Cosmos: working notes, 1

Michael Nielsen
February 16, 2022

One of the books and TV series I most admire, and which has had most impact on my life, is Carl Sagan's Cosmos. For decades I've had an instinct that I'd like to attempt something in the same general space (loosely speaking!). I've slowly accumulated related material, but never made concrete plans. In these rough working notes I collect some of this material. Much of it is fan commentary, thinking about things I especially like, and trying to understand how, if at all, they fit in. Long and meandering scratching around, but also: a genuine increment in my thinking about a possible project. Thoughtful comments and suggestions are very welcome!

The pale blue dot

The pale blue dot is a famous photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, when it was 3.7 billion miles from the Earth:

Carl Sagan reflects on the photograph in a famous passage in his book of the same name, "Pale Blue Dot":

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.

But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

I find this an astonishing passage, especially when narrated aloud by Sagan:

Denis Diderot observed in theatrical actors a kind of dual consciousness. To act well, it helps greatly if they come to be their characters, experiencing the emotions and desires of their characters as deeply as possible. But they are simultaneously conscious of themselves one step removed, as actors. I am not an actor, but have sometimes been asked to fulfill roles (host, emcee, usher, and so on) that seem to require a similar dual consciousness.

Three testimonies to this dual consciousness:

(1) The World War 1 movie 1917 featured exceptionally long shots, sometime 5-10 minutes. One of the lead actors said he sometimes became so immersed during long shots that he experienced shock when the shot finished, and he realized that he was not, in fact, a soldier in the trenches in 1917.

(2) The comedian Rowan Atkinson has remarked that sometimes when performing on stage a performance will start to "run away with itself… sometimes there's an extraordinary moment when it sort of tips over the other side and runs away from you, and actually you are no longer in charge of the performance."

(3) Michael Caine was asked how he remembered lines, and observed that when a script is exceptionally well written, you become so immersed in the reality of the scene that it becomes possible to "read your lines off the other character's face".

Sagan fosters a related dual consciousness in readers in his passage. Over and over we switch between two vastly different points of view: in one, he is deeply empathetic and warmly human:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

But he also repeatedly switches to another point of view, in which humanity is tiny and insignificant. And then he will switch back again to the human level. This repeats multiple times, powerfully juxtaposing two vastly different points of view, points of view in what might seem superficially like strong conflict. The net effect is an expansion of consciousness, as you begin to merge these two types of consciousness.

(I'm conflating "points of view" with "consciousness" in those last paragraphs. I won't insist on either term. But, very roughly and speculatively, when a powerful point of view is inhabited deeply enough it sometimes becomes a consciousness. And Sagan achieves something close to that. Perhaps the term "consciousness" should be treated aspirationally!)

One of my favorite things is what I call "syncresis"1, in which two (or more) apparently opposed points of view are seen to really be instances of a single more powerful point of view. An example is the neo-Darwinian synthesis. In the early days of evolutionary theory, there were two schools of thought: the Darwinians, who believed in the primacy of evolution by natural selection; and the Mendelians, who believed in the primacy of genetics. It wasn't until the neo-Darwinian synthesis in the 1920s that it was realized that there was a more powerful point of view in which genetics could be the mechanism underlying evolution. Two points of view which had previously been seen as in opposition or (at the very least) tension were, in fact, special cases of a more powerful point of view.

That's an intellectual example. In the pale blue dot passage, it seems to me that Sagan is providing not just an intellectual syncresis, but also a syncresis of consciousness, of two remarkably different points of of view. And I wonder with what other "opposed" points of view this may be attempted.

Another example of this kind of syncresis, very nice albeit more commonplace, is this shot from the trailer for the movie Interstellar:

There's a great comment in Mascelli's book on cinematography, where he notes:

The audience may be positioned anywhereinstantly to view anything from any angle — at the discretion of the cameraman and film editor. Such is the power of the motion picture! Such is the importance of choosing the right camera angle!

The Interstellar shot uses this idea to great effect, juxtaposing two worlds often thought to be in tension, creating another (much more limited) syncresis of consciousness. You can view the pale blue dot photograph also as an example of this, too, albeit with the additional frisson of knowing the shot is real.

