, and their two hands, which they clasped as they imploringly cried and screamed, calling for their parents. But every single person who passed was wounded, all of them, and there was no one, there was no one to turn to for help. And the singed hair on the heads of the people was frizzled and whitish and covered with dust. They did not appear to be human, not creatures of this world.
The Hiroshima explosion, unlike the subsequent Nagasaki explosion, was an air burst high above the surface, so the fallout was insignificant. But on March 1, 1954, a thermonuclear weapons test at Bikini in the Marshall Islands detonated at higher yield than expected. A great radioactive cloud was deposited on the tiny atoll of Rongalap, 150 kilometers away, where the inhabitants likened the explosion to the Sun rising in the West. A few hours later, radioactive ash fell on Rongalap like snow. The average dose received was only about 175 rads, a little less than half the dose needed to kill an average person. Being far from the explosion, not many people died. Of course, the radioactive strontium they ate was concentrated in their bones, and the radioactive iodine was concentrated in their thyroids. Two-thirds of the children and one-third of the adults later developed thyroid abnormalities, growth retardation or malignant tumors. In compensation, the Marshall Islanders received expert medical care.
The yield of the Hiroshima bomb was only thirteen kilotons, the equivalent of thirteen thousand tons of TNT. The Bikini test yield was fifteen megatons. In a full nuclear exchange, in the paroxysm of thermonuclear war, the equivalent of a million Hiroshima bombs would be dropped all over the world. At the Hiroshima death rate of some hundred thousand people killed per equivalent thirteen-kiloton weapon, this would be enough to kill a hundred billion people. But there were less than five billion people on the planet in the late twentieth century. Of course, in such an exchange, not everyone would be killed by the blast and the firestorm, the radiation and the fallout—although fallout does last for a longish time: 90 percent of the strontium 90 will decay in 96 years; 90 percent of the cesium 137, in 100 years; 90 percent of the iodine 131 in only a month.
The survivors would witness more subtle consequences of the war. A full nuclear exchange would burn the nitrogen in the upper air, converting it to oxides of nitrogen, which would in turn destroy a significant amount of the ozone in the high atmosphere, admitting an intense dose of solar ultraviolet radiation.* The increased ultraviolet flux would last for years. It would produce skin cancer preferentially in light-skinned people. Much more important, it would affect the ecology of our planet in an unknown way. Ultraviolet light destroys crops. Many microorganisms would be killed; we do not know which ones or how many, or what the consequences might be. The organisms killed might, for all we know, be at the base of a vast ecological pyramid at the top of which totter we.
The dust put into the air in a full nuclear exchange would reflect sunlight and cool the Earth a little. Even a little cooling can have disastrous agricultural consequences. Birds are more easily killed by radiation than insects. Plagues of insects and consequent further agricultural disorders are a likely consequence of nuclear war. There is also another kind of plague to worry about: the plague bacillus is endemic all over the Earth. In the late twentieth century humans did not much die of plague—not because it was absent, but because resistance was high. However, the radiation produced in a nuclear war, among its many other effects, debilitates the body’s immunological system, causing a deterioration of our ability to resist disease. In the longer term, there are mutations, new varieties of microbes and insects, that might cause still further problems for any human survivors of a nuclear holocaust; and perhaps after a while, when there has been enough time for the recessive mutations to recombine and be expressed, new and horrifying varieties of humans. Most of these mutations, when expressed, would be lethal. A few would not. And then there would be other agonies: the loss of loved ones; the legions of the burned, the blind and the mutilated; disease, plague, long-lived radioactive poisons in the air and water; the threat of tumors and stillbirths and malformed children; the absence of medical care; the hopeless sense of a civilization destroyed for nothing; the knowledge that we could have prevented it and did not.
L. F. Richardson was a British meteorologist interested in war. He wished to understand its causes. There are intellectual parallels between war and weather. Both are complex. Both exhibit regularities, implying that they are not implacable forces but natural systems that can be understood and controlled. To understand the global weather you must first collect a great body of meteorological data; you must discover how the weather actually behaves. Our approach must be the same, Richardson decided, if we are to understand warfare. So, for the years between 1820 and 1945, he collected data on the hundreds of wars that had been fought on our poor planet.
