'Cosmos': whether you liked it on TV or not, by all means read the book; Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. New York: Random House. $19.95
"Cosmos," the book, is as magnificent, challenging, and idiosyncratic as "Cosmos," the TV series. It is also a better product. Both are frankly billed as a personal statement -- one man's apologia for his faith called science. "Today, we have discovered a powerful and elegant way to understand the universe, a method called science . . . ," Carl- Sagan writes, adding that ". . . science has found not only that the universe has a reeling and ecstatic grandure, not only that it is accessible to human understanding, but also that we are, in a very real sense, a part of the Cosmos, born from it, our fate deeply connected with it."
Such is the "cosmic perspective" that is developed in a roughly parallel manner in the TV series and the book.
Unfortunately, the series is marred by lack of continuity, strained metaphor, and and air of self-conscious religiosity. The book suffers far less from such faults. It can explore its subjects more deeply. Moreover, readers, unlike TV viewers, can go back over the ground if they feel left behind by a sudden leap from one lofty concept to the next. There are no distracting visual gimmicks such as that ubiquitous spiked blob -- one forgets it is supposed to be a dandelion seed leading us across the cosmos. And the genuine excitement of the new astronomy is not diluted by a musical background that seems more appropriate for a chapel than an observatory.
This is not to say that the TV series is all bad. It puts Dr. Sagan's message over powerfully, with much good scientific information and history of science along the way. But the book does it all better.
Not every scholar will agree with the Sagan approach. Although, for example, he says "probably," "perhaps," and "just maybe" when talking up his favorite theme of life on other worlds, one feels it would be churlish not to believe in it -- especially in the absence of any proof one way or the other. But scientists have a right to enthusiasm for their hypotheses, as long as they throw in those qualifiers, as Dr. Sagan is careful to do. Thus you can learn something about separating scientific speculation from fact, and have fun in the bargain.
One of the book's strengths is the way it traces today's knowledge and today's scientific method to their historical roots. Here, certainly, historians of science could find much to object to, for this is a subject prone to controversy. The gaps, omissions, and over- simplifications in the author's choice of antecedents and lines of development will rankle many a specialist. Yet there is validity in his treatment, if you remember that it is a personal view which helps you share in the perspective that an able, active, and enthusiastic scientist has for his profession.
It is this enthusiasm, plus Dr. Sagan's poetic insight and literary skill, that makes this an eminently worthwhile and readable book. Otherwise, quite frankly, the book would come across as overdone. It is as though he were publishing an extensive working paper on his way to refining his vision. His basic points are labored, the narrative too stretched out. One is left with the suspicion that less would actually be more.
I look forward to what the mature prophet will one day have to say, for I too share his faith. Meanwhile, whether you have seen the TV series or not -- whether you liked it or not -- by all means read the book.