"There is a place with
four suns in the sky red, white, blue and yellow; two of them are so
close together that they touch, and starstuff flows between them. I know
of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth
and made of diamond. There are stars leaving the Milky Way Galaxy...
there are perhaps, places outside our universe. The universe is vast and
awesome, and for the first time we are becoming part of it. No longer does
'the world' mean 'the universe'. We live on one world among an immensity
of others. The cosmos revealed to us by the new advances in astronomy and
biology is far grander and more awesome than the tidy world of our ancestors."
- from "The Cosmic Connection"
"I would love to believe
that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering
part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite
the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife,
I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The
world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is
no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little
good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look
death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent
opportunity that life provides."
- In the Valley of the Shadow
"We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact."
"Every one of us is,
in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let
him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another."
"One trend that bothers me is the glorification of stupidity, that the media is reassuring people it's alright not to know anything. That to me is far more dangerous than a little pornography on the Internet."
Demon Haunted World
~ The Dragon In My Garage
~ Baloney Detection Kit
~ Cosmos & The Cosmic Connection
~ Other Works
~ Quotes About Carl Sagan
# THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD - SCIENCE AS A CANDLE IN THE DARK
Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations.
The method of science is far more important than the findings of science. If we teach only the findings and products of science, not matter how useful and even inspiring they may be, without communicating the method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience?
Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers; that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world. Microbiolofy and meterology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
We have arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology.
The history of science - by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible by humans - teaches us thay the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding. Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying.
Scientists can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take Vitamin B12. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you're interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want... but they'll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy... try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.
The claim is also sometimes made that science is as arbitrary or irrational as all other claims to knowledge, or that reason itself is an illusion. As Ethan Allen said "Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are labouring to dethrone. If they argue without reason, which they must do, in order to be consistent with themselves, they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument."
Some people consider science arrogant, nevertheless, I maintain that science is part and parcel humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take seriously what they find. We understand human imperfection. We insist on independent and to the extent possible, quantitative verification of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs.
Scientists are usually careful to characterize the veridical status of their attempts to understand the world - ranging from conjectues and hypotheses, which are highly tentative, all the way up to laws of Nature which are repeatedly and systematically confirmed through many interrogations of how the world works. But even laws of Nature are not absolutely certain. There may be new circumstances never before examined - inside black holes, say, or within the electron, or close to the speed of light - where even our vaunted laws of Nature break down and, however valid they may be in ordinary circumstances, need correction.
The laws of motion and the inverse square law of gravitation associated with the name of Isaac Newton are properly considered among the crowning achievements of the human species. Three hundred years later we use Newtonian dynamics to predict those eclipses. Years after launch, billions of miles from Earth (with only tiny corrections from Einstein), the spacecraft beautifully arrives at a predetermined point in the orbit of the target world, just as the world comes ambling by. The accuracy is astonishing. Plainly, Newton knew what he was doing.
But scientists have not been content enough to leave well enough alone. They have persistently sought chinks in the Newtonian armour. At high speeds and strong gravities, Newtonian physics breaks down. This is one of the great findings of Albert Einstein's Special and General Relativity, and is one of the reasons his memory is so greatly honoured.
# SKEPTICISM IN THE NEW AGE
What skeptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, and to understand, a reasoned argument and - especially important - to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premise or starting point and whether that premise is true.
The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. Maybe they'll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they'll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?
The Man in the Moon is in fact a record of human catastrophes, most of whom took place before humans, before mammals, before vertebrates, before multicelled organisms, and probably even before life arose on Earth. It is a characteristic conceit of our species to put a human face on random cosmic violence.
A common, though insufficienly well known, psychological syndrome rather like alien abduction is called sleep paralysis. Many people experience it. It happens in that twilight world between being fully awake and fully asleep. For a few minutes, maybe longer, you're immobile and acutely anxious. You feel a weight on your chest as if some being is sitting or lying there. Your heartbeat is quick, your breath laboured. You may experience auditory or visual hallucinations of people, demons, ghosts, animals or birds. Robert Baker argues that these common sleep disturbances are behind many if not most of the alien abduction accounts.