Richardson’s results were published posthumously in a book called The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels. Because he was interested in how long you had to wait for a war that would claim a specified number of victims, he defined an index, M, the magnitude of a war, a measure of the number of immediate deaths it causes. A war of magnitude M = 3 might be merely a skirmish, killing only a thousand people (103). M = 5 or M = 6 denote more serious wars, where a hundred thousand (10s) or a million (106) people are killed. World Wars I and II had larger magnitudes. He found that the more people killed in a war, the less likely it was to occur, and the longer before you could witness it, just as violent storms occur less frequently than cloudbursts.
Richardson proposed that if you continue the curve to very small values of M, all the way to M = 0, it roughly predicts the worldwide incidence of murder; somewhere in the world someone is murdered every five minutes. Individual killings and wars on the largest scale are, he said, two ends of a continuum, an unbroken curve. It follows, not only in a trivial sense but also I believe in a very deep psychological sense, that war is murder writ large. When our well-being is threatened, when our illusions about ourselves are challenged, we tend—some of us at least—to fly into murderous rages. And when the same provocations are applied to nation states, they, too, sometimes fly into murderous rages, egged on often enough by those seeking personal power or profit. But as the technology of murder improves and the penalties of war increase, a great many people must be made to fly into murderous rages simultaneously for a major war to be mustered. Because the organs of mass communication are often in the hands of the state, this can commonly be arranged. (Nuclear war is the exception. It can be triggered by a very small number of people.)
We see here a conflict between our passions and what is sometimes called our better natures; between the deep, ancient reptilian part of the brain, the R-complex, in charge of murderous rages, and the more recently evolved mammalian and human parts of the brain, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. When humans lived in small groups, when our weapons were comparatively paltry, even an enraged warrior could kill only a few. As our technology improved, the means of war also improved. In the same brief interval, we also have improved. We have tempered our anger, frustration and despair with reason. We have ameliorated on a planetary scale injustices that only recently were global and endemic. But our weapons can now kill billions. Have we improved fast enough? Are we teaching reason as effectively as we can? Have we courageously studied the causes of war?
What is often called the strategy of nuclear deterrence is remarkable for its reliance on the behavior of our nonhuman ancestors. Henry Kissinger, a contemporary politician, wrote: “Deterrence depends, above all, on psychological criteria. For purposes of deterrence, a bluff taken seriously is more useful than a serious threat interpreted as a bluff.” Truly effective nuclear bluffing, however, includes occasional postures of irrationality, a distancing from the horrors of nuclear war. Then the potential enemy is tempted to submit on points of dispute rather than unleash a global confrontation, which the aura of irrationality has made plausible. The chief danger of adopting a credible pose of irrationality is that to succeed in the pretense you have to be very good. After a while, you get used to it. It becomes pretense no longer.
The global balance of terror, pioneered by the United States and the Soviet Union, holds hostage the citizens of the Earth. Each side draws limits on the permissible behavior of the other. The potential enemy is assured that if the limit is transgressed, nuclear war will follow. However, the definition of the limit changes from time to time. Each side must be quite confident that the other understands the new limits. Each side is tempted to increase its military advantage, but not in so striking a way as seriously to alarm the other. Each side continually explores the limits of the other’s tolerance, as in flights of nuclear bombers over the Arctic wastes; the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars—a few entries from a long and dolorous list. The global balance of terror is a very delicate balance. It depends on things not going wrong, on mistakes not being made, on the reptilian passions not being seriously aroused.
