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Review 71: The Pluto Files


The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin’.

No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed “demotion” of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to “Dwarf Planet,” rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.

To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not – and I’m pretty sure he didn’t – he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.

That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don’t really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it’s a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What’s more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, “Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria,” they’d probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn’t following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.

This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.

One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn’t know the history of Pluto’s discovery, we still have a certain love for it.

Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there’s something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.

And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites – even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure – the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.

What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he’s our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.

So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don’t really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck – stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposia were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.

In case you’re wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that’s how it is.

Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands – and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby – some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.

The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It’s also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn’t really have anything in common with.

Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn’t care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they’re right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it’s important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we’re talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge – had we not made such progress, Pluto’s classification would never have been in doubt.

The “demotion” of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet – we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.

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“It’s always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, “What have you done?!”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files
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Neil deGrasse Tyson at Wikipedia
The Pluto Files at Wikipedia
Pluto on Wikipedia
The Pluto Files on Amazon.com
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s homepage

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Review 70: Bad Astronomy


Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it’s our distance from the sun – sorry, you’re wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it’s that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon’s tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it’s the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!

All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you’re reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.

Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn’t caught up with that yet.

And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.

Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.

While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox – and only on the Vernal Equinox – you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it’s an experiment that’s carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?

Fortunately, that’s within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they’ve finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You’re doing science!!

Or perhaps you’ve heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there’s an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you’ll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it’ll still be washed out and you won’t see any stars at all.

One more good one that a lot of people believe – the moon is larger in the sky when it’s near the horizon than when it’s at its zenith. Again, this is something that’s very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm’s length – a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon’s apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.

Of course, there’s a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there’s no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that’s because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you’re likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you’re really sharp-eyed and lucky.

The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It’s probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon – the effect works at sea, too. It’s probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.

Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.

There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren’t very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.

Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can’t rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn’t until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.

Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn’t behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn’t make it true.

He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films – sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields – these things may be dramatically interesting, but they’re all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi (“Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!”), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we’re observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He’s excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.

If you’re an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won’t learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you’ll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you’ll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.

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“If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'”
– Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy
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Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
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Filed under astronomy, education, media, nonfiction, Phil Plait, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 34: Death by Black Hole


Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I have often lamented the passing of my favorite popular scientist, Carl Sagan, by talking about how necessary he is right now. We are at a point in our history where scientific illiteracy is growing, where people are not only ignorant of how science works, but are proud of their ignorance. What we need is someone who can reach the majority of Americans who are not especially scientifically literate – the people whose automatic reaction to science is to think, “That’s just too hard for me to deal with.”

Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He’s appeared on countless television programs, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, to talk about the current state of astronomy and astrophysics. He’s an engaging and entertaining man, who claims that Pluto was “asking for” its demotion, who seems to take perverse pleasure in describing all the terrible ways the universe could take us out. He knows that we’re in a precarious position, here on Earth, and he revels in it rather than worrying about it.

Whereas Sagan seemed to come from the point of view that the universe was a place of infinite wonder, where one could look anywhere and be awed and humbled, Tyson’s attitude is more of the universe as an infinite theme park – a place where you could see your electrons stripped from your body, watch gas clouds larger than our own solar system collide and ignite, or see planets crumple under cosmic bombardment. Tyson’s universe is an adventure, as big as it gets.

This book is a collection of essays that Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine over a ten year period, on a variety of subjects related to science and scientific inquiry. In many ways, it’s similar to every other pop science book out there – and there are so very many of them – but it is his perspective and his voice that makes this one stand out from the crowd.

He’s grouped his essays into seven sections, on topics ranging from the difficulties inherent in actually knowing anything about the universe to the understanding of how life went from little mindless bacteria to we clever Homo sapiens to the intersection of science and religion. Most of it is accessible to the average non-scientist, though he does get a little technical at points. But he understands that, and he tries to compensate for for the fact that, by and large, the public is intimidated by “real science.” In the essay entitled, “Over the Rainbow,” he discusses this particular challenge by using spectroscopy as an example.

In spectroscopy, astrophysicists look at the spectrum of a star, hunting for telltale dark lines that indicate the physical properties of stars. It’s like looking at a rainbow with bits blackened out of it, as though the CIA had somehow gotten to it first. Those black lines contain all the vital information about the star’s composition and, more importantly, speed. Very little can be gleaned by just looking at the star, as it turns out. He notes five levels of abstraction, starting from the star itself:

Level 0: A star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines in the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.

