40 years after the writing of one of the most beautiful books of all time, the legendary Cosmos by Carl Sagan, the endeavor to write its sequel is certainly a huge challenge and a very lofty goal. Carl Sagan, with his opus magnum of scientific popularization, set the bar impossibly high, leaving behind a book that can be understood by everyone and that has given rise to generations of scientists. Not unjustly, it is included in the list of the “88 books that shaped America” by the United States Congress.
40 years later, after the release of the first book and the corresponding television series, for which Carl Sagan dedicated two years of preparation, a second book is released that will also be the content of a third season of the “television” Cosmos, presented by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The author of this project is Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife, who was involved in the preparation of the Voyager message, as well as in a series of Sagan’s works of scientific popularization, especially in Cosmos, which was their “spiritual child”.
In this book, Druyan dangerously balances between presenting the continuity of the importance of science in human civilization, its past and future, as well as Carl Sagan’s contribution to it and their personal life. She wants to leave a “gift” in memory and in honor of a man who lived so close to her and is a milestone figure for countless others who were inspired by him, even if they never met him in person.
The book could be divided into two distinct parts, where the narration and analysis of thoughts have different characteristics and content. The first half of the book deals heavily with the development of life on Earth, the development of human civilization, bringing historical examples of behavior, trying to make every scientific concept “tangible.” However, this is often done in a way that flirts with the boundaries of misinterpretation. Although Druyan writes these chapters as a historian, she is not a historian, resulting in her personal judgment from the evolution of her own ideological identity in her own lifetime, which reduces the criterion by which she explains events that go beyond the framework of scientific contribution and deal with serious historical events of the 20th century, which are still the subject of ideological controversy.
It is noteworthy that in the narrative of the adventure of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, a scientist who went through the fire and iron period of the young Soviet Union during the 1930s until he was considered one of the top Soviet scientists by the Soviet state itself, there are many references to events that can so far be supported only by isolated testimonies of third parties, leaving the evolutionary treatment of the content of science in a state that faced specific findings with distrust under specific historical conditions in a very secondary position.
The narration of the events that led to the construction of the first nuclear bomb is equally problematic and deficient, as is the role of the forefront scientists who participated in this effort, with significant downgrading of J.R. Oppenheimer’s ideological stance. Similarly, the treatment of various “social processes” in the animal kingdom in the first part is superficial, as often these are viewed with direct projection onto the human species, leaving aside the difference in the critical ability that humans have acquired through their position in biological evolution.
However, as much as the first part of the book raises concerns, leaving a sense of an unfinished attempt, the second part is just as inspired.
In the second part, Druyan sets aside what is not historical, and does what she knows better than many, which is creative popularization. Starting where Carl Sagan left off in 1980, she reopens the Encyclopedia Galactica, recounts the discovery of new worlds from afar, mentions stories of scientists who utilized political power to expand human capabilities, and concludes with an amazing journey to worlds we did not know until the end of the 20th century.
Sagan’s spacecraft, the “Theodore,” now acquires a Polynesian name and, following ancient instincts of survival, leads humanity to worlds that we can only see today by utilizing the cutting edge of our technology. At the same time, she also leaves the optimistic experience regarding the evolution of the Drake equation, as far as humanity is concerned. Where Carl Sagan left a question mark, Druyen comes to add a small positive sign, citing the recent historical experience of global change in managing the planet.
Thus, in the end, she presents her own version of the encyclopedia, which is a whole museum, a theme park, with all the species that existed in our own but also in other worlds, to leave the reader with a very sweet taste, sprinkled with the same inspiration that Carl Sagan wrote his own “epic” 40 years earlier.