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Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory

In which we don't understand intelligence

Posted by Casey Dreier

27-01-2014 23:55 CST

Topics: product review, history, fun, personal stories, Voyager 1 and 2, Earth, spacecraft

Cosmos with Cosmos is a weekly series that encourages people to get together and watch Cosmos with a cosmo(politan) or drink of your choice. We're posting weekly episode recaps and discussion through February of 2014. This series is made possible by members of the Planetary Society. If you like what you're reading, please consider joining the Society or donating $10 to help support projects like this in the future. To learn more about this series and find out how to watch Cosmos, see our introduction.

« Episode 10: The Edge of Forever

Episode 12: Encyclopedia Glactica »

What is this episode about? What are its goals? I think this episode meant to challenge our anthropocentric idea of intelligence and educate us in the biological accidents that led to our current intellectual capabilities. I think it meant for us to be nimble in our definitions of intelligence if we wish to seek it beyond Earth. But I don't know this.

What I do know is that the episode was plodding, scattered, and more than a little preachy, with an ending that desperately tried to tie things back into the big picture with Voyager's golden record and the persistence of human memory in the cosmos. Though the show seems to have forgotten that just the previous week we learned that all memories (and all things) in the universe will end one way or another. Memory doesn't persist—it perishes.

What this episode should have explored, in my opinion, was how the emergent property of intelligence arises from matter. That's the great mystery of consciousness, and the pursuit of the structure underlying the universe's great mysteries is exactly what Cosmos is about. This field of study is rich with conjecture and speculation, and has deep philosophical implications. It also has decades of scientific study providing a solid theoretical basis for it all. Understanding the source of consciousness may help us understand how to look for life elsewhere, or maybe help us determine that factor in the Drake equation which accounts for the fraction of life that develops into intelligent civilizations.

This wasn't a new concept in 1979, and I'm surprised that Sagan and his team had nothing to say about it. Just a few years previous, Douglas Hofstadter wrote extensively on emergent complexity in his great Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. I find it hard to believe that Sagan was unfamiliar with these ideas, but perhaps he was.

I consider this the great lost opportunity of the series: instead of exploring the systems that give rise to consciousness, we are subjected to an extended diatribe on whale hunting; we learn that books are a good idea, but we don't explore their origins; we are told that the brain has "elaborate logical underpinnings," but we don't know how this evolved from brains that helped us gather fruit and stand up straight.

The show opens with Sagan strolling through a bucolic field, settling down with his dandelion to explain the concept of "bits." Sagan used bits as a means to compare vast sums of information—which I think of more as informational complexity—throughout his career, and he first presented this in The Cosmic Connection, when computers were relatively novel. Now, as we decide which iPad to buy based on the number of Gigabytes (8x10^9 bits), I think most people are actually too familiar with this idea to apply it to information without the additional conceptual burden of everyday computing muddling the image. Also, I find the concept too technical to be of much use, as he depends on very large exponentials to make his comparisons. Does the average viewer emotionally grasp the vast difference in size between 10^12 and 10^15 bits? I don't. It is one of the rare stumbles he makes in gauging the utility of his metaphors.

The episode seems to get more promising as he jumps into the Ship of the Imagination to hypothesize about the millions of worlds potentially inhabited by other intelligent beings. But he brings it back to Earth, prefacing the next segment by promising, "what a joy it would be to know something about non-human intelligence, and we can."

But what, ultimately, do we know about whale song? From the segment, it appears to be not much. Whales may communicate, but many animals communicate audibly (coyotes, dolphins, apes, dogs, birds, etc.) and it's not necessarily a marker of high intelligence. But the sequence of ocean life and the whales, unfortunately, digresses from attempts to categorize and measure intelligence, turning instead into an extended diatribe on whale hunting. I too find whale hunting barbaric, but this sequence detracts from the episode, tearing the viewer away from larger thoughts on the cosmos and triggering more primal political emotions. Unlike his carefully constructed statements regarding atheism/skepticism in the previous episode, the presentation of his opinions on whale hunting aren't presented as questions, but assertions. He's declaring, not engaging in conversation.

As the episode continues, it does offer some nice insights on the difference between information stored in our genes and learned information: the difference between firmware and software. Gene information is earned over millennia, hard to change, but effectively unforgettable (by definition, you can't really "forget" programmed information, I suppose). Brain information is learned over a lifetime and disappears with death. The invention of writing, which Sagan correctly praises as the greatest intellectual achievement of humankind, subverts death in a way by allowing for brain information to be spread through the generations (which Sagan has successfully done, by the way; a point which was not lost on me as I was writing this unusually critical review).

But most of the segment of Sagan waxing lyrical on books should have been left on the cutting room floor. It's unnecessary, and kills what momentum this episode had. It's also somewhat irrelevant to the series at this point. I think it would have fit in better earlier on, particularly within the context of how ancient Greek thought and philosophy being preserved to help spark the modern scientific era.

