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.
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…
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…
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!
Thanks to Crispian Jago for kindly allowing me to use this image.
Check out his Science, Reason and Critical Thinking blog.
…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:
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.
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:
Hat tip to irReligion.
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
“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.