Scattered notes on writing I
By Michael Nielsen, September 26 2019
Note: Hastily written, a few observations based on writing I happened to find of interest
- The opening of Chapter II of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”:
All my life I have wondered about the possibility of life elsewhere. What would it be like? Of what would it be made? … There was once a time before life, when the Earth was barren and utterly desolate. Our world is now overflowing with life. How did it come about? … How did the first living things arise? How did life evolve to produce beings as elaborate and complex as we, able to explore the mystery of our own origins?
This is a marvellous opening. The first sentence states the theme simply, directly, and with power. It’s something so many of us have wondered, we cannot help but empathize. And it is one of the grandest of mysteries. How did we come to be?
When I read “Cosmos” I wonder at how fully Sagan cultivated this feeling in himself. I believe many scientists feel these things. But, with few exceptions, they are hesitant to express them. How did Sagan learn to express himself so beautifully, so openly, on these topics?
Perhaps, in part, becuase he made it his job. “Cosmos” was not his first essay in this craft. He spent many years trying to capture and express these feelings, in many variations. And I have little doubt he got better over time. So perhaps he took a small seed of feeling, some sense of the numinous that he had privately, and then cultivated it, growing it publicly, as part of this work.
- More Sagan, from later in Chapter II:
In the great dark between the stars there are clouds of gas and dust and organic matter. Dozens of different kinds of organic molecules have been found there by radio telescopes. The abundance of these molecules suggests that the stuff of life is everywhere. Perhaps the origin and evolution of life is, given enough time, a cosmic inevitability… And on some small fraction of worlds there may develop intelligences and civilizations more advanced than our own.
There’s an extraordinary amount going on here. Every sentence is beautiful. In many ways it’s a microcosm of Sagan’s writing:
- “the great dark between the stars” is an extraordinary piece of naming. It clearly is a name, and it is exactly right.
- In the second sentence we learn that we have - somehow! - been able to find these organic molecules! How can we possibly know the content of deep space?!
- In the third sentence we learn that the stuff of life is everywhere in the universe.
- In the fourth sentence we learn that life may be inevitable.
- And in the fifth sentence we learn that we may not be the culmination of evolution, that perhaps elsewhere we have been surpassed. What might those intelligences and civilizations be?
Put another way: every single sentence offers an idea which, if unfamiliar, is extraordinary. And even if familiar, there’s value in the directness of the language, the occasional beauty (“the great dark between the stars”), and the clarity of the argument sketched.
Throughout the book, Sagan is not dealing in small stakes. He does, of course, venture into minutiae on occasion; too long at too high an altitude detaches both the author and readers from a sense of what is real. But when he ventures into minutiae he always takes care to relate back to the big picture.
By the end of the book, you see the markings on a crab as related to fundamental questions about the universe.
- Let us return to “All my life I have wondered about the possibility of life elsewhere”. It’s an interesting template. For me:
- All my life I have wondered about the possibility of building machines which are intelligent.
- All my life I have wanted to go to the stars. [I love this. Perhaps more than the original. It’s also true.]
- All my life I have wondered about the existence of God. [A statement apt to misinterpretation. Good readers will be generous, because it’s clear the statement is about my experience. But not all readers are good.]
- All my life I have enjoyed peanut butter sandwiches. [Amusing: it shows that “all my life” is somewhat overwrought, and wrangles slight humour from it.]
- All my life I have hungered for meaning. [Too silly, too over-wrought.]
The statements are not quite literally true. No-one thinks these things when they are 6 months old. But many clearly communicate a truth.