The Golden Record


The Golden Record
On board each Voyager spacecraft is a time capsule: a 12-inch, gold-plated copper disk carrying spoken greetings in 55 languages from Earth’s peoples, along with 115 images and myriad sounds representing our home planet. Selected for NASA by Carl Sagan and others, and produced by science writer Timothy Ferris, the disks are essentially a “greatest hits” package portraying the biodiversity of Earth and the diversity of human cultures. From the Golden Gate to the Great Wall, Beethoven to Chuck Berry, from mountain breezes to crashing surf, a dog’s howl and a baby’s cry, the disks may someday serve as “letters of introduction” to a passing extraterrestrial civilization that may stop and inspect the robots and become inquisitive about their place of origin.

The final sequence attempts to return to the grand picture Cosmos has built for us over the past ten episodes. The Voyager probes, on their way out of the solar system, containing all sorts of information, are the "persistence of memory" of the human race. They will endure the harsh cosmic environment for at least a billion years, most likely long after human beings have died off or evolved so completely that to be unrecognizable. The golden records attached to the probes include sound recordings of the brain waves of a human being (later revealed to be Sagan's wife Ann Druyan). It's a nice idea (and the golden record even includes some whalesong), but it feels tacked on, as if the writers were looking for something to return us back to some of the ideas mentioned at the very beginning of the episode. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the memory of us will only persist for so long. And it doesn't really address how other intelligences might try to understand this record, which could have been an enlightening topic for exploration.

"The brain does much more than just recollect," explained Sagan, "it intercompares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions." If only this episode did the same. Instead, this episode is almost entirely descriptive, recollective. Cosmos is unique because it dared to pursue informed speculation, to expose hidden connections between the universe and our lives, to share the spiritual awe that stirs us to seek answers to great mysteries. "The Persistence of Memory" is devoid of nearly all of these qualities, and persists in my memory as only a shadow of what could have been.

Stray Observations

  • "The Persistence of Memory" does provide context for next week's (far more entertaining) episode, "Encyclopedia Galactica," but it doesn't work as an hour of television. It's the weakest episode of Cosmos by far.

  • The scene with Sagan imitating whalesong is surprisingly not totally embarrassing. It also served as the starting point for the wonderful music video, "A Glorious Dawn," so I'm happy he tried.

  • The Persistence of Memory, of course, is one of most famous works ever made by Salvador Dali. And while I freely admit I'm not the smartest person out there, I'm not altogether slow. But for the life of me I can't understand why they named this episode after the melting clocks painting. I've always found Dali's naming to be ironic: time ultimately consumes all memory; it doesn't persist; the wasteland of our dreams is temporary. But this episode doesn't pursue this. If anything, it seems to suggest the opposite. There is a line in the book version of Cosmos that obliquely references the painting, I think, in which Sagan says that a book allows you to ponder "the interpretation of dreams." Did he purposefully add this to reference Freud's influence on Dali's paintings of the subconscious and dream imagery? If you have a better idea, I'm eager to hear it in the comments section below.


  • On computers and the internet, Sagan really nailed the impending information revolution (and remember, this was 1979): "In our time, a revolution has begun. A revolution perhaps as significant as the evolution of DNA and nervous systems and the invention of writing. Direct communication among billions of human beings is now made possible by computers and satellites."

  • "We see here the set of instructions of human DNA, written in a language billions of years older than any human tongue."

  • I have to say, I got chills when I heard this: "One glance at [a book] and you hear the voice of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you."

« Episode 10: The Edge of Forever

Episode 12: Encyclopedia Galactica »

See other posts from January 2014


Or read more blog entries about: product review, history, fun, personal stories, Voyager 1 and 2, Earth, spacecraft


David: 01/28/2014 09:24 CST

What is "the difference between firmware and software"? Firmware is a particular type of software that has been made not easily modifiable by the user, except for the most clever ones. I see genes and DNA more as our hardware than a firmware.

Casey Dreier: 01/28/2014 12:31 CST

David: What's DNA if not instructions embedded into hardware? DNA is difficult to modify by the user (us) except for very clever ways. Software is meant to be adaptable and easily modified, just like our brains.

Jimi Maze: 01/28/2014 10:33 CST

David, nice comment! Casey, I will be sharing the NPR link on Valentines. Not a waste of an episode. I guess that variance between brains and DNA really hit strongly with me. I'm a musician. As a younger teenager enjoying the great Canadian outdoors I was quite talented with speaking with owls, loons and doves (others too). I noted their changed lingo over the seasons and years. I'm older now, and I don't have the dexterity nor the open mindedness to fool the birds into talking to me. I might fool one for about 5 minutes, whereas I used to be able to summon them to my vicinity usually by pretending I was a horny female or an invading male. Fond memories those are.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 01/30/2014 06:09 CST