And so we return to Richardson. In the diagram the solid line is the waiting time for a war of magnitude M—that is, the average time we would have to wait to witness a war that kills 10m people (where M represents the number of zeroes after the one in our usual exponential arithmetic). Also shown, as a vertical bar at the right of the diagram, is the world population in recent years, which reached one billion people (M = 9) around 1835 and is now about 4.5 billion people (M = 9.7). When the Richardson curve crosses the vertical bar we have specified the waiting time to Doomsday: how many years until the population of the Earth is destroyed in some great war. With Richardson’s curve and the simplest extrapolation for the future growth of the human population, the two curves do not intersect until the thirtieth century or so, and Doomsday is deferred.
But World War II was of magnitude 7.7: some fifty million military personnel and noncombatants were killed. The technology of death advanced ominously. Nuclear weapons were used for the first time. There is little indication that the motivations and propensities for warfare have diminished since, and both conventional and nuclear weaponry has become far more deadly. Thus, the top of the Richardson curve is shifting downward by an unknown amount. If its new position is somewhere in the shaded region of the figure, we may have only another few decades until Doomsday. A more detailed comparison of the incidence of wars before and after 1945 might help to clarify this question. It is of more than passing concern.
This is merely another way of saying what we have known for decades: the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems will, sooner or later, lead to global disaster. Many of the American and European émigré scientists who developed the first nuclear weapons were profoundly distressed about the demon they had let loose on the world. They pleaded for the global abolition of nuclear weapons. But their pleas went unheeded; the prospect of a national strategic advantage galvanized both the U.S.S.R. and the United States, and the nuclear arms race began.
In the same period, there was a burgeoning international trade in the devastating non-nuclear weapons coyly called “conventional.” In the past twenty-five years, in dollars corrected for inflation, the annual international arms trade has gone from $300 million to much more than $20 billion. In the years between 1950 and 1968, for which good statistics seem to be available, there were, on the average, worldwide several accidents involving nuclear weapons per year, although perhaps no more than one or two accidental nuclear explosions. The weapons establishments in the Soviet Union, the United States and other nations are large and powerful. In the United States they include major corporations famous for their homey domestic manufactures. According to one estimate, the corporate profits in military weapons procurement are 30 to 50 percent higher than in an equally technological but competitive civilian market. Cost overruns in military weapons systems are permitted on a scale that would be considered unacceptable in the civilian sphere. In the Soviet Union the resources, quality, attention and care given to military production is in striking contrast to the little left for consumer goods. According to some estimates, almost half the scientists and high technologists on Earth are employed full- or part-time on military matters. Those engaged in the development and manufacture of weapons of mass destruction are given salaries, perquisites of power and, where possible, public honors at the highest levels available in their respective societies. The secrecy of weapons development, carried to especially extravagant lengths in the Soviet Union, implies that individuals so employed need almost never accept responsibility for their actions. They are protected and anonymous. Military secrecy makes the military the most difficult sector of any society for the citizens to monitor. If we do not know what they do, it is very hard for us to stop them. And with the rewards so substantial, with the hostile military establishments beholden to each other in some ghastly mutual embrace, the world discovers itself drifting toward the ultimate undoing of the human enterprise.
Every major power has some widely publicized justification for its procurement and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, often including a reptilian reminder of the presumed character and cultural defects of potential enemies (as opposed to us stout fellows), or of the intentions of others, but never ourselves, to conquer the world. Every nation seems to have its set of forbidden possibilities, which its citizenry and adherents must not at any cost be permitted to think seriously about. In the Soviet Union these include capitalism, God, and the surrender of national sovereignty; in the United States, socialism, atheism, and the surrender of national sovereignty. It is the same all over the world.
How would we explain the global arms race to a dispassionate extraterrestrial observer? How would we justify the most recent destabilizing developments of killer-satellites, particle beam weapons, lasers, neutron bombs, cruise missiles, and the proposed conversion of areas the size of modest countries to the enterprise of hiding each intercontinental ballistic missile among hundreds of decoys? Would we argue that ten thousand targeted nuclear warheads are likely to enhance the prospects for our survival? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth? We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?