After I give lectures
- on almost any subject - I am often asked, "Do you believe in UFOs?".
I'm always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this
is a matter of belief and not evidence. I'm almost never asked, "How good
is the evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships?".
Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in 'contact' with aliens. I am invited to ask them anything. And over the year's I've prepared a little list of questions. The aliens are very advanced remember. So I ask things like, 'Please provide a short proof of Fermat's Last Theorem'. I write out the simple theorem equation with the exponents. It's a simulating exercise to think of questions to which no human today knows the answers, but where a correct answer would be recognised as such. It's even more challenging to formulate such questions in fields other than mathematics. Perhaps we should hold a contest and collect the best responses in '10 Questions to Ask an Alien'.
A scientist places an ad in a Paris newspaper offering a free horoscope. He receieves about 150 replies, each, as requested, detailing a place and time of birth. Every respondent is then sent the identical horoscope, along with a questionnaire asking how accurate the horoscope had been. 94% of the respondents (and 90% of their familes and friends) reply that they were at least recognizable in the horoscope. However, the horoscope was drawn up for a French serial killer. If an astrologer can get this far without even meeting his subjects, think how well someone sensitive to human nuances and not overly scrupulous might do.
Who cares which breakfast cereal has more vitamins when we can take a vitamin pill with breakfast? Likewise, why should it matter whether an antacid contains calcium if the calcium is for nutrition and irrelevant for gastritis? Commercial culture is full of similar misdirections and evasions at the expense of the consumer. You're not supposed to ask. Don't think. Buy.
How is it, I ask myself, that channelers never give us verifiable information otherwise unavailable? Why does Alexander the Great never tell us about the exact location of his tomb, Fermat about his Last Theorem, John Wilkes Booth about the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, Hermann Goring about the Reichstag fire? Why don't Sophocles, Democritus, and Aristarchus dictate their lost books? Don't they wish future generations to have access to their masterpieces?
J.Z. Knight of the
State of Washington claims to be in touch with a 35,000-year-old somebody
called "Ramtha." He speaks English very well, using Knight's tongue, lips
and vocal chords, producing what sounds to me to be an accent from the
Suppose Ramtha were available for questioning. Could we verify whether he is who he says he is? How does he know that he lived 35,000 years ago, even approximately? What calendar does he employ? What were things like 35,000 years ago?
Either Ramtha really is 35,000 years old, in which case we discover something about that period, or he's a phony and he'll (or rather she'll) slip up. Where did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English with an Indian accent, but where 35,000 years ago did they do that?) What was the climate? What did Ramtha eat? (Archaeologists know something about what people ate back then.) What were the indigenous languages, and social structure?
Who else did Ramtha live with -- wife, wives, children, grandchildren? What was the life cycle, the infant mortality rate, the life expectancy? Did they have birth control? What clothes did they wear? How were the clothes manufactured? What were the most dangerous predators? Hunting and fishing implements and strategies? Weapons? Endemic sexism? Xenophobia and ethnocentrism? And if Ramtha came from the "high civilization" of Atlantis, where are the linguistic, technological, historical and other details? What was their writing like? Tell us. Instead, all we are offered are banal homilies.
In a study performed by Dr Gail Goodman, a UCLA psychologist done for the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, examined over 12,000 claims of sexual abuse involving satanic ritual cults, and could not find a single one that held up to scrutiny.
Think of how many religions
attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people
rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support
or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic
accuracy and reliability of science? There isn't a religion on the planet
that doesn't long for a comparable ability- precise, and repeatedly demonstrated
before committed skeptics- to fortell future events. No other human institution
Is this worshipping the altar of science? Is this replacing one faith by another, equally arbitrary? In my view, not at all. The directly observed success of science is the reason I advocate its use... the reason science works so well is partly that built-in error-correcting machinery. There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the most rigorous, skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, sifts the wheat from the chaff... Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are encouraged to contend - substantively and in depth.
