Posts Tagged ‘carl sagan’

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

30 July 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue II

25 July 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous quote from Cosmos, here is another quote. This one is talking about the paradox of the complexity and simplicity of a cell:

If we plunged through a pore into the nucleus of the cell, we would find something that resembles an explosion in a spaghetti factory — a disorderly multitude of coils and strands, which are the two kinds of nucleic acids: DNA, which knows what to do, and RNA, which conveys the instructions issued by DNA to the rest of the cell. These are the best that four billion years of evolution could produce, containing the full complement of information on how to make a cell, a tree or a human work. The amount of information in human DNA, if written out in ordinary language, would occupy a hundred thick volumes. What is more, the DNA molecules know how to make, with only very rare exceptions, identical copies of themselves. They know extraordinarily much.

Yet again, the final sentence strikes me as a wonderful turn of phrase, particularly as I read everything Carl wrote with the memory of his voice and its peculiar tempo playing in my head.

The Human Genome Project was only half-way through mapping the human DNA when Carl died in 1996. The Project ran from 1990-2003 and, just as we once did with hieroglyphics, we are still only just tapping the surface in deciphering what it means nearly ten years later (also see the extensive Wikipedia entry). Since this initial, mammoth breakthrough, many more donor genomes have been sequenced — it seems to be a growing industry.

And as for Carl’s estimate of the size it would take in print form, the original genome has subsequently been printed into 119 bound volumes, containing all of the three billion base pairs. Though I imagine it would make rubbish bedtime reading…

Categories: science Tags: ,

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

12 June 2010 Comments off

I’ve recently begun reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Amazon|UK), which is well overdue since the accompanying TV series has been my favourite piece of television since I was in primary school.

While reading Chapter 2, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” where he’s talking about evolution using his work with Nobel laureate H.J. Muller (discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis) and Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies as an example, a paragraph just jumps out at you:

The secrets of evolution are death and time — the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations that were by accident adaptive, time for the slow accumulation of patterns of favorable mutations. Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million years mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

What a magnificent turn of phrase. It sums up what we know of artificial and natural selection, underlines the breakthrough of its realisation, and wraps it into a beautiful philosophical illustration.

Knowing the TV series as I do, I’m looking forward to many more stand-out pieces such as this during my journey through the Cosmos, as it were. If you’re good, I may even share them with you…

It’s that time of year again…

25 December 2009 Comments off

Image courtesy of Crispian Jago (used with permission)

As a godless heathen, many religious people that I know and love expect me to treat events such as Christmas not only as a “normal day” but to be positively antagonistic towards it, and seem surprised that I’m happy to give gifts and participate.  While it’s true that last Easter I did (and will continue to) poke fun at one of the popular myths surrounding it, with the exception of religious privilege, none of that really matters to me.

The origins of such celebrations doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate or enjoy the human and relationship aspects of them. With Christmas* — particularly now I live in the northern hemisphere, where the seasons give it sense — I enjoy the symbolism and generosity of giving and receiving gifts and the knowledge that it’s the half-way point of the winter season, as marked by the shortest day. And but for seasonal thermal lag, it’s all downhill from here and the promise of spring is just around the corner.

So whatever your beliefs or philosophy, I wish you and those you love the best of the season this way: Reason’s Greetings!

* Or Yuletide, Saturnalia, Hannukah, Dongzhi, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Malkh, winter solstice, or even the modern Festivus, Kwanzaa and the unusual HumanLight.

Thanks to Crispian Jago for kindly allowing me to use this image.
Check out his Science, Reason and Critical Thinking blog.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch…

15 October 2009 Comments off

…you must first invent the universe.” -Carl Sagan

The time between posts here is an unfortunate side-effect of having to study like mad for the archaeology course I’m doing that is rapidly coming to an end, and numerous projects I’m either doing or starting. Never enough time in the day — particularly when you have to work a day job and maintain a social life, too.

And I’m trying not to just fill the posts with random gibberish or “cool stuff wot I found on the internets” — unless you’re okay with that? (Seriously, please let me know).

So, doing just that I thought I’d take a moment to post something to do with my hero, Carl Sagan. YouTube is a wonderful medium not only for the inevitable popular (and normally copyright-infringing) snippets from popular films and TV shows, but also for historical pieces that are hard to get and for mashups and other creative exercises.

And this is one of the latter — a brilliant homage to Carl Sagan featuring none other than his brilliant British counterpart, Stephen W. Hawking:

Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn (feat. Stephen Hawking)

It’s just amazing, isn’t it? Maybe I’m just a big girl’s blouse, but I’m not ashamed to admit it brought a tear to my eye.

