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Carl Sagan Day Again

November 10, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Well it’s Carl Sagan Day again so it must be time to comment on this most inspiring science communicator again. If you want a brief background on Sagan check my blog entry of 2010-11-09 “Carl Sagan Day” for a quick introduction. In this entry I thought I would discuss some of Sagan’s ideas by using some of his most well known quotes.

Quotes about the universe…

Quote 1: “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”

In this quote Sagan describes a phenomenon which has been steadily overtaking our old ideas of where we stand in the universe. First, the Earth was the most important thing and we were the most important part of God’s creation. Then we had to accept that the Sun was at the center of the Solar System, not the Earth, then we had to accept that humans were just another product of evolution like every other species. Just a hundred years ago we discovered the true scale of the universe and that our entire galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of others. In the last few years we have discovered many planets orbiting other stars. There are probably a trillion in our galaxy alone and surely some of those must have life. And the future? Well I think the next thing will be that our universe is just one of a possibly infinite number. Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Quote 2: “The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.”

This quote is related to the previous one. Not only are we a tiny part of the whole universe but the universe isn’t even particularly well suited to our requirements. Only a tiny part is suitable for life, the scale of the universe makes it impossible for us to really experience it, and various disasters could eliminate our society at any time. But there is hope…

Quote 3: “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

Of course it is inevitable that some sort of interstellar travel will become possible eventually as long as out civilisation isn’t ended before that can happen. Potential causes of the end could be through an environmental disaster, a disaster from space such as an asteroid collision, or through a global war. Travel to other stars won’t be easy because space is big, but there are several ways this problem could be overcome, none of which I have space to elaborate on here!

Quote 4: “In the vastness of the Cosmos there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours.”

Yes, this is the view of most sensible people who think about the issue. The puzzling thing is why is it not obvious that these civilisations exist. Even in a thousand years (which is a tiny fraction of the age of the universe) we will be capable of technology which changes out planet, star, (refer fo Dyson spheres for example) and maybe even local galaxy substantially. What about technology millions or billions of years more advanced? Either life really, really rarely advances to that advanced stage or when it does it is so advanced we don’t even know how to recognise it. Again, this is a fascinating topic in itself, but again I don’t have space to elaborate!

Quotes about science…

Quote 5: “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

This is something many critics of science don’t understand. Even in the rare cases where science is wrong or inaccurate that isn’t really significant. Science is about how to discover information, not so much what that information is. Briefly, here’s the process: learn as much as you can about the subject, find an open question, create a hypothesis about the question, test it, formulate a theory, test the theory, modify it or toss it out if necessary, repeat.

Quote 6: “I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.”

Yes, it’s rather depressing that people (even intelligent people) are so ignorant. But maybe it doesn’t matter because everyone is ignorant abut something. Scientists might be ignorant about pop culture, or embroidery, or the history of Inner Mongolia, does that make them generally ignorant? Actually I don’t mind people being ignorant about science as long as they accept it. If you’re ignorant then you don’t get an opinion on evolution, or global warming, or genetic modification, or nuclear energy, or stem cells. OK?

Quote 7: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Basically he’s saying that we need to explore new ideas but we have to be careful not to give all new ideas equal status. A new idea from a physicist about quantum theory is worth something but a new idea about how to create a perpetual motion machine by a retired gardener probably isn’t.

Quotes about skepticism…

Quote 8: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

Skeptical scrutiny can be applied in the areas of science and religion, but I never see it actually happening in religion which is why religions are so full of myths and obsolete ideas. I’m not sure what Sagan’s point was in this quote because surely he knew this.

Quote 9: “A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.”

This is may be slightly unfair because only a minority of members of the clergy are fanatics. Plus religion has other ways of ensuring its ideas persist so whether the clergy are celibate or not is basically irrelevant. Maybe this was meant to be mainly a throw away line disrespecting religion more than anything deeper.

Quote 10: “What I’m saying is, if God wanted to send us a message, and ancient writings were the only way he could think of doing it, he could have done a better job.”

This is a good point. Many people claim their holy books, such as the Bible, are perfectly clear. Others say they require careful interpretation. Generally what I find is they are clear until it can be shown that they are wrong then that part is suddenly open to more interpretation. It’s quite a dishonest approach really, but Sagan obviously saw through it. If God has got an important message for us he sure has an odd way to of communicating it.

Quote 11: “The fossil record implies trial and error, an inability to anticipate the future, features inconsistent with an efficient Great Designer.”

Of course. Nobody who understands the fossil record (and the molecular evidence and the evidence from extant species) could ever consider creationism or intelligent design as viable theories. Even if there was a designer, he wasn’t very intelligent!

And now a quote I think is quite misleading…

Quote 12: “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”

The key thing here is the phrase “by some definitions”. Sure if someone says there is no god of any type and they know that with absolute certainty then they probably are stupid. But no atheist I know says that. What they do say is either: we know beyond any reasonable doubt that a particular god (for example the one described in the Bible) can’t exist; or there is no good evidence suggesting any sort of god (using the common definition of the word) exists so we currently reject the idea. That’s what atheism really is and I think that is beyond fair criticism.

So that’s a few highlights from Sagan’s various roles as scientist, communicator, and skeptic. I’ll finish with my favourite Sagan quote ever (and one that has already appeared a few times in this blog): “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

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  1. November 11, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Carl Sagan was somehow able to make me feel tiny and insignificant, but also part and product of an awe-inspiring universe. His perspective will surely be missed.

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