If you remember (from RC 1st session), before reading any non-fiction book, we’re first supposed to preview it. Here’s a brief summary of how to preview a book:
Title / Sub-title (if any)
Blurb (behind or inside left of the cover)
Preface / Introduction
Table of Contents:
Browse for anything that strikes our, e.g. Figures, tables, pictures, sub-headings, things written in bold, etc.
Last paragraphs of three to four chapters.
Last 1 or 2 chapters.
The title of the book under discussion is Cosmos. Cosmos means: the universe seen as a well-ordered whole. So it seems this book is going to be about our Universe.
There is no blurb behind this book. Only reviews. However, one of them tells us what this book is about:
COSMOS is like the college course in science you always wanted to take but never knew a professor could teach… Sagan writes beautifully… and a range that touches almost all aspects of human knowledge…
The bold parts clearly tell us what this book is about.
Here are some important extracts from the introduction:
Page xvi, 2nd para:
Today we have discovered a powerful and elegant way to understand the universe, a method called science; it has revealed to us a universe so ancient and so vast that human affairs seem at first sight to be of little consequence.
The most basic human events and the most trivial trace back to the universe and its origins. This book is devoted to the exploration of that cosmic perspective.
Pay attention to the last sentence in bold. It tells us the motive of the author in writing this book.
Page xvii, 2nd para:
It is dedicated to the proposition that the public is far more intelligent than it has generally been given credit for; that the deepest scientific questions on the nature and origin of the world excite the interests and passions of enormous numbers of people. The present epoch is a major crossroads for our civilization and perhaps for our species. Whatever road we take, our fate is indissolubly bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science. In addition, science is a delight; evolution has arranged that we take pleasure in understanding—those who understand are more likely to survive. The Cosmos television series and this book represent a hopeful experiment in communicating some of the ideas, methods and joys of science.
The next paragraph tells us the author’s methods:
This book goes more deeply into many topics than does the television series. There are topics discussed in the book which are not treated in the television series and vice versa.
The next paragraph carries on explaining the book’s structure:
For clarity, I have in a number of cases introduced an idea more than once—the first time lightly, and with deeper passes on subsequent appearances. This occurs, for example, in the introduction to cosmic objects in Chapter 1, which are examined in greater detail later on; or in the discussion of mutations, enzymes and nucleic acids in Chapter 2. In a few cases, concepts are presented out of historical order. For example, the ideas of the ancient Greek scientists are presented in Chapter 7, well after the discussion of Johannes Kepler in Chapter 3.
This tells us what some of the chapters are about.
The last paragraph on page xviii tells us some excursions the author has taken in the book. This is how it begins:
Because science is inseparable from the rest of the human endeavor, it cannot be discussed without making contact, sometimes glancing, sometimes head-on, with a number of social, political, religious and philosophical issues.
The rest of the introduction talks about all the exciting stuff that’s going on in science and the more exciting stuff that the future holds. This is how it ends:
Our technology is increasingly permitting us to explore the wonders of the Cosmos and to reduce the Earth to chaos. We are privileged to live in, and if we are lucky to influence, one of the most critical epochs in the history of the human species.
Table of Contents:
The table of contents of this book are a mixed bag. Some are clear while others not so.
I The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
II One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
III The Harmony of Worlds
IV Heaven and Hell
V Blues for a Red Planet
VI Travelers’ Tales
VII The Backbone of Night
VIII Travels in Space and Time
IX The Lives of the Stars
X The Edge of Forever
XI The Persistence of Memory
XII Encyclopaedia Galactica
XIII Who Speaks for Earth?
Appendix 1: Reductio ad Absurdum
and the Square Root of Two
Appendix 2: The Five Pythagorean
For Further Reading
As you may recall, the index of a book tells us what are the important terms and names as far as this book is concerned. What things has the author focused more on. This can be easily figured by seeing which terms, concepts or names have more reference page numbers than others. In Cosmos, some of these important terms or names you might have seen are:
Africa Alexandria Astronomy Atmosphere of Earth
Brain Carbon Cells China Comets
Cosmos Craters Earth
Einstein, Albert Evolution Extra-terrestrial visitors
Galaxies Galileo Galilei Gravity Greek Civilization
Helium Human beings Huygens, Christiaan
Hydrogen Jupiter Kepler, Johannes Life on Earth
Life on other worlds Light Mars Milky Way
Moon Newton, Isaac Nuclear Weapons Planets
Saturn Science fiction Soviet Union Stars
Sun Supernovae United States Universe Venus
Viking Mission to Mars Whales
In terms of text there’s nothing that really stands out in this book. No sub-heading. There are a few figures here and there. For e.g.