I can only convey my appreciation to the tribute’s creator, melodysheep, and recommend that you check  out his website, Colorpulse.

Categories: art Tags: , , , ,

A mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam

1 June 2009 Comments off

As you should know by now — as I’ve quoted him often enough — Carl Sagan is my hero. Here’s something beautiful, humbling and inspiring from a lecture he did in 1994, two years before his untimely death:

Carl Sagan quote

Hat tip to irReligion.

Have I told you about the dragon in my garage?

5 February 2009 Comments off

Every now and then one comes across something that illustrates a certain point supremely well. And when it’s written by one of my personal heroes, I have to share it. It’s probably an excellent allegorical response to works such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which many understand are in themselves an allegory for Christianity. Not to mention new age beliefs, other religions, and other forms of belief.

The Dragon In My Garage
Carl Sagan

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons–to say nothing about invisible ones–you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you that they have dragons in their garages–but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all.

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence”–no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it–is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

Fantastic, isn’t it? Using his renowned ability to instruct and correct kindly and sympathetically, and without the frustrated emotion and insults that many of us succumb to, he manages to illustrate and educate this point brilliantly. A true humanist, skeptic, educator and ambassador for science and reason.

Another blog?? And here’s introducing…

6 January 2009 Comments off

Welcome to Hurtling Through Space.

Why this particular name? I wanted to call the site something like “Pale Blue Dot” — a reference to the legendary Carl Sagan‘s awesome use of NASA’s Voyager I spacecraft in 1990 to take a photograph of earth from almost 4 billion miles away, the pale blue dot…

Pale Blue Dot

…to illustrate how mind-blowingly insignificant the angry, self-destructive little bipedal species we call Homo sapiens are in the greater scheme of things, but as with all things in the realm of free (or cheap) Internet names… it was taken. So I thought to paraphase a stand-up line I heard many years ago into something that approximates the awe of the pale blue dot:

Earth is moving at 67,000mph around its star, and still people insist there’s no such thing as progress!

My main aim was to convey my awe at everything around us: the earth and everything on it, our solar system, our galaxy and what we can and understand of our universe, but I wanted to do it in such a way as to make it clear that we, as humans, are both special and insignificant. Special in that we are the only sentient, self-aware beings that we know of — at least in our neck of the galactic woods (or perhaps in our understanding of nature around us) — and insignificant in that this planet, this third rock from the Sun, is not the centre of anything meaningful or important. We have no special place in the universe, the universe does not revolve around us, neither physically nor metaphorically. It’s not a matter of belief; in fact, it’s the complete absence of any belief or dogma. It’s simply stating what we know as fact so far. This may sound paradoxical, or even insulting, especially if you are from a religious background, as indeed I am, and you may immediately recognise where I am going and wish to move along to a less challenging site. But I hope you don’t.

I am, among other labels, an atheist, but note the lowercase ‘a’ — I consider it important. It is a device that I use to simply illustrate that I am non-theistic but am understanding and compassionate of the billions of theistic people on the planet which, if statistics are anything to go by, you are probably one of them. I used to be, too, but that doesn’t really matter here — I’m not trying to convert you, and I’ll thank you to treat me with the same courtesy and respect.

Before I begin, let me make one thing clear: I might speak of various theistic and non-theistic positions, but they are my take on the particular topic. I do not speak for anyone other than myself, and nor do I pretend to — not even for atheists or other labels with which I identify. I am representative of me. This is a clarification that may come up in the future — as many debates and arguments often include the “You don’t speak for…” line, or variants of it — so don’t be surprised if I either point you to this post or ignore the attempt. I’ll also be mix-and-matching “God”, “god” and “gods” not in an attempt to inflame, but rather to neutralise any partisan positions, point out that one man’s God is another man’s Satan, and of course to illustrate that ALL theists are going to whatever hell you believe in as you are ALL heretics to someone else’s faith or interpretation of it — even sects within the same religion — and they ALL claim to be the final authority on such matters. Think of it as an exercise in humility or, preferably, a level playing field.

Some time ago I was trying to determine where my position was on religion and the hornet’s nest that surrounds it. For some time I called myself an agnostic (claiming that I didn’t know whether there was a God or not, so the only logically-correct position was neutrality), but gradually came to the realisation that an agnostic is someone who hasn’t really thought about it enough. By this I mean that I’d been avoiding the ‘a’ word: atheism. To many it is a subjective word that conjures up images or memories of iconclasts, god-deniers and intolerant, red-faced angry-shouty people who think that anyone who believes in fairy tales of any sort should be hanged, drawn and quartered. It’s true that those people do exist, I can’t and won’t deny it; however, I call those people hard atheists — or in moments of pedantry, just Atheists (note the capitalisation).

