Cosmos (book)

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For the TV series, see Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
Cosmos book.gif
Front cover
Author Carl Sagan
Cover artist Adolf Schaller
Country United States
Language English
Genre Popular science
Publisher Random House, New York
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 365
ISBN 0-394-50294-9
OCLC 6280573
LC Class QB44.2 .S235
Preceded by Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science
Followed by Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Cosmos (1980) is a popular science book by astronomer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Sagan. Its 13 illustrated chapters, corresponding to the 13 episodes of the Cosmos TV series, which the book was co-developed with and intended to complement, explore the mutual development of science and civilization. Spurred in part by the popularity of the TV series, Cosmos spent 50 weeks on the Publishers Weekly best-sellers list and 70 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list to become the best-selling science book ever published at the time. In 1981, it received the Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book. The book's unprecedented success ushered in a dramatic increase in visibility for science-themed literature. The success of the book also jumpstarted Sagan's literary career. The sequel to Cosmos is Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994).[1]

One of Sagan's main purposes for this book (and the television series) was to have a chance to explain complex scientific ideas to anyone interested in learning. He wished to distance himself more from hard science, as he sometimes "didn't have the patience" for it. Sagan also believed the television was one of the greatest teaching tools ever invented, so he wished to capitalize on his chance to educate the world.[2]


Cosmos has 13 heavily illustrated chapters, corresponding to the 13 episodes of the Cosmos television series.[3] In the book, Sagan explores 15 billion years of cosmic evolution and the development of science and civilization.[4] Cosmos traces the origins of knowledge and the scientific method, mixing science and philosophy, and speculates to the future of science.[5] The book also discusses the underlying premises of science by providing biographical anecdotes about many prominent scientists throughout history, placing their contributions into the broader context of the development of modern science.[6] Cornell News Service characterized the book as "an overview of how science and civilization grew up together."[7]

The book covers a broad range of topics, comprising Sagan's reflections on anthropological, cosmological, biological, historical, and astronomical matters from antiquity to contemporary times. Sagan reiterates his position on extraterrestrial life—that the magnitude of the universe permits the existence of thousands of alien civilizations, but no credible evidence exists to demonstrate that such life has ever visited earth.[8] The book, as well as the television series, contains a number of Cold War undertones including subtle references to self-destruction and the futility of the arms race.[9]

Style and contents[edit]

Cosmos utilizes a light, conversational tone to render complex scientific topics readable for a lay audience. On many topics, the book encompasses a more concise, refined presentation of previous ideas about which Sagan had written.[8] One critic characterized the book as containing religious rhetoric in its descriptions of science and the universe.[6] Peter Lawler, a political science professor, believes Sagan's religious rhetoric was very intentional. He believes Sagan uses images of God to describe what contact with extraterrestrial life may bring. Sagan also uses religious images as loose metaphors to help explain large, difficult concepts.[10]

Cosmos is not just about the mysteries of space. Sagan leads every chapter with a philosophical quote to remind readers that the universe is not simply stars and planets, but a link between all things. He reminds readers that "we are all star stuff," and, though it seems humans are currently alone in space, the universe was not created for our race to thrive, but that we are a product of something much larger. Sagan's book explicitly supports the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, as he believes the extraterrestrials will be able to spur an enormous change in life on Earth.


Shortly after release, Cosmos became the best-selling science book ever published in the English language,[11][12][13][14] and was the first science book to sell more than half a million copies.[15] Though spurred in part by the popularity of the television series, Cosmos became a best-seller by its own regard, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers.[16] It was only surpassed in the late 1980s by Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time.[17] Cosmos spent 50 weeks on the Publishers Weekly best-seller's list,[7] and 70 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.[18] Cosmos sold over 900,000 copies while on these lists,[19] and continued popularity has allowed Cosmos to sell about five million copies internationally.[20] Shortly after Cosmos was published, Sagan received a $2 million advance for the novel Contact.[21] This was the largest release given for an unwritten fiction book at the time.[15] The success of Cosmos made Sagan "wealthy as well as famous."[22] It also ushered in a dramatic increase in visibility for science books, opening up new options and readership for the previously fledgling genre.[19] Science historian Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University noted that among science books "Cosmos marked the moment that something different was clearly going on."[16]

After the success of Cosmos, Sagan turned into an early scientific celebrity. He appeared on many television programs, wrote a regular column for Parade, and worked to continually advance the popularity of the science genre.[23]


Lewenstein also noted the power of the book as a recruitment tool. Along with Microbe Hunters and The Double Helix, he described Cosmos as one of the "books that people cite as 'Hey, the reason I'm a scientist is because I read that book'."[16] Particularly in astronomy and physics, he said, the book inspired many people to become scientists.[21] Sagan has also been called the "most successful popularizing scientist of our time," for his ability to draw such a large and varied audience.[10]

The popularity of Sagan's Cosmos has been referenced in arguments supporting increased space exploration spending.[24] Sagan's book was also referenced in Congress by Arthur C. Clarke in a speech promoting an end to Cold War anti-ICBM spending, instead arguing that the anti-ICBM budget would be better spent on Mars exploration.[25]