On page 7:
From the shadow length in Alexandria, the angle A can be measured. But from simple geometry (“if two parallel straight lines are transected by a third line, the alternate interior angles are equal”), angle B equals angle A. So by measuring the shadow length in Alexandria, Eratosthenes concluded that Syene was A = B = 7° away on the circumference of the Earth.
This tells us how someone was able to measure distances in the cosmos using basic geometry.
Then on page 49;
Kepler’s second law: A planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times. It takes as long to travel from B to A as from F to E as from D to C; and the shaded areas BSA, FSE and DSC are all equal.
This tells us something about Kepler’s second law.
Then there are a few coloured photographs right in the middle of the book. These are quite informative.
Conclusions of few chapters:
This also has be a totally random step. There is no method to this. You read the concluding paragraphs of chapters at random or of the ones that intrigue you – for whatever reason. I did it at random. Here’s what I found:
Chapter 2: One Voice In a Cosmic Fugue
Biology is more like history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand the present. And you have to know it in exquisite detail. There is as yet no predictive theory of biology, just as there is not yet a predictive theory of history. The reasons are the same: both subjects are still too complicated for us. But we can know ourselves better by understanding other cases. The study of a single instance of extraterrestrial life, no matter how humble, will deprovincialize biology. For the first time, the biologists will know what other kinds of life are possible. When we say the search for life elsewhere is important, we are not guaranteeing that it will be easy to find—only that it is very much worth seeking.
We have heard so far the voice of life on one small world only. But we have at last begun to listen for other voices in the cosmic fugue.
This tells us how biology is like history in that you understand the present based on the past and is almost unpredictable. However we can understand it better if we have other examples of life for e.g. extraterrestrial life.
As you may recall, the purpose of reading the last paragraphs of a few chapters is that it tells us what kind of conclusions is the author making. In knowing this, we figure out where the book is going to go. It’s themes, etc. In this case, the last para tells us that knowing something about life from outer space will help us understand life on Earth in a much better way.
Chapter 9: The Lives Of The Stars
The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions. We have made a preliminary reconnaissance and have encountered some of the inhabitants. A few of them resemble beings we know. Others are bizarre beyond our most unconstrained fantasies. But we are at the very beginning of our exploration. Past voyages of discovery suggest that many of the most interesting inhabitants of the galactic continent remain as yet unknown and unanticipated. Not far outside the Galaxy there are almost certainly planets, orbiting stars in the Magellanic Clouds and in the globular clusters that surround the Milky Way. Such worlds would offer a breathtaking view of the Galaxy rising—an enormous spiral form comprising 400 billion stellar inhabitants, with collapsing gas clouds, condensing planetary systems, luminous supergiants, stable middle-aged stars, red giants, white dwarfs, planetary nebulae, novae, supernovae, neutron stars and black holes. It would be clear from such a world, as it is beginning to be clear from ours, how our matter, our form and much of our character is determined by the deep connection between life and the Cosmos.
This tells us that there’s so much unknown in our galaxy and that there’s a deep connection between life and the Cosmos. As the title of the book is also Cosmos, we can expect this theme to be one of the more important ones in the book.
You can do this for one or two more chapters to get a rough idea of what kind of things are being discussed in this book and what kind of conclusions are being made.
The title of the last chapter Who Speaks For Earth? Itself tells us that it is going to be a summation.
Here’s how it begins:
The Cosmos was discovered only yesterday. For a million years it was clear to everyone that there were no other places than the Earth. Then in the last tenth of a percent of the lifetime of our species, in the instant between Aristarchus and ourselves, we reluctantly noticed that we were not the center and purpose of the Universe, but rather lived on a tiny and fragile world lost in immensity and eternity, drifting in a great cosmic ocean dotted here and there with a hundred billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars. We have bravely tested the waters and have found the ocean to our liking, resonant with our nature. Something in us recognizes the Cosmos as home. We are made of stellar ash. Our origin and evolution have been tied to distant cosmic events. The exploration of the Cosmos is a voyage of self-discovery.
And here’s how it ends:
For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.
These two paragraphs of the last chapter tell us in vivid detail what kind of book this is. What kind of themes would run across it? What kind of belief system does the author holds? If prepares us in a nice way for a more detailed reading of the book.
Please contribute to this in any way you can.
What else did you find out in any of the steps of the preview?
Is there anything you would want to add or subtract from this essay?
Can you come up with other interesting or important things that you learned from the intro?