About two-thirds of the mass of the human brain is in the cerebral cortex, devoted to intuition and reason. Humans have evolved gregariously. We delight in each other’s company; we care for one another. We cooperate. Altruism is built into us. We have brilliantly deciphered some of the patterns of Nature. We have sufficient motivation to work together and the ability to figure out how to do it. If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies? From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: to preserve the lives and well-being of the citizens of the planet. Should we not then be willing to explore vigorously, in every nation, major changes in the traditional ways of doing things, a fundamental redesign of economic, political, social and religious institutions?
Faced with so disquieting an alternative, we are always tempted to minimize the seriousness of the problem, to argue that those who worry about doomsdays are alarmists; to hold that fundamental changes in our institutions are impractical or contrary to “human nature,” as if nuclear war were practical, or as if there were only one human nature. Full-scale nuclear war has never happened. Somehow this is taken to imply that it never will. But we can experience it only once. By then it will be too late to reformulate the statistics.
The United States is one of the few governments that actually supports an agency devoted to reversing the arms race. But the comparative budgets of the Department of Defense (153 billion dollars per year in 1980) and of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (0.018 billion dollars per year) remind us of the relative importance we have assigned to the two activities. Would not a rational society spend more on understanding and preventing, than on preparing for, the next war? It is possible to study the causes of war. At present our understanding is meager—probably because disarmament budgets have, since the time of Sargon of Akkad, been somewhere between ineffective and nonexistent. Microbiologists and physicians study diseases mainly to cure people. Rarely are they rooting for the pathogen. Let us study war as if it were, as Einstein aptly called it, an illness of childhood. We have reached the point where proliferation of nuclear arms and resistance to nuclear disarmament threaten every person on the planet. There are no more special interests or special cases. Our survival depends on committing our intelligence and resources on a massive scale to take charge of our own destiny, to guarantee that Richardson’s curve does not veer to the right.
We, the nuclear hostages—all the peoples of the Earth—must educate ourselves about conventional and nuclear warfare. Then we must educate our governments. We must learn the science and technology that provide the only conceivable tools for our survival. We must be willing to challenge courageously the conventional social, political, economic and religious wisdom. We must make every effort to understand that our fellow humans, all over the world, are human. Of course, such steps are difficult. But as Einstein many times replied when his suggestions were rejected as impractical or as inconsistent with “human nature”: What is the alternative?
* * *
Mammals characteristically nuzzle, fondle, hug, caress, pet, groom and love their young, behavior essentially unknown among the reptiles. If it is really true that the R-complex and limbic systems live in an uneasy truce within our skulls and still partake of their ancient predelictions, we might expect affectionate parental indulgence to encourage our mammalian natures, and the absence of physical affection to prod reptilian behavior. There is some evidence that this is the case. In laboratory experiments, Harry and Margaret Harlow found that monkeys raised in cages and physically isolated—even though they could see, hear and smell their simian fellows—developed a range of morose, withdrawn, self-destructive and otherwise abnormal characteristics. In humans the same is observed for children raised without physical affection—usually in institutions—where they are clearly in great pain.
The neuropsychologist James W. Prescott has performed a startling cross-cultural statistical analysis of 400 preindustrial societies and found that cultures that lavish physical affection on infants tend to be disinclined to violence. Even societies without notable fondling of infants develop nonviolent adults, provided sexual activity in adolescents is not repressed. Prescott believes that cultures with a predisposition for violence are composed of individuals who have been deprived—during at least one of two critical stages in life, infancy and adolescence—of the pleasures of the body. Where physical affection is encouraged, theft, organized religion and invidious displays of wealth are inconspicuous; where infants are physically punished, there tends to be slavery, frequent killing, torturing and mutilation of enemies, a devotion to the inferiority of women, and a belief in one or more supernatural beings who intervene in daily life.