Critical reception[edit]

Reception for Sagan's work was, for the most part, very positive. In The New York Times Book Review, novelist James Michener praised Cosmos as "a cleverly written, imaginatively illustrated summary of [Sagan's]... ruminations about our universe... His style is iridescent, with lights flashing upon unexpected juxtapositions of thought."[26] David Whitehouse of the British Broadcasting Corporation went so far as to say that "there is not a book on astronomy – in fact not one on science – that comes close to the eloquence and intellectual sweep of Cosmos... If we send just one book to grace the libraries of distant worlds..., let it be Cosmos."[27] Kirkus Reviews described the book as "Sagan at his best."[28] In 1981, Cosmos received the Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book.[29]

Bibliographical information[edit]


  1. ^ "Pale Blue Dot". Powell's Books. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  2. ^ Golden, Frederic, Peter Stoler, and Calif. 1980. "The Cosmic Explainer He-e-e-re's Carl, bringing you nothing less than the universe." Time 116, no. 16: 62. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2013).
  3. ^ "Cosmos: Bibliographical Data". Book Depository. The Book Depository International Ltd. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  4. ^ "Cosmos: Full Description". Book Depository. The Book Depository International Ltd. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  5. ^ "Cosmos: About this Edition". Borders. Borders, Inc. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  6. ^ a b Lessel, Thomas (May 1985). "Science and the Sacred Cosmos: The Ideological Rhetoric of Carl Sagan.". Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (2): 175–187. doi:10.1080/00335638509383727. 
  7. ^ a b Brand, David; Friedlander, Blaine P.k Jr. (2001-02-19). "From somber Silent Spring to creative Cosmos, author's style can make difference in selling science, says Cornell researche". Cornell News (Cornell University). Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  8. ^ a b Michener, James (25 January 1981). "Ten Million Civilizations Nearby". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 May 2011. 
  9. ^ Tyson, Neil deGrasse (January–February 2013). "Another round of Cosmos". Columbia Journalism Review 51 (5): 30–33. 
  10. ^ a b Lawler, Peter Augustine (September–October 1998). "Aliens in the cosmos or, the curious affair of Carl Sagan and E.T.". American Enterprise 9 (5): 47–49. 
  11. ^ "Carl Sagan to lecture at Stanford April 23". Stanford News Service (Stanford University). 2012-04-04. Retrieved 7 January 2010. 
  12. ^ "Carl Sagan: Founder and First President of The Planetary Society". The Planetary Society. Retrieved 7 January 2010. 
  13. ^ Garreau, Joel (2003-07-21). "Science's Mything Links As the Boundaries of Reality Expand, Our Thinking Seems to Be Going Over the Edge". Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  14. ^ "Meet Dr. Carl Sagan". The Science Channel. Retrieved 2010-01-02. 
  15. ^ a b "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding". National Science Foundation. 2004. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  16. ^ a b c Lewenstein, Bruce (2002-03-08). "How Science Books Drive Public Discussion". National Institute for Standards and Technology. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  17. ^ Shermer p. 490
  18. ^ Brand, David (1996-12-20). "Carl Sagan, Cornell astronomer, dies today (Dec. 20) in Seattle". Cornell News (Cornell University). Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  19. ^ a b Nord, David; Joan Shelley Rubin (2009). "Science Books Since 1945". A History of the Book in America: Volume 5: The Enduring Book: Print Culture. Michael Schudson. UNC Press. p. 357. ISBN 978-0-8078-3285-1. Retrieved 2010-01-02. 
  20. ^ Ruprecht, Louis (1996). "Book Reviews". Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Oxford Journals) LXIV (2): 459–464. doi:10.1093/jaarel/lxiv.2.459. ISSN 1477-4585. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  21. ^ a b Lewenstein, Bruce (March 2007). "Why should we care about science books?". Journal of Science Communication (International School for Advanced Studies) 6 (1). ISSN 1824-2049. Retrieved 2010-01-02. 
  22. ^ Morrison, David (2007). Man for the Cosmos: Carl Sagan's Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic. Skeptical Inquirer January/February, 31(1), pp. 29-38.
  23. ^ Lawler, Peter (Summer 1999). "Aliens, the Cosmos, and the Foundations of Political Life.". Perspectives on Political Science 28 (3): 131. doi:10.1080/10457099909602354. 
  24. ^ Extensions of Remarks - Friday, November 18, 1983, 129 Cong. Rec. E5773 (1983).
  25. ^ Senate - Wednesday, October 10, 1984, 130 Cong. Rec. 31165 (1984)
  26. ^ Dicke, William (1996-12-21). "Carl Sagan, an Astronomer Who Excelled at Popularizing Science, Is Dead at 62". New York Times. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  27. ^ Whitehouse, David (1999-10-15). "Sci/Tech Carl Sagan: A life in the cosmos". British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 
  28. ^ "Reviews". Kirkus Book Review. DC Public Library. 2010. Retrieved 6 February 2010. 
  29. ^ "Cosmos". Goodreads. 2002-05-07. Retrieved 3 January 2010. 

Further reading[edit]