This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
It was a rainy night when the future became a place, one you could visit. A downpour at sunset couldn’t discourage the 200,000 people who had gathered for the opening ceremony of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “World of Tomorrow” was the theme of this art deco land of promise.
There were television sets, calculating machines, and a robot. For the first time, people saw these things that would change their lives. But on that night they had come to hear the greatest scientific genius since Isaac Newton. Albert Einstein was to give brief remarks and flip the switch that would illuminate the fair. The spectacle promised to be the largest flash of artificial light in technical history, visible for a radius of 40 miles. A wow—but not as mind-blowing as the source of this sudden, unprecedented brilliance. Scientists would capture cosmic rays and transmit them to Queens, where they would supply the energy that would turn night into day, flooding with blinding light a new world made possible by science.
It fell to Einstein to explain cosmic rays. He was instructed to keep it to five minutes. Initially he refused. That wouldn’t possibly be enough time to explain this mysterious phenomenon. But he was a true believer in the scientist’s duty to communicate with the public. And so he agreed.
As the sun was setting, Einstein stepped to the microphone. He had just turned 60 and had enjoyed decades of the rarest form of iconic celebrity, a renown based on his discoveries of new physical realities on the grandest possible scale. Those who stood there in the rain to hear him were only a fraction of those who listened to the event on radio.
“If science, like art, is to perform its mission truly and fully,” he began, “its achievements must enter not only superficially but with their inner meaning into the consciousness of people.”
When I discovered Einstein’s rarely quoted words, I found the credo for 40 years of my life’s work. This always has been and always will be the dream of Cosmos. Einstein was urging us to tear down the walls around science that have excluded and intimidated so many of us—to translate scientific insights from the technical jargon of its priesthood into the spoken language shared by us all, so that we may take these insights to heart and be changed by a personal encounter with the wonders they reveal.
We didn’t know that particular Einstein quote when Carl Sagan and I began writing the original Cosmos with astronomer Steve Soter. We just felt a kind of evangelical urgency to share the awesome power of science, to convey the spiritual uplift of the universe it reveals, and to amplify the alarms that Carl, Steve, and other scientists were sounding about our impact on the planet. Cosmos gave voice to those forebodings, but it was also suffused with hope, with a sense of human self-esteem derived, in part, from our successes in finding our way in the universe and from the courage of those scientists who dared to uncover and express forbidden truths.
The original award-winning television series and book of 1980 were embraced by hundreds of millions of people. The Library of Congress included the book as one of 88 in an exhibition called “Books That Shaped America.” So it was with a fair degree of fear that I set out with Steve, a dozen years after Carl’s death, to undertake Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey. Now on my third series of voyages on the Ship of the Imagination, I once again have brilliant collaborators, and I am still worried about not measuring up. Despite this, the times impel me forward.
We all feel the chill our present casts on our future. Some part of us knows that we must awaken to action or doom our children to dangers and hardships we ourselves have never had to face. How do we rouse ourselves and keep from sleepwalking into a climate or nuclear catastrophe that may not be reversed before it has destroyed us and countless other species? How do we learn to value those things we cannot live without—air, water, the sustaining fabric of life on Earth, the future—more than we prize money and short-term convenience? Nothing less than a global spiritual awakening can transform us.
Science, like love, is a means to that transcendence, to that soaring experience of the oneness of being fully alive. Love asks us to get beyond our personal hopes and fears, to embrace another’s reality. This is precisely the way science loves nature. This lack of a final destination, an absolute truth, is what makes science such a worthy methodology for sacred searching. It is a never-ending lesson in humility. The vastness of the universe—and love, the thing that makes the vastness bearable—is out of reach to the arrogant. What’s real must matter more to us than what we wish to believe. But how do we tell the difference?
I know a way to part the curtains of darkness that prevent us from having a complete experience of nature. Here it is, the basic rules of the road for science: Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. And question everything, including authority.
If pilgrimages toward understanding our circumstances in the universe, the origin of life, and the laws of nature are not spiritual quests, then I don’t know what could be. I’m not a scientist, just a hunter-gatherer of stories. The ones I treasure most are about the searchers who have helped us find our way in the great dark ocean and the islands of light they left to us.
The misuse of science endangers our civilization, but science also has redemptive powers. It can cleanse a planetary atmosphere overburdened with carbon dioxide. It can set life free to neutralize the toxins that we have scattered so carelessly. Its unrivaled powers of prophecy are demonstrated by our current predicament.
The words Einstein spoke on that rainy night might prove to be among his most important gifts to us. If we take what the scientists are telling us to heart, a conscious and motivated public can will this possible world into existence.