Part of the reason the pale blue dot photo exists is because Sagan was a member of Voyager team. In his account, he was inspired by the famous "Blue Marble" photograph of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts:

He reflected deeply on that shot: how it erased national boundaries; how small it made so many human concerns and achievements seem. And he had the insight that a shot from Voyager, so much further away, would yield yet another point of view. This was done in spite of considerable technical obstacles, and opposition by some team members:

Many in NASA’s Voyager Project were supportive… [but] Although the spacecraft were in the right spots, the instruments were still working beautifully, and there were no other pictures to take, a few project personnel opposed it. It wasn’t science, they said… At the last minute—actually, in the midst of the Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune—the then NASA Administrator, Rear Admiral Richard Truly, stepped in and made sure that these images were obtained.

Sagan was a world renowned astronomer and astrophysicist, a member of the Voyager team, with enough influence to convince the team to, in his words, "turn the cameras around". But he needed astonishing insight and visual imagination to conceive of turning the cameras around. And then the passage itself is beautiful. Elegant, barely a word wasted. It requires immense empathy, marrying insight about human beings with insight about our place in the cosmos. I find it an astonishing combination of skills.

Hubris: A comment on the remainder of these notes: as always in discussing any prospective creative project there is a sense of hubris and embarrassment. "Who am I to be considering any of this?" It feels ludicrous. This is especially true when one is considering "grand" themes! But with many of these questions, we don't get any choice: we are, all of us, confronting them at some level. And so I think there's some benefit to me personally (if no-one else!) in considering what might be involved in a project of this sort. And if others might get some benefit too, wonderful. And, of course, some will dislike anything I make (and will no doubt dislike these notes); that's fine too.

Doubt and uncertainty and not knowing

There is a clip of Richard Feynman being interviewed for a BBC documentary. He's asked about religion, and he stumbles around for a bit. It's evident that he's deeply engaged, but also unsure in his thinking – the sense is of a person thinking aloud about something they think is important, but where his thinking is perhaps changing, or still being formed.

There is an interesting moment, however, at which he transitions to talking much more confidently, about what he refers to as the value in "doubt and uncertainty and not knowing":

What is really striking, to me, is the depth of Feynman's feeling. This is something very close to the core of him2:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing…I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell…possibly.

I'm certain Feynman could talk for hours about doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. For him, this was foundational.

There's a striking inversion here. People sometimes talk about the loss of religion as creating a sense of "doubt and uncertainty", of "being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose". And they speak of it as though it's a genuine loss. And yet Feynman, I believe, has turned this loss into a lynchpin of his life, not something to gloss over or ignore, but rather a foundation upon which to build. I wish I could talk to him far more about this. I suspect many scientists have something of this sense (I do); but I doubt many have thought it through as much as Feynman's conviction implies he had.

I suspect this inversion pattern is a common one: taking something which has been "lost" in the transition from religious belief to secularism, and turning it into something fundamental, a foundation on which to build.

In Lois Bujold's novel "Shards of Honor" there is a remarkable first meeting between two characters. One, a dying Emperor, asks the other what it is that she sees in her new husband. Here's the back and forth:

I suppose—I see myself. Or someone like myself. We're both looking for the same thing. We call it by different names, and look in different places. I believe he calls it honor. I guess I'd call it the grace of God. We both come up empty, mostly.

Ah, yes. I recall from your file that you are some sort of theist. I am an atheist, myself. A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days.

Yes, I have often felt the pull of it myself.

Again, the inversion of the conventional view: "A simple faith, but a great comfort to me, in these last days". It makes me wonder to what extent it is possible to enumerate many of the supposed drawbacks of atheism or secular humanism, and double down on them as the foundation of a worldview.

The physicist Steven Weinberg once wrote that "the more the Universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless". He received a lot of criticism, and seemed to me (somewhat) apologetic. But I wonder if instead he might have doubled down, and tried to turn this point of view into a virtue, a basis for further thought. I don't know how that would be done – it might fail. But with sufficient imagination, perhaps it might succeed.