Which leaders of the
major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous
and establish institutes to uncover possible deficiencies?
Who is systematically testing the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no longer apply? What sermons evenhandedly examine the God hypothesis? What rewards are religious skeptics given by established religions; or, for that matter, social and economic skeptics by the society in which they swim?. Science is forever whispering in our ears, 'remember, you're new at this. You might be mistaken. You've been wrong before'. Despite all the talk of humility, show me something comparable in religion.
This is one of the reasons that organized religions do not inspire me with confidence.
Since 1858 something
like a hundred million people have come to Lourdes in the hope of being
cured, many with illnesses that the medicine of the time was helpless to
defeat. The Roman Catholic Church rejected the authenticity of large numbers
of claimed miraculous cures, accepting only 65 in nearly a century and
a half (of tumours, tuberculosis, opthalmitis but not say the regeneration
of a limb or a severed spinal cord). Of the 65, women out number men ten
to one. The odds of a miraculous cure in Lourdes then are about one in
a million; you are roughly as likely to recover after visiting Lourdes
as you are to win the lottery, or to die in the crash of a randomly selected
regularly scheduled airplane flight - including the one taking to Lourdes.
The spontaneous remission rate of all cancers, lumped together is estimated to be something between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in a 100,000. If no more than 5% of those who come to Lourdes were there to treat their cancers, there should have been something between 50 and 500 'miraculous' cures of cancer alone. Since only 3 of the attested 65 cures are of cancer, the rate of remission at Lourdes seems to be lower than if the victims had just stayed at home.
Does prayer work at
all? Which ones? There's a category of prayer in which God is begged to
intervene in human history or just to right some real or imagined injustice
or natural calamity - for example when a bishop from the American West
prays for God to intervene and end a devastating dry spell. Why is prayer
needed? Didn't God know of the drought? Was he unaware that it threatened
the bishop's parishioners? What is implied here about the limitations of
a supposedly omnipotent and omniscent deity? The bishop asked his followers
to pray as well. Is God more likely to intervene when many pray for justice
or mercy than when only a few do?
We've discussed faith-healing. What about longevity through prayer? The Victorian statistician Francis Galton argued that, other things being equal, British monarchs ought to be very long-lived, because millions of people all over the world daily intoned the heart-felt mantra 'God Save the Queen' (or King). Yet he showed, if anything, they dont live as long as other members of the wealthy and pampered aristocratic class. Nearly everyone in ancient Egypt exhorted the gods to let the Pharoah live forever. These collective prayers failed. Their failure constitute data.
By making pronouncements
that are, even if only in principle, testable, religions, however unwillingly,
enter the arena of science. Religions can no longer make unchallenged assertions
about reality so long as they do not seize secular power, provided they
cannot coerce belief.
In theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. When I put this question to the current, 14th, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: in such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.
Even I asked, if its a really central tenet, like (I searched for an example) reincarnation?
Even then, he answered. However, he added with a twinkle, its going to be hard to disprove reincarnation.
Plainly, the Dalai Lama is right. Religious doctrine that is insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the advance of science. The grand idea, common to many faiths, of a Creator of the Universe is one such doctrine - difficult alike to demonstrate or to dismiss.
Moses Maimodes, in his 'Guide for the Perplexed' held that God could be truly known only if there were free and open study of both physics and theology. What would happen is science demonstrated an infinetly old Universe? Then theology would have to be seriously revamped. Indeed, this is one conceivable finding of science that could disprove a Creator - because an infinetly old universe would never have been created. It would have always been there.
Perhaps, some people
suggest, its better not to know. If men and women turn out to have different
hereditary propensities, wont this be used as an excuse for the former
to supress the latter?