This is the episode that has weathered the worst. Much of the biology has been made either arguable or more precise. For examples of the earlier, Sagan's simplification devices of the triune and lateralized brain respectively are today argued. : "The triune model of the mammalian brain is seen as an oversimplified organizing theme by some in the field of comparative neuroscience[7] but continues to hold interest." " Because the basal ganglia are found in the forebrains of all modern vertebrates, they most likely date to the common evolutionary ancestor of the vertebrates, more than 500 million years ago, rather than to the origin of reptiles." "Finally, recent studies based on paleontological data or comparative anatomical evidence strongly suggest that the neocortex was already present in the earliest emerging mammals. ... [other parts in non-mammals] are considered homologous to the mammalian neocortex." : "Broad generalizations are often made in popular psychology about one side or the other having characteristic labels, such as "logical" for the left side or "creative" for the right. These labels are not supported by studies on lateralization,". For examples of the latter, the new root of the whales (clades with artiodactyls, not as a sister group) implies that they were "probably at least partly carnivorous or scavengers" but not ensured fully so. [ ] And the earlier estimate of ~ 30 000 genes have shrunken to ~ 20 000, so Sagan's human genome sixe of ~ 5 Gbases are now ~ 3 Gbases.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 01/30/2014 06:10 CST

Worse is that Sagan, and the article here, promotes an erroneous model of the DNA as persistent instructions. "Gene information is earned over millennia, hard to change, but effectively unforgettable (by definition, you can't really "forget" programmed information, I suppose)." Genes _are_ instructions how to produce and regulate mainly proteins, but they are not build instructions. Most of the information during evolution and development comes from the environment, so a better but not quite good analogy is of a "recipe". "Take a sperm and an egg, fertilize and let grow for a few divisions. Then release hormone A ..." The recipe is learned by the genome of the preceeding generation, and it is slowly forgotten (if not under selection) over generations as variation in the genome (mutations and allele drift) or the environment proceeds. "If natural selection feeds information into gene pools, what is the information about? It is about how to survive. Strictly it is about how to survive and reproduce, in the conditions that prevailed when previous generations were alive. " [Richard Dawkins, ] Note that Sagan has returned to the usual argumentation of analysis and description of education, instead of the specialized treatment he annoyingly gave magic thinking (viz, creationism) in the last episode. His "carefully constructed arguments" only points out to the public that somehow religion should get a different treatment than geocentrism, astrology or whale hunting. That may or may not be harmful.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 01/30/2014 06:23 CST

"Understanding the source of consciousness may help us understand how to look for life elsewhere, or maybe help us determine that factor in the Drake equation which accounts for the fraction of life that develops into intelligent civilizations." For an interesting model that predicts both the soft ("when) and the hard ("how") problems of consciousness, see Graziano's biologically based. "His theory is the first theory that I know of to take both the easy and the hard problems head on," he said. "That is a gaping hole in all other modern theories, and it is deftly plugged by Michael's theory. Even if you think his theory is wrong, his theory reminds us that any theory that avoids the hard problem has almost certainly missed the mark, because a plausible solution—his theory—exists that does not appeal to magic or mysterious, as-yet-unexplained phenomena." [ ] In short, " awareness is the brain's simplified model of the complicated process of attention. When a person is aware of something such as an apple in front of them, it is because the brain has put together two models: the information describing the apple, and the self-descriptive information about how the brain is focusing its resources." The biological template are two areas situated between the areas that process incoming information and that acts on it. While biologists notes that language capable consciousness may be utterly rare (which is likely what feeds into Drake's equations), consciousness has likely evolved early and in a fairly generic way once you have an organized central nervous system that needs resource supervision.

Dan Cook: 02/02/2014 02:48 CST

I listened to this episode as a kind of podcast instead of watching it. There have been too many internet based jokes made at this episode's expense for me to be able to give the script the proper attention it deserves. I liked listening to it. It's squishy. It's broad. It swings for the fences trying to connect all of those themes. Is it possible that this episode fails from an attempt to condense into an hour of television themes that he delved into in depth in three full length books? ...and it has oscilloscopes! But I'm easily distracted. Somewhere in spacetime David Lynch is staring at a Dali painting while wearing an Admiral Ackbar foam headpiece proclaiming "It's a trap!" /steps into the beartrap The key to the comparison for me lies in the sequences regarding the transportation system and the layers of the structures of the brain. Memories within and of the systems are isolated from physical changes to the system over time. Time passes and is fluid. Environments and structures change but people's perceptions are frozen, as if to say that both looking at a scene while awake or experiencing a dream while asleep are both conditions that SEEM frozen in time but are, in fact, being altered by the passage, or bending, of time. Meanwhile, back in another spacetime Lynch pulls off the headgear and then pulls off his Lynch mask revealing Dali underneath. Dali shakes his head, laughs a self-satisfied laugh and walks away secure in the fact that no one will ever know what the hell his paintings were actually about. It's surrealism. Casey's right, I'm right, Sagan's right, Lynchdaliackbar is right - and we're all saying the exact same thing. ...but Eraserhead is about a potato with eyes.

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