I've been harping here on religion. Which is peculiar: while religion is a strong theme in Cosmos, it's not a dominant theme. Still, I have this instinct that Cosmos is appealing to the same need within human beings. And so I keep coming back to it. Or maybe I'm just interested in religion! One superficially appealing thing about the Christian Bible is that the creator of the universe is, apparently, also deeply concerned with your individual behavior (did you pay your neighbor fairly for their goats?) And when you realize that Christian cosmology is bonkers, it cleaves the cosmological and the individual3. Cosmos seems like a (partial) attempt to put them back together, in a different and much more satisfying way. But I wonder what else might be done.

An expanded sense of the numinous

A beautiful thing about Cosmos is that you get to see through Sagan's eyes. You see, in part, what he sees. And it's a remarkable, enlarging view of the universe.

There's a related phenomenon, which I think of as "science porn" or "science-as-superstimulus" – people sharing pretty images of galaxies, biological nanomachines, anything which can evoke a "wow" response. Sagan sometimes did it: his "billions and billions" had this flavor. It's become more common in recent years, in science documentaries, and science on social media.

I have an instinctive revulsion against science-as-superstimulus. Part of it is because of the crass self-interested commercialization: many people have figured out this is a way they can sell tshirts and coffee mugs. Part of it is because it is so often tribal, people who exult in being on "team science", a way of feeling superior, or a club they can wield for power.

It's tempting to respond to such snottiness with more snottiness, to demand instead an expansion in precise articulated understanding. To claim that "billions and billions" isn't real understanding, but "merely" an aesthetic. That a genuine understanding would be knowledge of the actual sizes of the galaxies, perhaps an ability to explain the cosmic distance ladder in detail, and so on.

I suspect there is a much more productive point of view.

After all: an aesthetic understanding is a genuine understanding. To know that a galaxy is beautiful, to recognize the image, is an expansion of our thought. The mere fact that "wow, awesome!" has been co-opted doesn't mean that response is intrinsically bad. Not at all! It's confusing effect with cause.

In general, it's interesting to think about works which expand people's sense of the numinous4, and how they do it. Cosmos does it. The Feynman Lectures does it. Perhaps A Brief History of Time did5. I suspect this is much of the appeal of Rembrandt; certainly, it is for me. I do not respond nearly as strongly to Bach, but I suspect that is what people are responding to in Bach, as well. It's something I enjoy about Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Nearly Everything too.

I've written a little about this in my essay The Artist and the Machine: "super-realist art, art which doesn’t just capture what we can see directly with our eyes or hear with our ears, but which uses new sensors and methods of visualization to reveal a world that we cannot directly perceive." There is something very powerful in a representation of a galaxy, or the ribosome, or a fly's eye. When shown these things, we instinctively grok that there are new kinds of powerful pattern underlying them. And I suspect that's the reason they work as superstimuli. A spiral galaxy looks like almost nothing else you have ever seen; there are deep reasons for the spiral pattern (and for why it fades in older galaxies). You ought to respond strongly: you're seeing a novel and important pattern in the world, even if you don't know what it is. It's expanding your sense of the numinous.

One very great challenge and opportunity is mathematics. There are few things more astonishing and beautiful, both intrinsically, and also for the role they play in our universe. In Sagan's novel Contact the main character asks a theoretical physicist if he had ever had a transforming religious experience:

"Yes," he said.

"When?" Sometimes you had to encourage him to talk.

"When I first picked up Euclid. Also when I first understood Newtonian gravitation. And Maxwell's equations, and general relativity. And during my work on superunification. I have been fortunate enough to have had many religious experiences."

I do not, of course, know what Sagan intended by this passage. But certainly there is something glorious, a sense of some vastly expanded external reality, when one understands geometry, Newtonian gravitation, or general relativity6. In general, mathematics and science are amazing sources of the numinous. People often talk about a benefit of religion as being developing a sense of something larger than one's self; it's true of science, as well.

Unfortunately, there is a tremendous challenge here: most people are not able to do mathematics. Some of this is certainly that they have not really experienced it. I suspect many people are vastly more mathematically able than they realize. It would be interesting to try to create an experience of that. 3Blue1Brown, Vi Hart and a few others have done beautiful work in that direction. It's fun to ponder how much further one might go.