We are not wise enough to know which lies, or even which shadings of the facts, can competently serve some higher social purpose, especially in the long run. We are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth, and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of the errors of the past.
It is properly said that the Devil can 'quote Scripture to his purpose'. The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any act it proposes, from incest, slavery and mass-murder to the most refined love, courage and self-sacrifice. And this moral multiple personality disorder is hardly restricted to Christianity and Judaism. You can find it deep within Islam, the Hindu tradition, indeed nearly all the world's religions. Perhaps then it is not so much scientists as people who are morally ambiguous.
Except by sealing off the brain into separate air-tight compartments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio ot take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 years old or that all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable?
If you accept the literal
truth of every word of the Bibke, then the Earth must be flat. The same
is true for the Qu'ran. Pronouncing the Earth round then means you're an
athiest. In 1993, the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik
Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the world
is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in God and should
When the movie 'Jurassic Park' was shown in Israel, it was condemned by some Orthodox rabbis because it accepted evolution and because it taught that dinosaurs lived a hundred million years ago, when, as plainly stated at every Rosh Hashanah and every Jewish wedding ceremony, the Universe is less than 6,000 years old. The clearest evidence of our evolution can be found in our genes, but evolution is still being fought, ironically by those whose own DNA proclaims it.
# THE DRAGON IN MY GARAGE
"A fire-breathing dragon
lives in my garage"
You look inside the garage and see no dragon.
"I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon"
You propose spreading flour on the floor to capture the footprints.
"Good idea - 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.
"Except, she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint wont 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 that 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 verdically worthless.
# SCIENCE AND SOCIETY
The method (used by bushmen hunters to track game) is essentially identical to what planetary astronomers use in analysing craters left by impacting worldlets. To me, all of these formidable forensic tracking skills are science in action.
Quinine comes from an infusion of the bark of a particular tree from the Amazon rain forest. How did pre-modern people ever discover that a tea made from this tree, of all the plants in the forest, would relive the symptoms of malaria? They must have tried every tree and every plant - roots, stems, bark, leaves - tried chewing on them, mashing them up, making an infusion. This constitutes a massive set of scientific experiments continuing over generations, experiments that moreover could not be duplicated today for reasons of medical ethics. Think of how many bark infusions from other trees must have been useless, or made the patient retch or even die. We should be doing much more than we are to mine the treasure in such folk knowledge worldwide.
Likewise for say predicting
the weather in a valley near the Orinoco: it is perfectly possible that
pre-industrial peoples noted over the milennia regularities, premonitory
indications, cause and effect relationships at a particular geographic
locale of which professors of meteorology and climatology is some distant
university are wholly ignorant. But it does not follow that the shamans
of such cultures are able to predict the weather in Paris or Tokyo, much
less the global climate.
Certain kinds of folk knowledge are valid and priceless. Others are at best metaphors and codifiers. Ethnomedicine, yes; astrophysics, no. It is certainly true that all beliefs and all myths are worthy of a respectful hearing. It is not true that all folk beliefs are equally valid if we're talking about an internal mindset, but about understanding the external reality.
Children with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programs for the gifted are sometimes decried as elitism. Why arent intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double-standard at work here, nationwide.
For 99% of the tenure
of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had
not yet been made. Except for first-hand experience, almost everything
we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the game of 'Chinese Whispers',
over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted
Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power;to contemplate with the best teachers the insights, painfully extracted from Nature of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow long dead people to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.
In the classroom, in
newspapers and on television, why arren't we using sports to teach science?
When I was growing up my father would bring home a daily paper and consume
(often with great gusto) the baseball box scores. There they were, to me
dry as dust, with obscure abbreviations (W,SS,K,RBI), but they spoke to
him. Eventually I too got caught up in the world of baseball statistics,
I know it helped me in learning decimals.
Take a look at the financial pages. Any introductory material? Explanatory footnotes? Definitions of abbreviations? Almost none. It's sink or swim. Yet people voluntarily read the stuff. Its not beyond their ability. Its only a matter of motivation.
