The flame keeps us warm on cold nights. It gives us light. It makes holes in the darkness when the Moon is new. We can fix spears at night for tomorrow’s hunt. And if we are not tired, even in the darkness we can see each other and talk. Also – a good thing! – fire keeps animals away. We can be hurt at night. Sometimes we have been eaten, even by small animals, hyenas and wolves. Now it is different. Now the flame keeps the animals back. We see them baying softly in the dark, prowling, their eyes glowing in the light of the flame. They are frightened of the flame. But we are not frightened. The flame is ours. We take care of the flame. The flame takes care of us.
The sky is important. It covers us. It speaks to us. Before the time we found the flame, we would lie back in the dark and look up at all the points of light. Some points would come together to make a picture in the sky. One of us could see the pictures better than the rest. She taught us the star pictures and what names to call them. We would sit around late at night and make up stories about the pictures in the sky: lions, dogs, bears, hunterfolk. Other, stranger things. Could they be the pictures of the powerful beings in the sky, the ones who make the storms when angry?Mostly, the sky does not change. The same star pictures are there year after year. The Moon grows from nothing to a thin sliver to a round ball, and then back again to nothing. When the Moon changes, the women bleed. Some tribes have rules against sex at certain times in the growing and shrinking of the Moon. Some tribes scratch the days of the Moon or the days that the women bleed on antler bones. They can plan ahead and obey their rules. Rules are sacred.The stars are very far away. When we climb a hill or a tree they are no closer. And clouds come between us and the stars: the stars must be behind the clouds. The Moon, as it slowly moves, passes in front of stars. Later you can see that the stars are not harmed. The Moon does not eat stars. The stars must be behind the Moon. They flicker. A strange, cold, white, faraway light. Many of them. All over the sky. But only at night. I wonder what they are.
After we found the flame, I was sitting near the campfire wondering about the stars. Slowly a thought came: The stars are flame, I thought. Then I had another thought: The stars are campfires that other hunterfolk light at night. The stars give a smaller light than campfires. So the stars must be campfires very far away. ‘But,’ they ask me, ‘how can there be campfires in the sky? Why do the campfires and the hunter people around those flames not fall down at our feet? Why don’t strange tribes drop from the sky?’Those are good questions. They trouble me. Sometimes I think the sky is half of a big eggshell or a big nutshell. I think the people around those faraway campfires look down at us – except for them it seems up – and say that we are in their sky, and wonder why we do not fall up to them, if you see what I mean. But hunterfolk say, ‘Down is down and up is up.’ That is a good answer, too.
There is another thought that one of us had. His thought is that night is a great black animal skin, thrown up over the sky. There are holes in the skin. We look through the holes. And we see flame. His thought is not just that there is flame in a few places where we see stars. He thinks there is flame everywhere. He thinks flame covers the whole sky. But the skin hides the flame. Except where there are holes.
Some stars wander. Like the animals we hunt. Like us. If you watch with care over many months, you find they move. There are only five of them, like the fingers on a hand. They wander slowly among the stars. If the campfire thought is true, those stars must be tribes of wandering hunterfolk, carrying big fires. But I don’t see how wandering stars can be holes in a skin. When you make a hole, there it is. A hole is a hole. Holes do not wander. Also, I don’t want to be surrounded by a sky of flame. If the skin fell, the night sky would be bright – too bright – like seeing flame everywhere. I think a sky of flame would eat us all.
Maybe there are two kinds of powerful beings in the sky. Bad ones, who wish the flame to eat us. And good ones who put up the skin to keep the flame away. We must find some way to thank the good ones.
I don’t know if the stars are campfires in the sky. Or holes in a skin through which the flame of power looks down on us. Sometimes I think one way. Sometimes thinks a different way. Once I thought there are no campfires and no holes but something else, too hard for me to understand.
Rest your neck on a log. Your head goes back. Then you can see only the sky. No hills, no trees, no hunterfolk, no campfire. Just sky. Sometimes I feel I may fall up into the sky. If the stars are campfires, I would like to visit those other hunterfolk – the ones who wander. Then I feel good about falling up. But if the stars are holes in a skin, I become afraid. I don’t want to fall up through a hole and into the flame of power. I wish I knew which was true. I don’t like not knowing.
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Many people find it very surprising to learn that I hardly read. I can atmost manage small books, or short stories, and articles. The few books that I have read till the last period have been mostly on astrophysics. Infact there have been just two of them.
The best that I have ever read, is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The above is an excerpt from that book.
Cosmos is a book wonderfully written and that too in a very lucid language. It is the perfect book for the layman.
Stephen Hawking’s books are actually good only for people who have atleast little knowledge about science or specifically Astrophysics. Cosmos does not need you to be intelligent. It just needs that you have the ability to understand and appreciate the beautiful language and the beautiful Cosmos described in it.