Cosmos (1980– )
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One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue 

Carl Sagan examines the origin, development, and complexity of life on Earth and speculates on the possibility of life developing elsewhere in the universe.


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Episode credited cast:
Himself - Host
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Alan Belod ...
Jean Charney ...
Bill Grant ...
Bob Hevelone ...
Fourier (as Robert Lone)
Ronald A. Hilbert ...
Tinget Indian
Victor C. John ...
Tinget Indian
Arthur 'Lonne' Lane ...
Himself - Deputy Project Scientist
Linda Morabito ...
Herself - Voyager Navigation Team
Larry Soderblom ...
Himself - Voyager Imaging Team
Cecilia White ...
Tinget Indian


Carl Sagan examines the origin, development, and complexity of life on Earth and speculates on the possibility of life developing elsewhere in the universe.

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Release Date:

5 October 1980 (USA)  »

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[first lines]
Carl Sagan - Host: All my life, I've wondered about life beyond the earth. On those countless other planets that we think circle other suns, is there also life? Might the beings of other worlds resemble us, or would they be astonishingly different? What would they be made of? In the vast Milky Way galaxy, how common is what we call life? The nature of life on earth and the quest for life elsewhere are the two sides of the same question: the search for who we are.
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Duo Sonata in E, Op. 2 - No. 4
Composed by Georg Philipp Telemann
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User Reviews

The Origins of Life and Its Evolutionary History are an Eden Too
22 September 2009 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Carl Sagan densely speculates about the origins of life. I had to use a notepad, pen, and my rewind button to get a better sense of his fast succession of ideas in this episode. He begins with an extraordinary reflection on the importance of biology, for through the study of life here on earth and elsewhere in the cosmos we learn about ourselves. Life is probably not unique to earth and its permutations are possibly endless.

What amazing forms of life could we find in a gas giant, a Jupiter like planet? Would we find 'sinkers', 'floaters' (living balloons), 'beings the size of cities', and their 'hunters'? In other words we need to compare our unique tree of evolution to life's possibilities on other worlds to better explain us. Biology is most like history; it doesn't make precise predictions like physics does. History and biology are still too complicated for us to calculate and to make perfect sense of all the plausible variables. With the lack of predictive laws and models of science in biology, we must know our evolutionary and biological history in order to know us.

For similar reasons, he asserts evolution as a fact, not a theory. In a sense biology doesn't have traditional scientific theories; it records the immense diversity of life, the failed evolutionary experiments in the fossil record, and the lack of any humans in ancient rock records, which Carl Sagan says proves evolution is a brute fact of our biological history.

The admirable gambit of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue (#2)" is his theft of Eden. He sacrifices the pleasurable theory of a designer -- that the complexity of life implies an intelligent designer -- for his own version of Eden. His picture puts us in touch with all of nature and compares the unity of life to the beauty of music. He comments on our common heritage and life's common properties across the universe: 'All life on Earth is closely related. We have a common organic chemistry and common evolutionary heritage'.

'Are we the single voice for thousands of light years or is there a cosmic fugue playing the life music of the galaxy?', he asks in his poetic way of painting life as beautiful itself. So life doesn't require a designer or a mythology to turn it into an Eden. It's already an Eden. We only need to study and understand it to appreciate its 'music'.

Here is my list of three basic harmonies of life he mentions (for starters):

(1) Our organic chemistry might be a *common chemical reaction* that takes place on all suitable worlds across the cosmos (but simple life would be more common than complex and intelligent life; and we might find that some intelligent life out there is much greater in intelligence than us or at least very different from us). The Earth is about 4.5 billions years old. After the Earth's creation, life developed quickly thereafter for about 4 billion years. Is the development of life inevitable on a suitable planet? In his update at the end, he speculates whether RNA could be the first form of life and whether life originated from comet impacts.

Life may require *widespread characteristics*: 'organic molecules form the basis of life as a complex microscopic architecture built around atoms of carbon'.

And he depicts a study out of Cornell University in which a scientist was able to produce *the seeds of life* in a bottle of basic hydrogen gases (methane, ammonium, and water vapor) and their combination with electrical charges (mimicking lightening), including proto nucleic acids and proto enzyme proteins. But life on earth has had 4 billion years to evolve, the bottle only 30 years, so we shouldn't expect a complex life form to crawl out of the bottle!

(2) The basic mechanism of evolution -- *natural selection* -- would be the same across the universe, such as the over production of offspring, the random mutations, and, perhaps, descent from a common ancestor (but on a different planet the beginning plan of life may be far different, including its evolutionary history, from ours).

(3) He finds similarities and kinship especially fascinating in our own evolutionary history. 'Biologists study a single biology, one lonely theme in the music of life'. At the molecular level all life on Earth is basically the same. We all share similar features of DNA nucleic acids (the 'holy of holy' of life on Earth), 'proof reading' by enzyme proteins, and the passing along of instructions (the 'language of life') through cellular reproduction. Of course, the instructions differ and produce a great diversity of life, and also the environment and natural selection help to choose which mutations survive and reproduce in abundance. He declares that 'natural selection is equally human {as the concept of a god-like designer}, it makes the music of life more beautiful as the eons pass'.

He seems to suggest that our unique evolutionary history shares a kinship with all of nature. The philosopher Benedict Spinoza similarly found himself aesthetically pleased to create a monist system in which every part of the universe was a part of a single substance. Carl Sagan seems to gain a similar but more contemporary passion for finding our shared kinship with nature (and its mechanisms).

He goes on to tell our unique evolutionary history, including the evolution of intelligence. Humans are closest to apes, to mammals, and to jawless filter feeding fish. He emphasizes the importance of our kinship with plants and the cycle of interrelations with them. And he goes on a journey within us: 'The world of a cell is as complex and beautiful as stars and galaxies', comparing us to little universes. How alien it all seems! And how fortunate we don't know how to rearrange it at the will of science! (Though, I think this mastery would be beautiful too.)

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