Star Trek, despite its strong international and interspecies perspective, often ignores the most elementary scientific facts. The idea that Mr Spock could be a cross between a human being and a life form independently evolved on the planet Vulcan is genetically far less probable than a successful cross of a man and an artichoke.
Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, as it was then, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin, different philosophies or religion; or maybe its drug use, violent crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or desecrating the flag. Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights.
If we do not know what we are capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves. If we focus on what was considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and secular authorities in the 15th to 17th century witch hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the 18th century US constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: including trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of Church and State.
Because of the courage of these opponents of the witch mania... and especially the spread of the ideas of the European Enlightenment, witch burnings eventually disappeared. The last execution for witchcraft in Holland, cradle of the Enlightenment, was in 1610, in England 1684, America 1692, France 1745, Germany 1775, and Poland 1793. In Italy, the Inquisition was condemning people to death until the end of the 18th century, and inquisitorial torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church until 1816. The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches. The witch mania is shameful.
It is a fact of life
on our beleagured little planet that widespread torture, famine and governmental
criminal irresponsibility are much more likely to be found in tyrannical
than in democratic governments. Why? Because the rulers of the former are
much less likely to be thrown out of office for their misdeeds than the
rulers of the latter. This is error-correcting machinery in politics.
The methods of science, with all its imperfections, can be used to improve social, political and economic systems, and this is, I think, true no matter what criteria of improvement is adopted. How is this possible if science is based on experiment? Humans are not electrons or lab rats. But every act of Congress, every Supreme Court decision, every Presidential National Security Directive, every change in the Prime Rate is an experiment. Every shift in economic policy, every decrease or increase in funding for Head Start, every toughening of criminal sentences is an experiment. Communism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China was an experiment. In almost all of these cases, adequate control experiments are not performed, or variables are insufficiently separated. Nevertheless, to a certain and often useful degree, such ideas can be tested.
Since there is no deductive theory of social organization, our only recourse is scientific experiment - trying out sometimes on small scales (community, city and state level, say) a wide range of alternatives. One of the prerequisites of power on becoming prime minister in China in the fifth century BC was that you got to construct a model state in your home district or province. It was Confucius' chief life failing, he lamented, that he never got to try.
To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion years and not 6 to 12 thousand years old improves our appreciation of its sweep and grandeur; to entertain the notion that we are a particularly complex arrangement of atoms, and not some breath of divinity, at the very least enhances our respect for atoms; to discover, as now seems probable, that our planet is one of billions of other worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy and that our galaxy is one of billions more, majestically expands the arena of what is possible; to find that our ancestors were also the ancestors of apes ties us to the rest of life and makes possible important - if occaisionally rueful - reflections on human nature.
If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.
Carl Sagan proposed a Baloney Detection Kit for those investigating the paranormal in the book, read it here. Local mirror of article.
# QUOTATIONS FROM THE BOOK
To my grandson, I wish you a world free of demons, and full of light...
As children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror.
"The Cosmos is all
that is or ever was or ever will be."
"The surface of the
Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of
what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen
our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean
"Biology is more like
history than it is like physics. You have to know the past to understand
the present. There is no predictive theory of biology, just as there's
no predictive theory of history the reason is the same: both subjects
are still too complicated for us. But we can understand ourselves much
better by understanding other cases."
- Cosmos (episode #2)
"Venus is the place
in the solar system most like hell."
- Cosmos (episode #4)
"Mars has become a
kind of mythic arena onto which we've projected our earthly hopes and fears."
- Cosmos (episode #5)
"Near an ice-cliff
on Titan, through a rare break in the cloud of organic molecules, we can
see looming large and lovely the ringed-planet of Saturn."
- A sight to thrill the imagination, from Cosmos (episode #6)
is a single frame in a cosmic movie."
- Cosmos (episode #8)
"We see that space
and time are intertwined. We cannot look out into space without looking
back in time."
