Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

If philosophy is to direct us towards contemplation, wisdom and humility, then Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is deeply philosophical. In describing the (then) latest discoveries in science, in narrating the courageous steps humans and individuals have taken over the ages since the existence of our consciousness that have led to those discoveries and in imagining an optimistic future, Carl Sagan, in his comforting voice and deeply insightful views, illustrates our place in the universe. Our place in the universe, unique not in our exclusivity but in the fact that we are inextricably connected to each other.

 

“Earth and every living thing are made of Star-stuff […]

(Our) ancestors were once atoms made in stars, then simple molecules, single cells polyps stuck to the ocean floor, fish, amphibians, reptiles, shrews.

But then they came down from the trees and stood upright.

They grew an enormous brain; they developed culture, invented tools domesticated fire.

They discovered language and writing.

They developed agriculture.

They built cities and forged metal.

And ultimately, they set out for the stars from which they had come.

We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands.

The loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of matter. Our own planet is only a tiny part of the vast cosmic tapestry a starry fabric of worlds yet untold”.

Car Sagan, Cosmos Episode 8 – Travels in Space and Time 1

 

Carl Sagan, with his evidence firmly based in science, opens a perspective where all our differences are nothing but insignificant in the light of the cosmos – the natural phenomena knows and cares nothing for national boundaries or sentiments, cultural differences. To it, we are inhabitants of  earth and a very tiny fragment, yet a part nonetheless, of the omnipresent cosmos.

In discussing scientific concepts from the scale of the universe to those of the atoms and the struggles individuals and peoples endeavoured to bring them to light, Carl Sagan shows us, passionately, that in the Tree of Life which has developed over 4 billion years, the differences that separate us are nothing more than the differences in shape of one small leaf to the next in a very large tree. By humanising science and explaining it from a human perspective, Carl Sagan touches upon, even if only briefly, the unadulterated origins of religion.

In the days of gloom and when faced with a certain crisis of meaning, I find myself returning to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I’m then left with this deep and uncanny sensation of being connected with all the histories across time, I’m left not with mourning for the shortness of the human life but with the joy that comes with the knowledge that my existence is connected to the very beginning of time and will do so even after I’m gone. I’m left with an oceanic emotion that ushers a sense of deep compassion and humility and with that a sense of peace.

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is a plea for the scientific approach, a plea for humanity to maintain what is humane. Though developed in the wake of the nuclear build-up and the tensions of the Cold War, the series touches an essence that makes it resonate across time. In spite of the shortcomings of human nature, Carl Sagan imagines an optimistic future for humans as wise and compassionate species who have abandoned those that divide them and instead cherish those that bring us together.

“One of the great revelations of the age of space exploration is the image of the Earth, finite and lonely somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.

We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquillity an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we whose earliest footsteps, are preserved in the volcanic ash of East Africa. We have walked far.

These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. It has the sound of epic myth. But it’s simply a description of the evolution of the cosmos as revealed by science in our time. And we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins.

Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth.

Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast from which we spring”.

Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 13 – Who Speaks for Earth? 1

And all the while, equally in moments of great turmoil and serene contemplation, what keeps ringing in my ears are Carl Sagan’s first ever words at the start of the series.

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
[…]Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 1 –The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean1

 

Sagan - Voyager Plaque
Carl Sagan with the Voyager plaque 2

 

 

 

References

1 – Retrieved from https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/episode_scripts.php?tv-show=cosmos-carl-sagan

2 – https://www.seeker.com/space/pioneer-plaque-replica-shows-humanitys-first-spacecraft-flown-message-to-aliens

 

Link to the episodes

 

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As you like it…

It was late evening. Tucked away in a small alley off the main square like a glass prism spilling out its contents among dark solid, opaque silhouettes of the buildings on either side of the alleyway was the Toneelschuur in Harlem. Through the dark alleyway, illuminated by the light from the foyer I walked towards the obscure entrance. I was there to have my first proper experience of a play.

The play I was supposed to witness was supposed to be staged in an auditorium of what must have been able to accommodate 120 spectators in about 10 rows but now shortened in size by screens to show only 4 rows. There must have been forty or less people when I entered, everyone much older than I was. Four actors, also old, were setting up the props and adding, to themselves, layers upon layers of both masculine and feminine clothes suited to a play that was supposed to explore the general themes set in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

And that was as far as my understanding of the content of the play went. For the rest of the play, my innocence as to the language and the theatrical experience proved as reliable obstacles in keeping me comfortably distant from any kind of understanding. But all was for good I suppose.