The foundation in belief

Alan Watts has observed that secular people often believe in the value of deeply held religious beliefs. But believing in belief is not enough. You actually need to believe.

I meet a fair number of secular people who make up rituals, fables, traditions. And it often (not always) seems wrong to me. They are tremendously sincere people, searching. And yet they are often making stuff up in imitation of the past. They are not asking: what are my deepest beliefs? Unless and until they do so their rituals will seem lame. They're searching for Yahweh. Like Govinda in Hesse's Siddhartha, they're looking for someone to tell them the answer, rather than exploring what they actually believe.

This is one of the things I enjoy about Feynman on "doubt and uncertainty and not knowing". Ditto Jonathan Blow's video game "The Witness". Or Penrose's "Road to Reality". Or for that matter, Sagan in "Cosmos". In each case they are doubling down and exploring beliefs that are important to them, personally. There's a sincerity in it that you can feel. Even when I disagree with it, or find it foreign to my own sensibility, I can still sense it. Tremendous, sincere interest, founded in some of their deepest beliefs, and then developed as far as they can go.

This is perhaps connected with why I get so little out of (much, not all) philosophy or theology. It often seems like dry intellectualizing. The mathematician Littlewood observed that he didn't see why a study of ethics should have any impact on whether one behaved poorly or well; this seems a damning critique to me. The writers of such dry tracts may well be smart, but they do not necessarily seem wise; wisdom seems to arise, in part, from making difficult decisions, and from sacrifice and struggle. When you hear from people like Simone Weil or Hannah Arendt, the moral philosophy has teeth. They may be wrong, but it is hard won, something they've given their life to. It's not cheap talk, not at all. I have some doubts about my own ability to contribute, in this regard: while my life has not been without challenges, it has been relatively easy compared to many7. It's something I admire in Sagan's work: his engagement with science is deep and humane and interconnects multiple areas of science, history, and his own experience of life and empathy for other people.

Grayling

A very interesting experiment is A. C. Grayling's "The Good Book". Grayling is a British philosopher and humanist. The idea of "The Good Book" is to be a "work of insight, wisdom, solace, and commentary on the human condition drawn from the world's great humanist traditions… an epic stimulating narrative that ultimately reveals how life – a good life – should be lived."

I admire Grayling for writing the book. But I don't much enjoy it. Line by line it seems unfelt – there seems, to me, to be a lack of connection between Grayling and his material. To use the conventional metaphor, it's a work of the mind, not of the heart. It suffers the problem I described above, being at a dry remove from its own material. It's more a collection of crossword puzzles than life and death.

Still, reading (part of) it stimulated some useful observations.

Much of the book is adapted from more than 1,000 sources – writers like Emerson, Epictetus, and Epicurus. The material is organized along lines similar to the Christian Bible, into Genesis, Songs, Parables, and so on. The style is curious. Here is the beginning of the book of Epistles:

  1. My dear son: you must begin by having a true estimate of our human species,

  2. Before you can begin to formulate how you will advance yourself to being one of the better specimens of it.

  3. That will be the purpose of these letters to you, as you take your journey among people and places,

  4. So that you can combine your experience of them with the experience I offer you.

  5. There are those who exalt the human species to the skies, and represent man as a paragon;

  6. And there are those who insist on the worst of human nature, and can discover nothing except vanity and folly in man, making him no better than other animals.

  7. A delicate sense of morals is apt to give one a disgust of the world, and to make one consider the common course of human affairs with indignation and dislike.

  8. For my part I think that those who view mankind favorably and sympathetically do more to promote virtue than those who have a mean opinion of human nature.

I agree with the sentiment. But Grayling is using deliberately archaic language, with unusual choices of meter. I doubt he thinks this way, or has much experience writing this way. And, unsurprisingly, he's not very good at it. I'd guess he's aping some kind of style. It's as though he's writing a book in a language he only knows poorly. Doing so makes it harder to think well. As an experiment, it's interesting and admirable. As a reader, it doesn't work: it creates an artificial barrier, and once you pierce that barrier it turns to be uninteresting. If you rewrite the above passage without the archaic embellishments it becomes:

It's tempting to overly exalt or overly demonize human nature. But it helps us be better people if we view humankind favorably and sympathetically, rather than having a negative opinion.

