Casey DreierJan 27, 2014

Cosmos with Cosmos Episode 11: The Persistence of Memory

Cosmos with Cosmos was a weekly series that encouraged Society members to re-watch Cosmos with a shared group, a cosmo(politan), or other drink of their choice. The Planetary Society published weekly episode discussion pieces to complement the original series before the Neil deGrasse Tyson-led 2nd season in 2014. You can currently watch the original Cosmos streaming on twitch.

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.Image: NASA / JPL

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."

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