- Cosmos (episode #8)
"The universe is not
required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition."
- Cosmos (episode #8)
makes the universe accessible to advanced civilizations, but only to those
who go on the journey, not to those who stay behind."
- Cosmos (episode #8)
"The earth and every
living thing are made of starstuff."
- Cosmos (episode #8)
"Atoms are made in
the inside of stars... this is why the stars shine."
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"If you wish to make
an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe."
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"Some 5 billion years
from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth... then the sun will
begin to die, life will be extinguished, the oceans will boil and evaporate
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"The life of an ordinary
star: born in a gas cloud, maturing as a yellow sun, decaying as a red
giant, and dying as a white dwarf."
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"Stars are phoenixes,
rising from their own ashes."
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"We on Earth marvel
at the daily return of our single sun but from a planet orbiting a star
in a distant globular cluster a still more glorious dawn awaits not a
sun rise but a galaxy rise. A morning filled with 400 billion suns, the
rising of the Milky Way, an enormous spiral form."
- Cosmos (episode #9)
"We inhabit a universe
of galaxies... there are globular, elliptical galaxies, and then there
are the graceful blue arms of spiral galaxies."
- Cosmos (episode #10)
"The city, like the
brain, has evolved in successive stages. The vestiges of its past are still
retained among the constructions of the present."
- Cosmos (episode #11)
"Writing is perhaps
the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew
each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time,
allowing us to voyage through time. For the price of a modest meal, you
get the history of Rome."
- Cosmos (episode #11)
"A message in a bottle,
cast into the cosmic ocean."
- describing the information carried on the Voyager spacecraft, Cosmos (episode #11)
of light years distant evolve a spiral form. So does our own Milky Way.
The same gravitational forces are at work. And on planets also: there are
spiral storm systems on Jupiter, the same patterns are common on Earth.
The intelligent beings on every world will sooner or later understand the
laws of nature."
- Cosmos (episode #12)
"In our tenure on this
planet we have accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage, hereditary propensities
for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders and hostility to outsiders,
which place our survival in some question. But we have also acquired compassion
for others, love for our children and our children's children, a desire
to learn from history, and a great soaring passionate intelligence the
clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of
our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our vision and
understanding and prospects are bound exclusively to the Earth or, worse,
to one small part of it. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an
inescapable perspective awaits us. National boundaries are not evident
when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic, religious or national
chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as
a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light
against the bastion and citadel of the stars."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"Every culture on the
planet has devised its own response to the riddle of the universe. There
are many different ways of being human. But an extra-terrestrial vistor
examining the differences among human societies would find those differences
trivial compared to the similarities. We are one species. We are starstuff,
harvesting starlight. Our past and our future are tied to the sun, the
moon and the stars."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"Alexandria was the
greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came
here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged
with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians,
Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls,
and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that
the word 'cosmopolitan' realized its true meaning citizen, not just of
a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"The sacred truth of
science is that there are no sacred truths."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"We are a way for the
cosmos to know itself."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"We have found volcanoes
on other worlds, and explosions on the Sun; studied comets from the depths
of space and traced their origins and destinies; listened to pulsars and
searched for other civilizations. We humans have set foot on another world,
in a place called the 'Sea of Tranquility'... These are some of the things
that atoms do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
"Our loyalties are
to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive
is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast,
from which we spring."
- Cosmos (episode #13)
about our environment have come from spacecraft missions to the planets
by exploring other worlds we safeguard this one. By itself I thin this
fact more than justifies the money our species has already spent sending
ships to other worlds. It is our fate to live during one of the most perilous,
and at the same time one of the most hopeful, chapters in human history...
The same rocket and nuclear and computer technology that sends our ships
past the farthest known planet can also be used to destroy our global civilization.
Exactly the same technology can be used for good and evil."