Not entirely uninteresting, though also not especially interesting. There are vastly better (and much richer) ways of exploring such ideas.

As Susan Rigetti put it on Twitter, commenting on this passage: "oof this is so much fluff".

Context matters. It's a curious exercise to compare Grayling to the Sermon on the Mount. It's possible to attempt a critique of the Sermon along similar lines: that much of what it contains is platitudes. However: I cannot believe that at the time they were platitudes. Rather, they must have been radical, fresh ideas. And even today some of the ideas still seem new. In the context of the Bible, the whole thing seems the product of a mind or minds extended to their uttermost limit. I find myself deeply moved by the Sermon; I'm mostly frustrated by "The Good Book". I believe Grayling needed to metabolize his sources8 far more deeply, to get that same freshness.

Indeed, Sagan did this kind of metabolization. Compare "the pale blue dot" to this passage from Huygens "Cosmotheoros":

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.

I am quite certain that Sagan, a fan of Huygens, was consciously drawing on these ideas and language in writing his famous passage. On Twitter, I mentioned this and one journalist's conclusion was that Sagan "fucking plagiarized Christiaan Huygens". I agree that Sagan should have cited Huygens in endnotes as inspiration (he does not, although he does cite Huygens multiple times elsewhere in the book). But otherwise this is a small-minded conclusion9. Sagan was metabolizing and reimagining ideas of fundamental importance, from great thinkers of earlier times. Pausing to obey academic citation norms within the body of the text would merely be distracting. Lincoln did not credit Euclid in the Gettysburg Address; nor should he have.

People who believe they should like the book: Reading the reviews, many people admire Grayling's book. I wonder if this is mostly people who believe they should like the idea of the book? Perhaps I am simply not the intended audience. I will say this: there are many single lines which are interesting to reflect upon. But as a narrative it does not work. Grayling has not metabolized the canon of ideas he is drawing upon.

Sketching

Just sketchin' some ideas! Noodling on overall themes, and spitballing particular ideas. Many of these might also be subthemes, or subessays in some larger work. It'd be possible to weave many of these themes together, with the right overarching question or theme.

The remainder of these notes are much more scratchy than even what is written above; you may wish to skim or skip entirely! Just me, messing around with ideas!

I certainly don't know enough to sketch a book or any other media form here. I don't have an overall narrative. And even if I did I would need to make various small essays first, to deepen my understanding. Lots of rough notes, building up to some more polished essays. And perhaps coupled with teaching – really, convening a small group of deeply thoughtful people with different backgrounds, and leading a discussion. Fun to plan out. Let me just do quick braindump here, a kind of prototype for a second pass.

"I am become death, destroyer of worlds" Trinity. Hiroshima. The origin in symbols: the energy-mass relation. What is the actual source of energy? How marks on paper enabled us to end humanity. The Hydrogen bomb. What are those marks, anyway? How do marks on paper have power? Galileo. What is mathematics? Why are we able to understand the world? Existential threats. Toba. How should we think about them? How can we deal with them?

Doubt and uncertainty and not knowing: Myth and magic. Magic into science. Newton as the last of the magicians. Why is freedom of enquiry so important? Why is it opposed? The myth and reality of Bruno and Galileo. Nullius in verba. Decentralization and the idea machine. Confusion. The history of ignorance and new ways of knowing. The history of edict and infallibility. Doubt and uncertainty and not knowing as a firmer foundation.

Becoming transhuman: The underlying tension and project of the 21st century may be that it's the century in which humanity becomes posthuman. Technology is changing our individual and collective minds; it is changing our reproduction; it is giving us far more agency over and insight into our bodies and minds; it has given us the ability to end life on earth; it may give us the capacity to create successor minds. How should we respond to that? What does a humane transhumanism look like?

Life of a proton: From birth to (possible) death.