We do not understand human behavior well enough to be sure of the mechanisms underlying these relationships, although we can conjecture. But the correlations are significant. Prescott writes: “The percent likelihood of a society becoming physically violent if it is physically affectionate toward its infants and tolerant of premarital sexual behavior is 2 percent. The probability of this relationship occurring by chance is 125,000 to one. I am not aware of any other developmental variable that has such a high degree of predictive validity.” Infants hunger for physical affection; adolescents are strongly driven to sexual activity. If youngsters had their way, societies might develop in which adults have little tolerance for aggression, territoriality, ritual and social hierarchy (although in the course of growing up the children might well experience these reptilian behaviors). If Prescott is right, in an age of nuclear weapons and effective contraceptives, child abuse and severe sexual repression are crimes against humanity. More work on this provocative thesis is clearly needed. Meanwhile, we can each make a personal and noncontroversial contribution to the future of the world by hugging our infants tenderly.
If the inclinations toward slavery and racism, misogyny and violence are connected—as individual character and human history, as well as cross-cultural studies, suggest—then there is room for some optimism. We are surrounded by recent fundamental changes in society. In the last two centuries, abject slavery, with us for thousands of years or more, has been almost eliminated in a stirring planet-wide revolution. Women, patronized for millennia, traditionally denied real political and economic power, are gradually becoming, even in the most backward societies, equal partners with men. For the first time in modern history, major wars of aggression were stopped partly because of the revulsion felt by the citizens of the aggressor nations. The old exhortations to nationalist fervor and jingoist pride have begun to lose their appeal. Perhaps because of rising standards of living, children are being treated better worldwide. In only a few decades, sweeping global changes have begun to move in precisely the directions needed for human survival. A new consciousness is developing which recognizes that we are one species.
“Superstition [is] cowardice in the face of the Divine,” wrote Theophrastus, who lived during the founding of the Library of Alexandria. We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times—a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universes and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.
Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Theophrastus was right. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.
There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true. Humans everywhere share the same goals when the context is large enough. And the study of the Cosmos provides the largest possible context. Present global culture is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking about for a few thousand years declares itself in possession of eternal truths. But in a world that is changing as fast as ours, this is a prescription for disaster. No nation, no religion, no economic system, no body of knowledge, is likely to have all the answers for our survival. There must be many social systems that would work far better than any now in existence. In the scientific tradition, our task is to find them.
Only once before in our history was there the promise of a brilliant scientific civilization. Beneficiary of the Ionian Awakening, it had its citadel at the Library of Alexandria, where 2,000 years ago the best minds of antiquity established the foundations for the systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. We build on those foundations still. The Library was constructed and supported by the Ptolemys, the Greek kings who inherited the Egyptian portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. From the time of its creation in the third century B.C. until its destruction seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient world.
Alexandria was the publishing capital of the planet. Of course, there were no printing presses then. Books were expensive; every one of them was copied by hand. The Library was the repository of the most accurate copies in the world. The art of critical editing was invented there. The Old Testament comes down to us mainly from the Greek translations made in the Alexandrian Library. The Ptolemy s devoted much of their enormous wealth to the acquisition of every Greek book, as well as works from Africa, Persia, India, Israel and other parts of the world. Ptolemy III Euergetes wished to borrow from Athens the original manuscripts or official state copies of the great ancient tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. To the Athenians, these were a kind of cultural patrimony—something like the original handwritten copies and first folios of Shakespeare might be in England. They were reluctant to let the manuscripts out of their hands even for a moment. Only after Ptolemy guaranteed their return with an enormous cash deposit did they agree to lend the plays. But Ptolemy valued those scrolls more than gold or silver. He forfeited the deposit gladly and enshrined, as well he might, the originals in the Library. The outraged Athenians had to content themselves with the copies that Ptolemy, only a little shamefacedly, presented to them. Rarely has a state so avidly supported the pursuit of knowledge.
The Ptolemys did not merely collect established knowledge; they encouraged and financed scientific research and so generated new knowledge. The results were amazing: Eratosthenes accurately calculated the size of the Earth, mapped it, and argued that India could be reached by sailing westward from Spain. Hipparchus anticipated that stars come into being, slowly move during the course of centuries, and eventually perish; it was he who first catalogued the positions and magnitudes of the stars to detect such changes. Euclid produced a textbook on geometry from which humans learned for twenty-three centuries, a work that was to help awaken the scientific interest of Kepler, Newton and Einstein. Galen wrote basic works on healing and anatomy which dominated medicine until the Renaissance. There were, as we have noted, many others.
Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came there to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word cosmopolitanrealized its true meaning—citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos,* To be a citizen of the Cosmos …
Here clearly were the seeds of the modern world. What prevented them from taking root and flourishing? Why instead did the West slumber through a thousand years of darkness until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscovered the work done in Alexandria? I cannot give you a simple answer. But I do know this: there is no record, in the entire history of the Library, that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not. Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people.* The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.
The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy—an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia’s time—by then long under Roman rule—was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.
The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia’s death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter’s Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.
Of the physical contents of that glorious Library not a single scroll remains. In modern Alexandria few people have a keen appreciation, much less a detailed knowledge, of the Alexandrian Library or of the great Egyptian civilization that preceded it for thousands of years. More recent events, other cultural imperatives have taken precedence. The same is true all over the world. We have only the most tenuous contact with our past. And yet just a stone’s throw from the remains of the Serapaeum are reminders of many civilizations: enigmatic sphinxes from pharaonic Egypt; a great column erected to the Roman Emperor Diocletian by a provincial flunky for not altogether permitting the citizens of Alexandria to starve to death; a Christian church; many minarets; and the hallmarks of modern industrial civilization—apartment houses, automobiles, streetcars, urban slums, a microwave relay tower. There are a million threads from the past intertwined to make the ropes and cables of the modern world.
Our achievements rest on the accomplishments of 40,000 generations of our human predecessors, all but a tiny fraction of whom are nameless and forgotten. Every now and then we stumble on a major civilization, such as the ancient culture of Ebla, which flourished only a few millennia ago and about which we knew nothing. How ignorant we are of our own past! Inscriptions, papyruses, books time-bind the human species and permit us to hear those few voices and faint cries of our brothers and sisters, our ancestors. And what a joy of recognition when we realize how like us they were!
A time line of some of the people, machines and events described in this book. The Antikythera machine was an astronomical computer developed in ancient Greece. Heron of Alexandria experimented with steam engines. The millennium gap in the middle of the diagram represents a poignant lost opportunity for the human species.
We have in this book devoted attention to some of our ancestors whose names have not been lost: Eratosthenes, Democritus, Aristarchus, Hypatia, Leonardo, Kepler, Newton, Huygens, Champollion, Humason, Goddard, Einstein—all from Western culture because the emerging scientific civilization on our planet is mainly a Western civilization; but every culture—China, India, West Africa, Mesoamerica—has made its major contributions to our global society and had its seminal thinkers. Through technological advances in communication our planet is in the final stages of being bound up at a breakneck pace into a single global society. If we can accomplish the integration of the Earth without obliterating cultural differences or destroying ourselves, we will have accomplished a great thing.
Near the site of the Alexandrian Library there is today a headless sphinx sculpted in the time of the pharaon Horemheb, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, a millennium before Alexander. Within easy view of that leonine body is a modern microwave relay tower. Between them runs an unbroken thread in the history of the human species. From sphinx to tower is an instant of cosmic time—a moment in the fifteen or so billion years that have elapsed since the Big Bang. Almost all record of the passage of the universe from then to now has been scattered by the winds of time. The evidence of cosmic evolution has been more thoroughly ravaged than all the papyrus scrolls in the Alexandrian Library. And yet through daring and intelligence we have stolen a few glimpses of that winding path along which our ancestors and we have traveled:
For unknown ages after the explosive outpouring of matter and energy of the Big Bang, the Cosmos was without form. There were no galaxies, no planets, no life. Deep, impenetrable darkness was everywhere, hydrogen atoms in the void. Here and there denser accumulations of gas were imperceptibly growing, globes of matter were condensing—hydrogen raindrops more massive than suns. Within these globes of gas was first kindled the nuclear fire latent in matter. A first generation of stars was born, flooding the Cosmos with light. There were in those times not yet any planets to receive the light, no living creatures to admire the radiance of the heavens. Deep in the stellar furnaces the alchemy of nuclear fusion created heavy elements, the ashes of hydrogen burning, the atomic building materials of future planets and lifeforms. Massive stars soon exhausted their stores of nuclear fuel. Rocked by colossal explosions, they returned most of their substance back into the thin gas from which they had once condensed. Here in the dark lush clouds between the stars, new raindrops made of many elements were forming, later generations of stars being born. Nearby, smaller raindrops grew, bodies far too little to ignite the nuclear fire, droplets in the interstellar mist on their way to form the planets. Among them was a small world of stone and iron, the early Earth.
