Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

Review 132: Cosmos

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

If you’ve known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn’t call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.

It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.

Go ahead. Stare at this for a while.

When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures – the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.

As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan’s soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn’t be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.

The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, “to engage the heart as well as the mind,” perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It’s all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.

Go ahead, do this one yourself. We'll wait.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge – from the way the planets form and what they’re like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.

Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, Sagan understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn’t been burned down, if religious terror hadn’t murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It’s impossible to know, but it’s tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.

My brother gave me this poster. He knows me so well...

The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.

But we don’t know. We can’t know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.

A glorious dawn indeed....

While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration – Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets – have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact – something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan’s eyes pop.

Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.

Maybe we should all just have some pie. How much time do you have? (photo by Nicole)

In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.

Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Mary Roach, Michio Kaku, Ann Druyan, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, or Dava Sobel – people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity’s place among the stars.

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“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Carl Sagan on Wikipedia
Cosmos on Wikipedia
The Carl Sagan Portal (music plays when you open it, just FYI….)
Cosmos on Amazon.com

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Carl Sagan, evolution, made into movies, nonfiction, science

Review 07: The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

I miss Carl Sagan.

Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me. I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was. He’d be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he’d just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you. And he did, except that it wasn’t his secret. Hell, it wasn’t a secret at all – it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements. Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, or measuring the Earth with shadows, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him. You’d listen to him and think, “Y’know, maybe we humans aren’t too bad after all….”

Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures. Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we’ve gained. Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day. Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century. His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.

It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book. Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it. When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons – not literally, of course – the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren’t so.

This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking. In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.

I can certainly understand why.

It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism. It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously. It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God. And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to their concept of a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.

Sagan’s premise in this book is simple: knowledge is better than ignorance. Full stop. Whether it’s witches, “intelligent design,” UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie. The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they’re still illusions. Still lies.

He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry. This is because UFO abductees (and the legions of enablers who encourage them – psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts) exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish: an unwillingness or inability to consider other options. Yes, you see some lights in the sky that you can’t quite explain – the alien explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn’t make it so. There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.

Whether you’re talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory… The evidence just isn’t there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they’re just not so.

Wouldn’t it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things? If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better? If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement? Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved? Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and more efficient cars? I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn & Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program Bullshit! But I reckon Sagan would want more.

This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book. You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there’d be no X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones. Science fiction would all be something like Contact – nothing that isn’t reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science. No evil robots or planet-busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.

This is an attitude I’ve noticed a lot of in modern skeptics – a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven’t signed on to the skeptical view of the world. I am a regular listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it – except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, alien visitation and the like. I can understand the attitude towards scammers – they deserve nothing but contempt – but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be. Sagan addresses this as well in his book:

“All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.” 

He goes on later to say:

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” 

So in other words, even if you know a lot, don’t be a know-it-all.

Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed. The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you’re reading this on to the fact that you didn’t die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world. And that is the key message of this book: knowledge makes the world better. Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.

A well-educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses. It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world. Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can – if we act out of clarity and reason – be repaired. Science is self-correcting.

Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them. For an educated person is a free one. And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well.

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“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours.”
-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
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The Carl Sagan Portal
Carl Sagan at Wikipedia
The Demon-Haunted World at Wikiquote
The Demon-Haunted World at Amazon.com
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The James Randi Educational Foundation

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Filed under Carl Sagan, pseudoscience, religion, science, skepticism