These descending levels of abstraction can apply to any branch of science, not just astrophysics. The challenge, as he notes, is getting people past level 1, which is easy to understand but is not the level at which true science is done. It is up to educators, he says, to help make people comfortable with looking at real science, and not just pretty pictures.

Indeed, there are several sections of the book dedicated to the intersection between science and the public. He talks about how easily we are baffled by numbers (why are below-ground floors not labeled -1, -2, -3 etc?) and how casually we disregard actual scientific facts. He brings up some of his favorite moments in bad movie science, and how he single-handedly saved Titanic from ignominious astronomical shame. At least, on its DVD re-release. He addresses the historically shifting centers of science in human history, how things like NASA are truly a global endeavor. Without the discoveries made through history by people all over the planet – from England to Greece to Baghdad – there would be no NASA, nor any science that we recognize. And to assume that the United States will always be the center of scientific discovery is to willfully ignore history.

And, of course, there’s a section dedicated to the conflict between religion and science, a never-ending battle that has existed since science began. Tyson believes that there can be no common ground between the two – science relies on facts, religion relies on faith. This is not to say that one is better than the other, any more than, say, a hammer is better than a screwdriver. It’s just that you can’t use them interchangeably. And he points out that becoming a scientist doesn’t require you to give up your faith. There have been, and still are, countless scientists who are believers in the Divine. It’s just that most of them know enough not to confuse science and spirituality.

The place where they meet, historically, is on the boundary of ignorance. Isaac Newton, having figured out gravity, couldn’t quite work out how you could have a multiple-body system like our solar system without the whole thing falling into chaos. His conclusion – God must, from time to time, step in to keep things on the right path. Having done that, Newton went on to do other things, and it wasn’t until the next century that Pierre-Simon laPlace decided that he wasn’t satisfied with Newton’s “Insert God Here” argument, and did the math for himself.

In other words, God is a marker on the boundaries of ignorance, and the best of us are tempted to let Him answer the questions that we can’t. To do so, however, impedes the path of science and stops progress in its tracks. What if Newton had said, “No, I’m going to figure this damn thing out.” Would we be a century ahead in our technology by now? Maybe, maybe not. What if the Catholic Church had listened when Galileo said, “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Might more progress have been made? So many great thinkers have come up to the boundaries of their knowledge and, humbled by what they do not know, chose to allow The God of the Gaps reassure them.

But that’s the whole point of science, and it’s what this book, and others like it, are trying to instill in people. The unknown is not horrible, it is not terrifying, and it’s not a place to just stop. It’s a place of awe and wonder and bafflement and opportunity. To say, “I don’t understand it – it must be God” is short-changing ourselves and our heirs out of even greater knowledge of the universe.

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“Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless something baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole
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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Amazon.com
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Review 24: Death from the Skies!


Death From The Skies! by Phil Plait

I’ve always found the end of the world fascinating. So many cultures have put together their own ideas of how the world will end, from the Norse Ragnarök to the Christian apocalypse to the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. We live in a world that was, for a long time, unpredictable to us and on many occasions seemed to be outwardly hostile. Our ancestors faced floods and earthquakes and disease, with no idea of where these things came from, why they happened or how to stop them. And so they made myths and stories to explain the dangerous world in which they lived. From that, they extrapolated – if the world is this dangerous now, how dangerous could it be if it really tried? And so came our myths of a world that not only succeeds in hurting us, but in wiping us out altogether.

Even in the modern age we have our myths. Books, television, and movies all use the end of the world (or end of a world) to tell stories – usually about the resilience of mankind and our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and rebuild human society, hopefully for the better. As good as this is for fiction, there are two problems when we try to apply these myths and stories to the real world: the world will end, one way or another, and no amount of heroics, cleverness or pluck will save us. Not in the long term, anyway.

Science has accomplished what religion and fiction could not – it has seen the future and can make fairly accurate prophecies about how this world, and our civilization upon it, will die. Renowned astronomer Phil Plait is your prophet for this trip into all the ways the world will end….

