Star Stuff
(Text from Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”)

Acrylic on Canvas.

66“ x 78”




We have considered the destruction of worlds and the end of civilisations, but there is anoth- er perspective by which to measure human endeavours. Let me tell you a story about the beginning. Some fifteen billion years ago, our universe began, the mightiest explosion of all time. The universe expanded, cooled, and darkened, energy condensed into matter, mostly hydrogen atoms, and these atoms cumulated into vast clouds, rushing away from each other, that would oneday become the galaxies. Within these galaxies, the first generation of stars wasborn, kindling the energy hidden in matter, flooding the cosmos with light. Hydrogen atoms had made suns and starlight. There were in those times no planets to receive the light and no living creatures to admire the radiance of the heavens. But deep in the stellar furnaces nuclear fusion was creating the heavier atoms, carbon and oxygen, silicon and iron, these elements - the ash left by hydrogen, were the raw materials from which planets and life, would later arise. At first the heavy elements were trapped in the hearts of the stars but mas- sive stars soon exhausted their fuel and in their death throes returned most of their substance back into space. The interstellar gas became enriched in heavy elements. In the Milky Way galaxy, the matter of the cosmos was recycledinto new generations of stars, now rich in heavy atoms, a legacy from their stellar ancestors. And in the cold of interstellar space, great turbulent clouds were gathered by gravity and stirred by starlight. In their deaths, the heavy atoms condensed into grains of rocky dust and ice and complex carbon-based molecules in accordance with the laws of physics and chemistry, hydrogen atomshad brought forth the stuff of life. In other clouds more massive aggregates of gas and dust formed later genera- tions of stars. As new stars were formed tiny condensations of matter repeated near them, inconspicuous motes of rock and metal, ice and gas, that would become the planets. And on these worlds, as in interstellar clouds, organic molecules formed - made of atoms that had been cooked, inside the stars. In the tide pools and oceans of many worlds moleculeswere destroyed by sunlight and assembled by chemistry. One day, on these natural experiments, a molecule arose that quite by accident was able to make crude copies of itself. As time passed self-replication became more accurate, those molecules that copied better, produced more copies. Natural selection, was under way. Elaborate molecular machines had evolved, slowly, imperceptibly, life had begun. Collectives of organic molecules evolved into one-celled organisms, these produced multi-celled colonies, their various parts became specialised organs. Some colonies attached themselves to the sea floor,others swam freely. Eyes evolved, and now the cosmos could see, living things moved

on to colonise the land. The reptiles held sway for a time, but they gave way to small warm-blooded creatures with bigger brains, they developed dexterity and curiosity about their environment. They learned to use tools and fire and language - star stuff, the ash of stellar alchemy had emerged into consciousness... They discovered...writing, they developed agriculture, they built cities and forged metal, and ultimately, they set out for the stars from which they had come five billion years earlier. We are star stuff, which has taken its destiny into its own hands. The loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of matter. Our own planet is only a tiny part of the vast cosmic tapestry, a starry fabric of worlds yet untold. Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand and all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours. In every one of them there’s a succession of incidents, events, occurrences, which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time, and our small planet at this moment - here we face a critical branch point in history. What we do with our world, right now will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants. It is well within our power to destroy our civilisation and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate a superstition or greed or stupidity, we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renais- sance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth, to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet, to enhance enormously our understanding of the universe and to carry us to the stars.