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After Centuries of Lost Ideas, Humans Saved History by Sending It to Space

Humans have a real knack for destroying invaluable troves of knowledge. But we have an ace in the hole with Voyager.
June 9, 2014, 8:55pm
The Voyager Golden Record. Image:  NASA/JPL

Becky Ferreira, your hostess with the cosmostest, hones in on the most important science and history topics the hit show Cosmos glosses over, one last time. Previously: 'Cosmos' Calls for Utopia: Here Are Five Ideas That Fit the Bill.

Like so many other neo-Saganites, I re-discovered Cosmos: A Personal Journey as an adult and was immediately captivated by the show's expansive imagination. Carl Sagan's warm invitation to join him in contemplating distant worlds and possible futures set the bar for science communication so high that the creators of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey don't even try to top it.


Sagan's work has been sprinkled liberally through the reboot, and his famous passage from Pale Blue Dot capped off last night's series finale, “Unafraid of the Dark.”

The finale was among the weakest episodes of an overall stellar series, mostly because it highlighted what a total sledgehammer Neil deGrasse Tyson is as a host; Sagan was, comparatively, more of a surgical knife. That said, the showrunners were wise to open the episode with a trip back to the ancient Library of Alexandria, one of Sagan's favorite stomping grounds. The special effects department deserves props for bringing the institution to life, and it was truly gratifying to follow Tyson into such a realistic chimera of the structure.

But unlike Sagan's segment on the library (which has its own clear flaws), Tyson didn't linger on what specifically was lost over the Library's tumultuous history. I'm going to fill in some of those blanks here, so get ready to feel ripped off by history, because few things are more maddening than picturing this legendary intellectual center going up in smoke.

By far the most tantalizing loss from the library was a treatise by the mathematician Aristarchus of Samos (310–230 BCE) that provided the first model for a heliocentric universe. That's right: this guy casually figured out that the Earth was orbiting the Sun some 2,300 years ago, and we have no real idea how he did it. His argument was destroyed along with the rest of the Library, but we know that it existed because Archimedes wrote the following passage about it in The Sand Reckoner:


Aristarchus of Samos brought out a book consisting of some hypotheses, in which the premises lead to the result that the universe is many times greater than that now so called. His hypotheses are that the fixed stars and the sun remain unmoved, that the earth revolves about the sun in the circumference of a circle, the sun lying in the middle of the orbit, and that the sphere of the fixed stars, situated about the same center as the sun, is so great that the circle in which he supposes the earth to revolve bears such a proportion to the distance of the fixed stars as the center of the sphere bears to its surface.

A tenth century copy of Aristarchus' work. Image: Konstable

It is gut-wrenching to think that the true nature of the solar system had been successfully divined all the way back in the third century BCE, only to be suppressed for another 1,800 years.

Imagine how different the course of history might have been had this revolutionary idea been fostered and investigated instead of ridiculed, dismissed, and ultimately engulfed in flames. For better or for worse, we would have been a very different species if Aristarchus' contemporaries had embraced his findings instead of accusing him of impiety.

Of course, the first heliocentric treatise was far from the only treasure lost in the destruction of the Alexandrian library. Hero of Alexandria (c. 10-70 CE), the progenitor of the steam engine and several other strikingly modern inventions, taught at the library and is very likely to have parked his theories there. The work of Hypatia (c. 370-415 CE), whose genius transcended the restrictive gender roles of her time, were all destroyed.


We are lucky that some Greek classics survived, but it doesn't make up for the frustration of losing a far greater number of plays and poems. What if the Oedipus Cycle was Sophocles' warm-up trilogy, or his sophomore slump? Sagan perfectly articulated this heart-breaking possibility in the 1980 pilot.

“It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale,” he said. “But we had heard that he written other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in this time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet.”

It makes you want to send a sucker punch back in time to the thugs who insisted on repeatedly burning the library down—though incidentally, one of them actually was Julius Caesar, whose army accidentally set the place on fire in 48 BCE.

It would be one thing if the ultimate destruction of Library of Alexandria was a standalone event in history. But great libraries may as well have bulls-eyes painted on their walls, given their abysmal survival rate.

After Alexandria, it was the Library of al-Hakam II in Cordova, Spain, which was destroyed in the tenth century. Then it was the Library of Rayy (1029), Ghazna (1151), Nishapur (1154), the Nalanda University complex (1193), and the Imperial Library of Constantinople (1204). The burning of Baghdad's House of Wisdom by the Mongols was a disaster on the same level as Alexandria, resulting in the swift and ferocious downfall of the Islamic Golden Age.

The Mongol sack of Baghdad, 1258. Image: Bahatur

I'm not trying to bum you out, especially not in my last Cosmosnaut column. As much as the loss of the first heliocentric treatise still stings today, it's not like Copernicus didn't crack that walnut eventually. I'm merely reiterating the central thesis statement of both versions of Cosmos: humans are fantastic creatures, if only we could get out of our own way.

“Unafraid of the Dark” picked the perfect emblem to express this paradox: the Voyager Golden Record. On one level, the record symbolizes the romance between Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, who fell in love while working on the project together. Indeed, EEGs of Druyan's brain waves are currently plunging towards interstellar space on the two Voyager probes.

"My feelings as a 27-year-old woman, madly fallen in love, they're on that record,” she said in a NASA interview. "It'll be true 100 million years from now. For me, Voyager is a kind of joy so powerful, it robs you of your fear of death.”

As poignant as this is on a personal level, it also has implications for all of us. Sagan and Druyan helped create a library of human experience that, for once, humans can't fuck up. It's out of our hands. We can't burn it down, tear it to pieces, or destroy it in all the creative ways we've spent millennia perfecting.

At least one of our libraries will survive us. Given our track record, that is immensely comforting.

Thanks for following the Cosmosnaut series! I hope it was as fun to read as it was to write.