Two cheers for technocracy: Benefits. I, Pencil, and Hayekian hidden knowledge. Capital, truth, evolution, and ethics as (competing!) orienting forces. What technology actually does. Technopoly. Science and technology in relation to power. Why the military doesn't rule. Collective action. Is there a world possible in which we public goods abound? Perhaps merged in with the next:

Unequal: Inequality is a pervasive theme in history: some have, some do not. And yet it's changing rapidly at the moment. Much of this is well known (emergence of more winner-take-all dynamics, globalization, urbanization, human rights). Other parts seem less discussed (globalization of perception). Related to:

The moral quandaries posed by increased self-knowledge: A particularly pressing instance is behavioral genetics, which is exerting slow but inexorably increasing pressure on our notions of responsibility and fairness and justice. But there are many other problems, too. We are East Africans Plains apes, and this causes so many problems and tensions.

Acceleration: Living in an age of future shock. The Amish. The Sabbath. The past, present, and future being unequally distributed. The wave phenomenon (vastly disparate speeds of waves and constituent particles) has implications for human systems too. Durkheim, anomie, alienation, and the division of labor. The hikimori.

Thoughts as emergent properties of symbol systems

An expanded sense of the numinous [probably a theme]

All our knowledge: A panorama. I sometimes wonder what "The Feynman Lectures" look like if it's for "all" our fundamental knowledge? (For some value of "all"). Not an encyclopedia (which has a rather dull affect and remit), but something vastly more opinionated?

Syncresis (theme): James Burke did "Connections". I'm more interested in tensions, understanding and resolving them.

Other themes and questions and values: What is good? An emotional and cognitive experience of science. The Long News. The Long View. How we know, what we know. What is the right relationship between science and power? Superhero problems: how to deal with power? How to deal with powerlessness? What is conversation for? What's better than democracy? What do I most deeply believe? What is the relationship between awe and science? Revealing hidden beauty and hidden connections. Not shying away from the uncomfortable. Experiencing how we come to know. Providing aesthetic and emotional and intellectual experiences. Find what I have a strong emotional response to; find what I believe; and find the unusual, things where I sense I'm making some creative contribution, no matter how oddball.

Observations on Process

Study, don't imitate: I'm tempted to over-index on examples I like. I certainly could not have written Cosmos or etc. In part it's because those people have different skills than I do. But at least equally it's because their taste is very different. You need to trust and deepen your own taste as much as possible, not rely on someone else's. Indeed, in some sense Cosmos (and much of Sagan's work) is a thing of my past. I still enjoy large sections, and I'm in awe of certain pieces (like pale blue dot). But I am not a spellbound 8 year old, either.

Heroes and inspirations for this type of work: Melodysheep; Grant Sanderson; Vi Hart; Jonathan Blow; Richard Feynman; Carl Sagan; E. O. Wilson; Bryan Moriarty; Christopher Nolan; Cirque du Soleil; Nightwish; Roger Penrose, especially "The Emperor's New Mind" (wrong, but absolutely wonderful) and "The Road to Reality"; Simone Weil; Po Bronson's "What should I do with my life?"; Rembrandt; Picasso; Technopoly; the Long Now; Stewart Brand (inc that short); Brian Eno; Meow Wolf; Sleep No More; Bret Victor; David Chapman.

Music. Motion. Images: Media form matters, enormously. It changes the type of experience you can have. The range of emotion; the range of understanding; the sense of immersion; the sense of agency. To some extent there are simply tradeoffs here, or tensions. But examples like Grant Sanderson and Nightwish show that the tradeoffs may be much more malleable than is commonly assumed.

Outsider art: There's a strange category error common here. People tend to divide stuff up into "pop science / pop writing" and "expert writing". I am not an expert on most of the things mentioned above. So by default it's easy to slot oneself in as pop science. But I have little interest in pop science, and little in exposition for its own sake. What I have a great deal of interest in is making creative contributions that are a little different than any existing discipline. You see this in Cosmos; indeed, it's in many of the examples I've given. They are solving genuine creative problems that the authors had, not "mere"10 exposition. In some sense they're all outsider art. On insider terms they may not be so good, or they may fail. But they're not solving the same problems; they're actually solving problems the insiders would never even think to solve, indeed, might not even perceive.