In this book, Plait looks at nine possibilities for the end of the world as we know it. In order, they are:

Death by Impact
Death from the Sun
Death by Supernova
Death by Gamma Ray Burst
Death by Black Hole
Death by Aliens
Death of the Sun
Death by Galactic Collision
Death of the Universe

In each chapter, Plait outlines the ways in which that specific event could injure or kill us, with as much science as he can comfortably put in. He explains, for example, why we can’t just send Bruce Willis up to hit an incoming meteor with a nuke (it probably won’t work) and why any black holes produced by the LHC won’t do us any harm. He looks at how a supernova happens, what it is about a black hole that turns it into one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, and tries – very, very hard – to make the reader understand exactly how long “forever” is. (Hint: it’s a lot longer than you think. Longer than that, even. Nope, keep going….)

Each chapter outlines the processes by which we could experience the destruction of our civilization or, in a few cases, the planet itself. He looks at the scientific foundations of these events, explaining in detail what it is about the sun, for example, that makes it a cauldron of chaos and torment, or why we really, really don’t want to get even a smallish black hole anywhere near the planet. And I have to say, of all the unlikely ways we could be toasted, gamma ray bursts are my favorite – a deadly beam of energy from thousands of light-years away, cooking the planet all the way down through the crust and utterly devastating the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill off anyone who was lucky enough to be on the other side of the world. I mean, wow. And there’d be no warning, either. By the time we knew what was happening, it’d be too late. So that chapter (with a line paying homage to Douglas Adams, even) is just mind-boggling.

Probably my favorite chapter, though, is the one about supernovas, mainly because his careful, step-by-step description of exactly how a supernova occurs made me think, “What I wouldn’t give to see that in person,” disregarding the fact that a) the best parts would happen way too fast for me to observe and b) it would vaporize me. Still, it’s a beautiful and terrifying chain reaction, which Plait describes in fantastic detail. The other chapter that evoked the same reaction was the one on the end of the universe. Despite timelines for which the word “vast” is terribly inadequate, Plait tells us what science knows about how the universe will end – the ever-increasing expansion of spacetime, the eventual death of the stars, evaporation of galaxies, the reign of the black holes and the slow, careful deaths which even they face. It all ends in darkness, all matter gone into a few stubborn subatomic particles and the eventual collapse of the very fabric of space and time.

And as bleak and miserable is the future looks, I still thought, “I really want to see that.” So if I can figure out how to live one googol years (that’d be a one with one hundred zeros after it [1]) and not have my very atoms decay into nothingness, then I’ll be able to… um… be really, really bored, probably. Since after that, there’s absolutely – literally – nothing to do. Until the universe experiences vacuum collapse, or a brane collision, possibly hitting the reset button on the cosmos and we get to do it all over again….

Most of what’s in the book isn’t new to me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Cosmos, and I follow countless science TV shows, podcasts and blogs (including Plait’s own Bad Astronomy blog, which is well worth keeping up with, as well as his regular appearances on SETI’s podcast, Are We Alone? and occasional guest appearances on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – both of which make for excellent listening). For people new to astronomy, though, this will be a rather dense learning experience – and reading it will be time well spent.

In addition to its user-friendly style, I really like the way it’s arranged – from small-scale (relatively) to large, with “Things that are absolutely certain to happen” at the beginning and end, and with “things that probably won’t happen” in the middle. And my favorite aspect of this book is that each chapter begins with a short vignette describing that particular end of the world, from the perspective of someone watching it happen. It’s not something you often see in books of this nature, and I’m really glad that Plait decided to put it in there. It makes it a little less academic and abstract and more real.

For all its death and destruction, the book isn’t really a downer. For one thing, while things like asteroid impacts and the death of the sun are inevitable, they don’t have to be fatal, and Plait describes a few ways in which – in theory – we (or our distant, distant descendants) might be able to avert or at least mitigate these catastrophes. It’s not easy, of course, but saving the world never is.

It’s mainly a marvel at the forces that surround us in the universe. It’s easy to forget, looking up at the sky from our brief, limited scale, that the universe isn’t just some pretty lights drifting about in empty blackness. Things are exploding and dying, burning and freezing, moving quickly and slowly – the cosmos is replete with activity and danger. Most of the universe isn’t just uninhabitable, it’s actively hostile to life as we know it. And yet, without the black holes, the supernovas and the galactic collisions, without massive meteor impacts and breakaway comets, solar flares and deadly radiation – without all that, life probably wouldn’t exist at all. So read this book, and take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be here at all, all things considered….

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“They say that even the brightest star won’t shine forever. But in fact, the brightest star would live the shortest amount of time. Feel free to extract whatever life lesson you want from that.”
– Phil Plait, Death from the Skies!
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[1] 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy blog
Death from the Skies! on Wikipedia
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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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