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Summer reading questions for STEM Humanities students reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan.

Cosmos book coverCosmos is an epistemological (how we know what we know) look at science and how we know what we know about the cosmos including what we do not know.  It is a big book and you can get bogged down in some of the finer details, so my advice is to start reading the book early in the summer.  Divide the number of pages in the book by the number of days you have to read it and pace yourself.  If you attempt to read the entire book in a short period of time, not only will you not remember much of the book, you will torture yourself.   As you read, annotate for passages you find especially well written or interesting and mark these passages…make comments in the margins.   In addition, create a google document and answer the following questions.  Share your responses with me at before the first day of school. 

  1. Chapter one (“The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”) is based on the metaphor of the cosmic ocean. Explain this metaphor.  Why is this chapter titled this way?
  2. In chapter two (“One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue”) Sagan uses the story of the Heike Samurai Crabs to make what point?
  3. Many different scientist are mentioned in chapter three (“The Harmony of Worlds”), select one and discuss one aspect of his life or scientific struggles that most impress you.
  4. In chapter three, Sagan states that if Kepler had a marker on his tomb, it should read “He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions.” What does this mean?  Is this a unique quality?
  5. Toward the end of chapter three Sagan states that “Kepler and Newton represent a critical transition in human history…” What transition?   
  6. How does Sagan use the Tunguska Event in chapter four (“Heaven and Hell”) to develop other ideas in the chapter?
  7. Chapter five (“Blues for a Red Planet”) is mainly about Mars, but there are many ideas presented here. Pick one and discuss it.
  8. Chapter six (“Travelers’ Tales”), Sagan gives a brief history of human voyages and explorations of our own planet. Why?  What purpose does this history of exploration serve in terms of the ideas in the rest of the chapter?
  9. In chapter seven (“The Backbone of the Night,”) Sagan discusses the significance of the Ionians in terms of evolution of human scientific thought. What was it about the Ionians that made their way of thinking unique and what, according to Sagan, eventually led to their downfall?
  10. In chapter eight (“Travels in Space and Time”) one topic Sagan discusses is traveling at the speed of light. What is the purpose of this discussion, and what are a few details about the discussion that you find intriguing?
  11. Chapter nine (“The Lives of the Stars”) is about the lives of stars! Briefly summarize the life of a star. 
  12. In chapter ten (“The Edge of Forever”), one important discovery Sagan discusses is the Doppler effect. What is it, and how do scientist use it?
  13. In chapter eleven, (“The Persistence of Memory”) Sagan talks about intelligence and launches into a discussion of whales. What is the purpose of this discussion?  How does he use whales to advance other ideas?
  14. In chapter twelve, (“Encyclopaedia Galactica”) Sagan discusses (among other things) the idea and possibility of other technological civilizations in the galaxy. Does he make a convincing case that there probably are other civilizations out there? Explain. What are a few characteristics (according to Sagan) these civilizations probably have?
  15. In chapter thirteen, (“Who Speaks for Earth”) Sagan leaves the reader with some final ideas to ponder. Pick one and discuss it.
  16. Each chapter begins with an epigram (quotation). What is the purpose of these epigrams?
  17. One of the major motifs in Cosmos is the uneasy conflict between science and religion. What is the cause?  How does Sagan handle his discussion of it?  Do you think it will ever be resolved? Why or why not? (Keep in mind that the conflict is more than just the one involving evolution/ and there is more than just one religion in this world.)
  18. How would you describe Sagan’s tone in the book?
  19. Name one scientific discovery that you found most profound or interesting. Why that one?
  20. There are various themes (big ideas) and motifs (reoccurring ideas) that run throughout Cosmos. As you get toward the end of the book, see if you can make a list of these ideas.
  21. What is your overall impression of the book? I realize it was a hard read.  I realize it was tedious in places, but did it give you a better grasp of the scientific world?  Was it well written? Would you recommend it to others?  Why or why not?
  22. Choose three of the quotations from below and discuss one of the following: the ideas, the language, or the implications (what it means to humanity as a whole).
A)  “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
Carl SaganCosmos


B)  “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”


C)  ”The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
Carl SaganCosmos


D)  “One glance at (a book) and you hear the voice of another person - perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time.”
Carl SaganCosmos
E)  “We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times - a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universe and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor. ”
Carl SaganCosmos