The ‘a-‘ in atheist denotes absence, or not, or without. For example: sexual and asexual reproduction, moral and amoral behaviour (a favourite of ad hominem and pro-theistic arguments), tonal and atonal, social and asocial, chromatic and achromatic, and so on. So you can see that atheist means the absence of belief, not the denial of belief. It is a truly neutral position that contrasts considerably with theists (who insist that the unseen and unproven is real, calling it faith) and the subset of atheists who consider the supernatural (in the literal sense) to be impossible; both are examples of dogma, having chosen a belief or a “side” over the facts. A truly a-theistic position is one that can and will change its view as new facts come to light — not in a “God of the gaps” manner as many religions treat scientific discoveries (i.e. where everything not understood by science belongs to religion, shrinking in size as our knowledge grows) — but objectively, without holding onto anything that has been disproven according to the best yardstick we have at our disposal so far: scientific method.

As an aside — and as an indicator of where the bar is — proof requires more than testimonials from rich, famous, important (or even lots of) people — it requires critical thinking while avoiding logical fallacies and cognitive biases. There is no middle ground on these points.

The other side to the hard atheist coin is what I call soft atheists — they tend to have the same intellectual position as hard atheists about the validity of religion, each religion’s sects and fragments, the actions of its followers, and its place in the world, but they tend to differ in the reaction to those points. A soft atheist is more likely to accept a theist’s position — or, perhaps more to the point, the theist’s right to that position — rather than a hard atheist, who may consider such discussion fruitless as they’re “dealing with someone who believes in fairy tales.” The soft atheist may feel the same about the theist they’re speaking to, but compassion tends to stop that becoming a show-stopper. A hard atheist may wish to rid the world of the scorge of religion, but a soft atheist may understand that it’s human nature to believe in something so, rather than try to beat it out with words, s/he seeks to engage and educate. It’s not so much that “theists are ignorant”, but rather it’s about understanding how much of our lives is affected by the contents or — more often — the interpretation of stories purportedly written anywhere from the Stone Age to the Medieval period, depending upon the religion.

This brings me to humanism (which typically refers to secular humanism). For me, humanism goes hand-in-glove with soft atheism, though there are as many different points or view and opinions within humanism as there are within even soft atheism. It probably varies based upon background (ethnic, family and socio-economic), education, exposure to science and religions, authority figures through life, personality, and individual goals. Humanism provides, among other things, an ethical framework around which non-theists can structure their approach to life. It is not an alternative religion, as that presumes that religion is the source of ethics and morality which, if you have critically examined any religious text, if most certainly not true. Such texts may contain examples and guidelines of such patterns of behaviour, but they also contain many examples of appalling crimes against humanity.

People are people, and neither religion nor the absence of it makes any difference to how we treat people. History has unequivocally proven this time and again.

And this brings me, in a roundabout way, to the various labels I use to address myself, depending upon who I am speaking to. In early 2008 I found an acronym that summed my perspective up almost perfectly: HASSNERS. It is as follows:

Humanist: Try to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.
Atheist: Affirm that, in all probability, god(s) do not exist, or at best it cannot be proven.
Scientific: Consider science and the scientific method is the best way to understand the world.
Secularist: Work towards the end religious privilege and discrimination.
Naturalist: The natural world is all we know for certain, and events have natural causes.
Ethical: Follow ethical standards worked out by man not by god(s).
Rationalist: Believe truth can be discovered by reason.
Skeptic: Suspend judgement as knowledge is rarely final and absolute.

Even if you are the most ardent theist — let’s say a right-wing neo-con Zionist Christian or a closet jihadi furiously hammering your keyboard every night in a chat room — you will undoubtedly see yourself in some of those points, even if the rest offends you. It’s because not everyone fits into a neat little pigeon-hole. Everyone is at least a little bit like just about everyone else. I’d say think of a Venn diagramme with a set for each individual trait known to mankind in it, but it makes my head ache too — you get my point, I’m sure.

Back to the point of this website. You now know how I view myself and, to some extent, the strength of my position. It’s my intention to post individual posts and links to other posts of interest. I’ll apologise up-front if a disproportionate number of them are posts of outrage or examples of theistic intolerance, and note that I’ll mix-and-match “God”, “god” and “gods”, but I promise I will endeavour to keep the balance. This balance is unlikely to take the form of examples of theistic puff-pieces, as you already know that is not a position I consider realistic or helpful, but I will try to make an environment that encourages your participation and thought.