Congealing and warming, the Earth released the methane, ammonia, water and hydrogen gases that had been trapped within, forming the primitive atmosphere and the first oceans. Starlight from the Sun bathed and warmed the primeval Earth, drove storms, generated lightning and thunder. Volcanoes overflowed with lava. These processes disrupted molecules of the primitive atmosphere; the fragments fell back together again into more and more complex forms, which dissolved in the early oceans. After a time the seas achieved the consistency of a warm, dilute soup. Molecules were organized, and complex chemical reactions driven, on the surface of clays. And one day a molecule arose that quite by accident was able to make crude copies of itself out of the other molecules in the broth. As time passed, more elaborate and more accurate self-replicating molecules arose. Those combinations best suited to further replication were favored by the sieve of natural selection. Those that copied better produced more copies. And the primitive oceanic broth gradually grew thin as it was consumed by and transformed into complex condensations of self-replicating organic molecules. Gradually, imperceptibly, life had begun.
Single-celled plants evolved, and life began to generate its own food. Photosynthesis transformed the atmosphere. Sex was invented. Once free-living forms banded together to make a complex cell with specialized functions. Chemical receptors evolved, and the Cosmos could taste and smell. One-celled organisms evolved into multicellular colonies, elaborating their various parts into specialized organ systems. Eyes and ears evolved, and now the Cosmos could see and hear. Plants and animals discovered that the land could support life. Organisms buzzed, crawled, scuttled, lumbered, glided, flapped, shimmied, climbed and soared. Colossal beasts thundered through the steaming jungles. Small creatures emerged, born live instead of in hard-shelled containers, with a fluid like the early oceans coursing through their veins. They survived by swiftness and cunning. And then, only a moment ago, some small arboreal animals scampered down from the trees. They became upright and taught themselves the use of tools, domesticated other animals, plants and fire, and devised language. The ash of stellar alchemy was now emerging into consciousness. At an ever-accelerating pace, it invented writing, cities, art and science, and sent spaceships to the planets and the stars. These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution.
It has the sound of epic myth, and rightly. But it is simply a description of cosmic evolution as revealed by the science of our time. We are difficult to come by and a danger to ourselves. But any account of cosmic evolution makes it clear that all the creatures of the Earth, the latest manufactures of the galactic hydrogen industry, are beings to be cherished. Elsewhere there may be other equally astonishing transmutations of matter, so wistfully we listen for a humming in the sky.
We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish. And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.
Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as superpowers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together—surely a humanizing and character-building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
A few million years ago there were no humans. Who will be here a few million years hence? In all the 4.6-billion-year history of our planet, nothing much ever left it. But now, tiny unmanned exploratory spacecraft from Earth are moving, glistening and elegant, through the solar system. We have made a preliminary reconnaissance of twenty worlds, among them all the planets visible to the naked eye, all those wandering nocturnal lights that stirred our ancestors toward understanding and ecstasy. If we survive, our time will be famous for two reasons: that at this dangerous moment of technological adolescence we managed to avoid self-destruction; and because this is the epoch in which we began our journey to the stars.