Writing as the core: I love art and music and film. I believe I have some taste for them. But I am not a creator in those mediums. This has bugged me as I consider this project. But I rewatched Cosmos as an adult, and quickly realized: this is an (extremely good) university lecture. The foundation is that Sagan knows how to write about science. The other stuff – the music, the images, the staging – greatly enhances it. But Cosmos's animating force is the quality of the underlying writing. It's striking to contrast to Planet Earth, which is marvelous, but has terrible-to-mediocre writing. In Planet Earth it's the images which are the animating force. Or consider Nightwish, where the core is music and operatic staging. And so I must make writing the core of any project: while I'd need to improve my writing a great deal, at least I can write. And, with the right collaborators, maybe it's possible to do something magical with music and film, too.

(There's always an awkward self-consciousness writing about the quality of one's writing. Let me do the obligatory throat clearing: these notes are, of course, hastily written thinking aloud, and in consequence are poorly written.)

Writing as creating a sense of consciousness: Edwin Schlossberg puts it well: "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." Indeed, not just other people, but also the writer. One extreme form of this idea is that the skill of writing is to create a particular consciousness in the mind of the reader. This is true of other media forms, too. Helping others see as you see; helping others experience the world in a particular way. The important question is often not "what is the book about?" but rather "what sense of consciousness does it create?" This is, in my opinion, especially true of great books (and music and film and etc). Pride and Prejudice, Gatsby, Les Mis, and so on: in each case, you enter this amazing world, and your consciousness changes. What types of consciousness can one evoke in people?

Footnotes


  1. This is a term I've used mostly privately for years, a variation of "syncretism" or "syncretic thought", but one applicable more broadly than is usually the case for those terms. It's perhaps arguable that I should use the more familiar term "synthesis". But I have come to like "syncresis", since it carries the additional implication that the points of view are opposed or in strong tension. "Synthesis" is often used for things which are merely not obviously connected, with no implication that they are opposed. Quantum computing is, for example, a synthesis of quantum mechanics and computer science; but there's no a priori suggestion that they are in tension. It's not a syncresis.↩︎

  2. Quotes of this often omit the final "possibly", but it's perhaps my favorite part.↩︎

  3. The fusion of these is a curious solution to the is/ought problem. It's a solution advocated by many religions. When the creator of the universe tells you that you ought to do something, you do it!↩︎

  4. I use the term "numinous" a little differently than Rudolph Otto, to whom the term (in its modern sense) is usually attributed. He had explicitly religious overtones; I'm happy for that to be replaced by a sense of connection to some much larger whole. It might, perhaps, be called a Spinozan view of the numinous!↩︎

  5. In the case of A Brief History of Time, I wonder if it's a response to being in the presence of someone seriously engaged with important issues. I saw a similar pattern with public talks given by Roger Penrose: attendees seemed grateful to simply be in the presence of someone who had given their life to such questions, even if they didn't necessarily follow details.↩︎

  6. Personally, I found the Maxwell-Lorentz equations rather less satisfying. It's true that there are many beautiful things about them, but many ugly things are also quite evident.↩︎

  7. The thought "I should suffer more" is, perhaps, not an entirely healthy one. It my highlight a shortcoming of my argument above. Everyone has some struggles and tribulations in life. But when I read certain dry philosophy, I wonder to what extent it is being engaged in as as a refuge from life, not informed by life. That seems a mistake.↩︎

  8. Adapted from Cory Booker's beautiful instruction to "metabolize your blessings".↩︎

  9. There's a fascinating similar accusation sometimes leveled at Martin Luther King, including his most famous phrase: "I have a dream". King was, as far as I understand it, rightly criticized for the way he used sources in academic work. But in his speeches it's a feature, not a bug. He was a vessel, a focusing agent, for a vision and set of ideas going far beyond any individual. Academic norms about citation are inappropriate, indeed, irrelevant, in such a context. It's interesting to compare with the Gettysburg Address, which has many of the same qualities: another great civilizational text, this time with Lincoln as the focusing agent. In both cases the ideas could only be brought together by an orator and thinker of genius who had reflected very deeply upon the issues.↩︎

  10. I dislike the dismissiveness implied by "mere". Indeed, it's almost an oxymoron. But it is true that I get bored very, very rapidly with exposition. I always need to be exploring from an unusual point of view. I guess that may come off like it's trying to be a virtue, but it's really just a personality characteristic: it amuses me far more to explore a weird point of view.↩︎

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