I entered this auditorium and was immediately struck by the intimacy of the setting. A sense of intimacy and familiarity that grew only stronger with the auditorium doors shut from the rest of the world that I might have suspected to have intruded upon a family event if I hadn’t know any better.

No level separated what was to be the place where the play was supposed to be enacted and the level onto which one entered the small auditorium. The stepped rake upon which we, the spectators, sat only seemed like a natural addition to the floor level that was soon to become a stage. It was a sense of feeling that we were not just mute spectators but part of the events that unfolded in that room that has momentarily been isolated from the rest of the world. Not to mention the individual chuckles from the old man who was sitting two rows in front of me that broke into a funny laughter much like the ones that slip out despite one’s earnest attempts to restrain it; the restlessness of the slightly older woman effected by her half amusement and half annoyance at this aural addition to the dialogue of the characters in play; the chair that began to grow increasingly uneasy and people shifting in hope to find that elusive comfort while all the while losing not a bit of concentration over what was being enacted reinforced that sense of intimacy.

A smile broke out from me when someone laughed hard at some occurrence over the course of play. I tried to decipher if the action was scripted or not by trying to decipher the general mood of the audience. In short, I was trying to keep my bearings and make up for what I lost in language in reading the general emotion of the people who watched it. How uniquely different was this experience then compared to screened projections even in the cosiest of home-theatres?

As for the play itself, I was constantly left trying to grasp what it was about. The most perplexing part of the play for me was to follow if the characters stayed in their imagined world or reached out occasionally to the world we as spectators inhabited. I suppose they did both. I have no means of judging the quality of the play simply because I do not have many, if not any, examples to go by.

Chances are that I might have seen some brilliant unfolding of a theatrical play and I wouldn’t even know. Something similar to what Ernest Hemmingway warns of the person who is ignorant of Spanish bull-fighting seeing a bull-fight for the first time and never have the means to experience it fully in all its nuances. A more personal example would be  my first experience with wine. It was initially only a sour tasting liquid that cannot be taken in more than smaller sips at a time whose taste changed with time between the sip and while the taste lingers. But with time, I began to know better, better enough to appreciate it as art that has seen its refinement over several centuries. The same I can say of Indian classical music.

But nevertheless, my first experience of a play has not been bad I’d say.

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In their silence they speak…

I wander aimlessly through those winding streets, accompanied only by the sound of my steps over the cobbles, the air carrying the distant murmur from people in cafés mixed with the joyous sound of a late-afternoon musical party, when these sculptures stop me. Serendipitous instances at the turn of streets, usually occupying a humble corner are lovers forever engaged in a passionate kiss; kids forever lost to their frolic play; a thinker eternally contemplating; a fair lady forever in waiting for her loved one to return, her eyes carrying all the melancholy of the world.

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Fussen
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Koln

 

In the flowing, intangible experience of a city, in its winding streets, varied roofs and drawn windows these sculptures, propping out at the most humble and unassuming places, stop me and make me wonder. They make me wonder at the world to which they are eternally lost; at the world they dispassionately see go by, detachedly surrendering themselves to the stream of photographs with the tourists or to the empathy of a lonely traveler such as me.

They engage me, in their frozen instances, as mnemonic reminders of a place, fixing their essence to my mind’s eye, to haunt me later with nostalgia. I find such sculptures to play an important role in fixing the place in our memory, in trying to make tangible the intangible character of a place.

But above all, sculptures such as these, have the ability to slow us on our way, make us pause and remind us to our immediate existence. They demand from the passer-by their empathy and their imagination, the two under-used of human faculties, to see through their eyes, the world that was, the world that is, and the world that will be.

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Eindhoven, 16 April 2016

Workspace series

Following an advice I found in the book “Show Your Work” by Austin Kleon that happened to catch my eye in a book market,I intend to start a visual log of my personal workspace, every evening with whatever I’ve been working on (or not working on) at that evening, no matter what it is! Of course..  for the dumping of more waste into the internet, a drop in the ocean matters not much does it?!

Caught in a Fairyland…Füssen

Christmas Diaries ’15

 It is quite unusual and funny that, having grown up in one of the hottest part of India and not until 16 that I had the opportunity to see what snow actually looked like, my idea of Christmas was that of magical lights, carols, fluffy snow and fairies and the mystical Santa-Claus. Maybe it was all for  the Cartoon Network and their Christmas themed cartoons of Tom & Jerry and the fairy tales that are to be blamed! But nevertheless, they have created in me a fantastical world of magic that stayed only within the domains of my imagination until I visited these small magical Bavarian towns of Füssen, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Weiskirchen and of course the famous Neuschwanstein Castle!