The choice is stark and ironic. The same rocket boosters used to launch probes to the planets are poised to send nuclear warheads to the nations. The radioactive power sources on Viking and Voyager derive from the same technology that makes nuclear weapons. The radio and radar techniques employed to track and guide ballistic missiles and defend against attack are also used to monitor and command the spacecraft on the planets and to listen for signals from civilizations near other stars. If we use these technologies to destroy ourselves, we surely will venture no more to the planets and the stars. But the converse is also true. If we continue to the planets and the stars, our chauvinisms will be shaken further. We will gain a cosmic perspective. We will recognize that our explorations can be carried out only on behalf of all the people of the planet Earth. We will invest our energies in an enterprise devoted not to death but to life: the expansion of our understanding of the Earth and its inhabitants and the search for life elsewhere. Space exploration—unmanned and manned—uses many of the same technological and organizational skills and demands the same commitment to valor and daring as does the enterprise of war. Should a time of real disarmament arrive before nuclear war, such exploration would enable the military-industrial establishments of the major powers to engage at long last in an untainted enterprise. Interests vested in preparations for war can relatively easily be reinvested in the exploration of the Cosmos.
A reasonable—even an ambitious—program of unmanned exploration of the planets is inexpensive. The budget for space sciences in the United States is shown in the table above. Comparable expenditures in the Soviet Union are a few times larger. Together these sums represent the equivalent of two or three nuclear submarines per decade, or the cost overruns on one of the many weapon systems in a single year. In the last quarter of 1979, the program cost of the U.S. F/A-18 aircraft increased by $5.1 billion, and the F-16 by $3.4 billion. Since their inceptions, significantly less has been spent on the unmanned planetary programs of both the United States and the Soviet Union than has been wasted shamefully—for example, between 1970 and 1975, in the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, an application of national policy that cost $7 billion. The total cost of a mission such as Viking to Mars, or Voyager to the outer solar system, is less than that of the 1979–80 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Through technical employment and the stimulation of high technology, money spent on space exploration has an economic multiplier effect. One study suggests that for every dollar spent on the planets, seven dollars are returned to the national economy. And yet there are many important and entirely feasible missions that have not been attempted because of lack of funds—including roving vehicles to wander across the surface of Mars, a comet rendezvous, Titan entry probes and a full-scale search for radio signals from other civilizations in space.
The cost of major ventures into space—permanent bases on the Moon or human exploration of Mars, say—is so large that they will not, I think, be mustered in the very near future unless we make dramatic progress in nuclear and “conventional” disarmament. Even then there are probably more pressing needs here on Earth. But I have no doubt that, if we avoid self-destruction, we will sooner or later perform such missions. It is almost impossible to maintain a static society. There is a kind of psychological compound interest: even a small tendency toward retrenchment, a turning away from the Cosmos, adds up over many generations to a significant decline. And conversely, even a slight commitment to ventures beyond the Earth—to what we might call, after Columbus, “the enterprise of the stars”—builds over many generations to a significant human presence on other worlds, a rejoicing in our participation in the Cosmos.
Some 3.6 million years ago, in what is now northern Tanzania, a volcano erupted, the resulting cloud of ash covering the surrounding savannahs. In 1979, the paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey found in that ash footprints—the footprints, she believes, of an early hominid, perhaps an ancestor of all the people on the Earth today. And 380,000 kilometers away, in a flat dry plain that humans have in a moment of optimism called the Sea of Tranquility, there is another footprint, left by the first human to walk another world. We have come far in 3.6 million years, and in 4.6 billion and in 15 billion.
For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.
*The process is similar to, but much more dangerous than, the destruction of the ozone layer by the fluorocarbon propellants in aerosol spray cans, which have accordingly been banned by a number of nations; and to that invoked in the explanation of the extinction of the dinosaurs by a supernova explosion a few dozen light-years away.
*The word cosmopolitan was first invented by Diogenes, the rationalist philosopher and critic of Plato.
*With the single exception of Archimedes, who during his stay at the Alexandrian Library invented the water screw, which is used in Egypt to this day for the irrigation of cultivated fields. But even he considered such mechanical contrivances far beneath the dignity of science.