February 24, 2017

HAGOPIAN | Cosmos as Metaphor

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It has been said that there are no new ideas. I disagree, but I would admit that new ideas are exceedingly rare. Certainly they are rare enough that I will never think of one. As a writer, then, my job is all about metaphor.  If I can put old ideas together in exciting new ways, then I am worth my salt as a composer of language. Last week, as I descended the slope on my daily journey home, the stimuli around me afforded me a metaphor that has yet to leave my head.

Even if you have never been to the Johnson Museum of Art, I would wager that you are familiar with at least one of its exhibits by sight if not by name. And that is by design. Leo Villareal’s Cosmos, the ever-changing LED installation on the museum’s overhang, was in fact partly chosen “for its high visibility not only on campus but also from the city of Ithaca.” What you may not know is that Cosmos is an homage to astrophysicist and former Cornell professor Carl Sagan, who hosted a television show by the same name.

While Sagan was by all accounts a brilliant researcher, most consider his true legacy to be that of a knowledge communicator. He was the host of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a thirteen-part PBS series that aimed to educate the public about contemporary scientific concepts. The show won two Emmy awards and has since been described by the New York Times as “a watershed moment for science-themed television programming.” My parents watched it, and I would wager that yours did too. Professor Sagan’s remarkable act of making esoteric ideas graspable is the reason he is still being honored in art museums some twenty years after his death. (Interesting side-anecdote: my grandfather met him once in an airport bathroom. He turned to the man in the urinal next to him and said, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like Carl Sagan?” The man replied, “That’s because I am.” My grandfather promptly asked for his autograph.)

As the title suggests, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage dealt primarily with subjects relating to the nature of the universe. One episode, entitled “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” featured a journey through the macrocosm on Sagan’s “spaceship of the imagination.” The trip is meant to convey scale; Sagan takes the viewer from the edge of the universe to our local group of galaxies, the Milky Way, the boundaries of our solar system, and finally the earth. It is this particular episode that I consider most germane to the metaphorical significance of Leo Villareal’s Cosmos exhibit.

Think of it. A man comes on our television and shows us the unfathomably grand scale of the universe. He shows us that our sun is just one of the billions of stars in the Milky Way, which is in turn only one of the hundred billion galaxies in the universe. He shows us that we’re a speck of dust in an infinite void. That we don’t matter. That we’re nothing. And what do we do? Do we see the error of own selfish ways? Do we agree as a society to put our petty differences behind us and work to make our insignificant speck the best speck it can be? No, we put up flashing lights.
At first glance this seems to be an indictment of humanity — an accusation that we as beings lack the capacity to see the bigger picture. But on the other hand, our ability to convince ourselves of our own significance could be seen as one of our greatest strengths. It would be hard to envision a functioning society comprised of people who lacked this ability. One wonders if our font of solipsistic delusion will ever run out. Or could there be some sort of event that made apparent humanity’s triviality and subsequently drove us all mad.  In that spirit, consider the Fermi paradox. Most scientists agree that the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations is extremely probable. Physicist Enrico Fermi struggled to reconcile this belief with the fact that earth has never been visited by aliens. His conclusion, a view shared by Sagan, was that technological civilizations inevitably self-destruct before interstellar travel can be achieved. This definitely depressed me the first time I read it. But I didn’t have time for an existential crisis — I had a prelim the next day.

Ara Hagopian is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ahagopian@cornellsun.com. Whiny Liberal will appear alternating Fridays this semester.

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