Idle small towns, singing in silence, distant sounds of laughter and church bells spinning a harmony echoing through the snow-clad Bavarian Alps, I spent my first Christmas in Europe here! Thinking back in retrospective, I could almost feel the crisp smoke from chimneys rising against the backdrop of the snow-clad mountains, the shop windows in these silent towns inviting me into their mystical world, the smell of Glühwein and the infectious joy of Christmas. So infectious is this landscape that I can understand if not even admire with compassion the ‘mad king’ Ludwig’s obsession in creating his ‘Medieval castle’ (of fantasy) at a time when architecture and engineering were going towards the construction of the likes of the The Crystal Palace.

 Nevertheless, what catches me unawares and haunts me at times are the sound of my lonely steps on the medieval cobbles of Füssen, as I haunted through its winding streets under the full moon, silently witnessing the mystic characters from the squares and shop windows come to life, ignoring me, going about with their affairs like they always have for centuries!

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And of course the trip would have never been this good if not for my very good friends Rahul and Krithika and the very good friends I made Harshil, Manoj and Arun!!

Füssen, 25 December 2016

 

A walk with the giants… @ the Rijksmuseum

The works of Rembrandt were a fascination to me ever since I had the opportunity to see a documentary of his works on one of friend’s house, six years back. Seeing the hyper-realism of each brush strokes on screen was one thing and seeing the paintings in person, packed with such drama was completely another experience! Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) was a genius who had in his brush light for paint! His most radical use of light to emphasis the subject (fully evident in the Night Watch) and his most dynamic compositions held me in its sway.

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The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, 1661-62

 

Rembrandt A
Portrait of man in Oriental garment, 1635
Rembrandt C
Old Woman reading – Prophetess Hannah, 1631
Rembrandt B
Portrait of Maria Trip, 1639

I was observing Rembrandt using the position of the painting to suggest the composition; light to signify the subject ( the hand and book in the Woman Reading, the captain and the little girl in The Night Watch); dark shadows to fuse the surroundings highlighting the subject and making sure they do not some in its way; and brush strokes and paint thickness (as in the turban of the Man in oriental garment) to suggest texture.

Rembrandt D
The Night Watch, 1642
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The Night Watch, study on composition

If Rembrandt created a drama through his paintings, there was Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) who created a very different kind of tension in his paintings. Usually within the stability of a square canvas, he paints a seemingly tranquil moment from everyday life, only the centre of focus betraying the tension around which the whole painting revolves. Vermeer’s brilliance was in creating this tug of war between calm and force that charges the painting with an emotion that extends beyond the canvas. If Rembrandt was enacting a drama through his dynamism, Vermeer was showing us a drama in its seemingly still contemplative but highly charged paintings!

Vermeer 1
The Milkmaid, 1657-58

The works of Pieter de Hooch (1629-84), first introduced to me by my design professor, appealed to me greatly for their architectural content – the careful orchestration of overlapping frames and layering. Architecturally, the overlapping of frames and axes, a concept favorite to Le Corbusier and many other architects, create a richness of experience. The works of Pieter de Hooch is a study in that richness especially his proportion of the frames in simple ratios and the frames themselves overlapping with each other successively creating a spiral.

Pieter Hooch 1
Mother’s Duty, 1658-60
Pieter Hooch 2
Man handing a letter to a woman, 1670
Rijks museum
The wonderful world of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Having not completed even one-third of the museum in a whole day, I left as one of the last to leave the museum. So I had to hop on to another great party location – the Van Gogh museum during Friday evenings, with drinks parties, DJs and drawing events all within the museum, alongside Van Gogh!

The atmosphere inside the Van Gogh museum was so unlike a typical museum. If only all museums can inculcate such an atmosphere of ease and pleasure! Also the recognition and the culture of museum as a place of learning and discourse is an idea that I would like to take back with me. Hours went like minutes as I was absorbed into the multiple worlds the canvas enticed me to enter.

I had a peep into the fantastical world of some of the great paintings ever produced! Not all the time in the world is enough for me to satisfy my hunger for admiring such works of beauty. As hungry and greedy as I am for such experiences, many such visits will continue. In the works that I’ve seen, I didn’t see paint on canvas but the brush wielded to create emotions that are timeless!

 

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 29 January 2016