The Cosmic Connection - Carl Sagan

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The Cosmic Connection

by Carl Sagan

From earliest times, human beings have pondered their place in the universe. They have wondered whether they are in some sense connected with the awesome and immense cosmos in which the Earth is imbedded.

Many thousands of years ago a pseudoscience called astrology was invented. The positions of the planets at the birth of a child were supposed to play a major role in determining his or her future. The planets, moving points of light, were thought, in some mysterious sense, to be gods. In his vanity, Man imagined the universe designed for his benefit and organized for his use.

Perhaps the planets were identified with gods because their motions seemed irregular. The word "planet" is Greek for wanderer. The unpredictable behavior of the gods in many legends may have corresponded well with the apparently unpredictable motions of the planets. The argument may have been: Gods don't follow rules; planets don't follow rules; planets are gods.

When the ancient priestly astrological caste discovered that the motions of the planets were not irregular but predictable, they seem to have kept this information to themselves. No use unnecessarily worrying the populace, undermining religious belief, and eroding the supports of political power. Moreover, the Sun was the source of life. The Moon, through the tides, dominated agriculture-especially in river basins like the Indus, the Nile the Yangtze, and the Tigris-Euphrates. How reasonable that these lesser lights, the planets, should have subtler but no less definite influence on human life!

The search for a connection, a hooking-up between people and the universe, has not diminished since the dawn of astrology. The same human needs exist despite the advances of science.

We now know that the planets are worlds more or less like our own. We know that their light and gravity have negligible influence on a newborn babe. We know that there are enormous numbers of other objects-asteroids, comets, pulsars, quasars, exploding galaxies, black holes, and the rest-objects not known to the ancient speculators who invented astrology. The universe is immensely grander than they could have imagined.

Astrology has not attempted to keep pace with the times. Even the calculations of planetary motions and positions performed by most astrologers are usually inaccurate.

No study shows a statistically significant success rate in predicting through their horoscopes the future or the personality traits of newborn children. There is no field of radioastrology or X-ray astrology or gamma-ray astrology, taking account of the energetic new astronomical sources discovered in recent years.

Nevertheless, astrology remains immensely popular everywhere. There are at least ten times more astrologers than astronomers. A large number, perhaps a majority, of newspapers in the United States have daily columns on astrology.

Many bright and socially committed young people have more than a passing interest in astrology. It satisfies an almost unspoken need to feel a significance for human beings in a vast and awesome cosmos, to believe that we are in some way hooked up with the universe-an ideal of many drug and religious experiences, the samadhi of some Eastern religions.

The great insights of modern astronomy have shown that, in some senses quite different from those imagined by the earlier astrologers, we are connected up with the universe.

The first scientists and philosophers-Aristotle, for example - imagined that the heavens were made of a different sort of material then the Earth, a special kind of celestial stuff, pure and undefiled. We now know that this is not the case. Pieces of the asteroid belt called meteorites; samples of the Moon returned by Apollo astronauts and Soviet unmanned spacecraft; the solar wind, which expands outward past our planet from the Sun; and the cosmic rays, which are probably generated from exploding stars and their remnants-all show the presence of the same atoms we know here on Earth. Astronomical spectroscopy is able to determine the chemical composition of collections of stars billions of light-years away. The entire universe is made of familiar stuff. The same atoms and molecules occur at enormous distances from Earth as occur here within our Solar System.