Byon July 2, 2010 8:00 AM
Recently, I was gifted a copy of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, notable astronomer, but primarily science advocate. Unfortunately, Sagan died in 1996, at the age of 62. However, he was also a prolific writer, along with his third wife Ann Druyan. Hey, he was a great advocate for science. Apparently, not such a great husband.
Cosmos was originally written in 1980, and was also adapted into a PBS series, that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen. And, of course, that has since been adapted by the Symphony of Science, though I’ve talked about that (and Sagan) before. Being three decades old now, it is, perhaps, a bit out of date. However, it’s primarily a book about the history of science, the first half or so of the book talking deeply about pre-20th century scientific method.
Even less than it’s a history book, it serves as a road map to the scientific method, and where the scientific method came from. Plus, Sagan speaks eloquently about science in a way that is accessible, but not insulting. I don’t know if his discussion about the origin of life and the evolution of species will convince a Creationist, but then, I’ve listened to their pseudo-scientific bullshit before, and saw how convinced the students who were obviously predisposed to his message seemed to be. But that’s just pessimism, I think the discussion Sagan presents should, at the very least make anyone think critically of the issue, and I think it makes a clear and beautiful argument.
It goes beyond a basic introduction to life science, physics (including basic relativity), and astronomy. The history section discusses the Ionians, and the Library of Alexandria, two historic places which were epicenters of learning, both of whom were destroyed, usually by societies that were threatened by Science. There is discussion about Pythagoras, and how his followers discovered Irrational numbers, and then buried the discovery because irrational numbers didn’t fit into their world view. And these people were serious mathematicians.
The last part of the book features Sagan talking about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which he help begin, as well as how our own attempts (and whether or not we should be making them) to contact alien life will be like. He discusses our future of exploration of our own solar system and beyond. And he does so in a completely pragmatic way, assuming that we won’t find a way to break the speed of light, that the people we send to the stars will return to meet our children’s children.
But it’s also tinged with fears that I suspect were common in people of Sagan’s generation. That we were on the verge of nuclear annihilation, that at any time the US or the Soviet Union might initiate the end of humanity (though he did believe, and probably rightly so, that while we could, and might, fuck up the Earth enough to destroy us, the Earth would probably recover. Eventually).
I do think that people should read this book. It’s a solid description of the scientific method, where it came from, how it’s practiced, and even a bit of it’s abuse over the years. It’s a good discussion about how communication with other species is likely to happen realistically. By focusing mostly on historical context, and not assuming the future will have a breakthrough in physics that evidence doesn’t really support yet, the book is nearly as relevant today, as it was thirty years ago. And I think that it provides everyone with all the information they should require to understand science, and how the study of science is done and how it shapes our perception of reality. Given how poorly so many people understand science today, that certainly wouldn’t hurt.