Our sense of cosmic wonder lives on
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 20, 2014


“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise.”

— Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980.

As “Cosmos” is updated in a 2014 Fox TV weekly special, the gift of perspective seems to be a worthy goal, though I’d never consider our human concerns to be insignificant, much less petty. Because of our unique human quality of self-awareness, we know that each of us is the center of our own universe. This is at least as arguable as the once-popular theory that the earth is the center of the solar system, with the sun revolving ’round.

The earth is about 4.6 billion years old, which doesn’t seem like a high number, considering that we Americans are dealing with a national debt of $17.3 trillion. Further, a Harvard team has just validated theories about the Big Bang that created the universe, fewer than 14 billion years ago. If we had started spending a dollar a day at the beginning of the universe, we wouldn’t be anywhere near spending $17.3 trillion.

On the other hand, moving from the immense to the small, I’m told I have roughly 100 trillion cells in my body, so the national debt has a way to go to match THAT amount. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, my concern about the economic survival of our little corner of the universe could be considered relative, if I didn’t have relatives about whom to care.

Politically, my son and I are worlds apart. But when it comes to the cosmos, we are mentally bonded, as well as connected genetically to stardust, the rocks and all living creatures, including each other. We began our exploration of inner and outer space with the Madeleine L’Engle books that we read aloud to each other during his K-4 years. After we watched the original Cosmos together his junior year in high school, I bought him the book for Christmas and inscribed it:

“I once-upon-a-time wanted to create someone with whom to share the wonder of the Cosmos. (Not to mention a dog, a stereo, and a hamburg pizza.)

“Thank you for sharing.”

Now a vegetarian, he no longer has hamburger on his pizza, but we still occasionally share music, and our family again includes a dog, a yellow rescue Lab, as well as two grandchildren who will be watching the new “Cosmos” with their dad.

Once I got past seeing Barack Obama introduce the series, fortunately only a brief unpleasant moment in time, I found the new version intriguing, despite the new science moderator traveling around the universe in a rather hokey spaceship that reminds one of the Beatles in a “Yellow Submarine.”


“Cosmos” 2014 seems to introduce its subject carefully, as if aware that a Fox audience might not yet accept the latest scientific theories and need a gentle approach. The first hour uses cartoons to show the resistance of the Catholic government establishment to Copernicus, Galileo and especially Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake.

On the second night, the subject is the science of evolution. It begins with artificial selection, with a delightful depiction of early man taming a wolf and over the centuries breeding the many varieties of dog today. Moving on to natural selection, it acknowledges the difficulty people might have relating to a monkey, but then asks if it feels better to note one’s relationship to the majestic tree in which the monkey dwells. This is followed by an explanation of the genetic similarities of all living things, with the differences found only in a few of the many genes.

Then, impressively, it addresses the argument we most often hear from creationists, that it wouldn’t be possible to create an eye from natural selection. I never understood why not, but “Cosmos” 2014 acknowledged the question, then showed how it would have been done, with a mutation that allowed an early sea-dweller to “see” light, then shadows, then shapes, all advantageous to survival and passing on one’s genes.

I don’t remember what I was taught about the theory of evolution when I was in Catholic school; my first memory of the subject came from the play “Inherit the Wind,” about the so-called Scopes monkey trial. I loved the whole idea of evolving: could imagine myself the little creature that first crept from the sea, most likely to escape a predator, but I like to think reflecting curiosity. Then, I imagine myself coming down from the trees and learning to walk upright, learning to talk, becoming fully human, which I define as rational.

Using National Geographic’s Genome Project, I then followed my mother’s ancestors out of Africa, up around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, up through the Caucasus, eventually to Germany and Ireland, then on to America, until. . . .

What started with a curious little amphibian became my twin grandchildren, turning 13 this week: the crown of creation, the reason for it all since the miraculous Big Bang over 13 billion years ago.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle-Tribune newspapers.

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