- Cosmos (episode #13 update)
"History is full of
people who out of fear, or ignorance, or lust for power has destroyed knowledge
of immeasurable value which truly belongs to us all. We must not let it
# THE COSMIC CONNECTION
The Cosmic Connection was written by Carl Sagan in 1973, it explores many of the themes and concepts that would be expanded upon in Cosmos.
"Carl Sagan succeeded,
more than anyone else of his generation, in giving science a human face.
He wanted everyone on Earth, not only the scientific elite, to feel connected
with the cosmos... Carl's dream of a rapid expansion of human voyages into
the cosmos has faded. The International Space Station falls ludicrously
short of Carl's expectations for a pioneering space venture. It is merely
revolving in a low orbit around Earth. It is a welfare program for the
American and Russian aerospace industries, driven by mundane politics rather
than by visions of cosmic connections... the image of Earth as a pale blue
dot became an important part of Carl's message. This little dot contains
the whole of human history, all our passions and struggles and loves and
hates... this book is a record of short-range visions that failed and of
long-range visions that remain alive."
- Freeman Dyson, updated foreward to the book
"A family trip to the
movies to see the latest sci-fi blockbuster was inevitably marred by Carl's
squirming. It tormented him to see how riddled with errors the 'science'
was. Hollywood loved the jargon of science because it added to the reality
of the experience... for Carl, to discover what the stars really
are, how big and old the universe might be, to behold the exquisite interconnectedness of life on Earth and to trace its origins all the way back through cosmic evolution, had revolutionary spiritual and ethical implications, unanticipated by pre-scientific western religious traditions. It wasn't going to be enough to merely update the textbooks. This radically changed understanding of who, when and where we are, called for new psalms, new moral imperatives and a new sense of the sacred... 'YOU ARE HERE' read the little sign on the appropriate arm of the Milky Way Galaxy in the first slide of his lectures.."
- Ann Druyan, from her introduction to the book
We are the product of 4.5 billion years of fortuitous, slow biological evolution. There is no reason to think that the evolutionary process has stopped. Man is a transitional animal. He is not the climax of creation... Many more species of organisms have died during the history of the Earth than are alive today. The secret of evolution is time and death.
Among the adaptations that seem to be useful is one that we call intelligence. Intelligence is an extension of an evolutionary tendency apparent in the simplest organisms control of the environment. The standby biological method of control has been the hereditary material, passed from generation to generation... but intelligence requires information of an adaptive quality developed during the lifetime of a single individual. A variety of organisms on the Earth today have this quality we call intelligence. The dolphins have it, and so do the great apes. But it is most evident in the organism called Man. In Man, not only is adapative information acquired in the lifetime of a single individual, but it is passed on extra-genetically through books, through education.
In a very real sense human beings are machones constructed by the nucleic acids to arrange for the efficient replication of more nucelic acids. In a sense our strongest urges, noblest enterprises, most compelling necessities, and apparent free wills are all an expression of the information coded in our genetic material... this does not deny our humanity, but it would be a great mistake to ignore where we have come from in our attempt to determine where we are going. Our instinctual apparatus has changed little from the hunter-gatherer days of several hundred thousand years ago. Our society has changed enormously from those times, and the greatest problems of survival in the contemporary world can be understood in terms of this conflict between what we feel we must do because of our instincts and what we know we must do because of our extragenetic learning.
When we move to greater distances from the Sun than Tau Ceti forty or fifty light years the Sun dwindles further in brightness until it is invisible to an unaided human eye. Our mighty star, on which all life on Earth depends, our Sun, which is so bright that we risk blindness by prolonged direct viewing, cannot be seen at all at a distance of a few dozen light years a thousandth of the distance to the center of our Galaxy.
Pioneer 10 is the speediest object launched to date by mankind. But space is very empty, and the distances between the stars are vast. The spacecraft will take about 80,000 years merely to travel the distance to the nearest star, about 4.3 light years away.
We believe that a scientifically sophisticated civilization will have no difficulty understand the radial burst pattern (of the message carried by Pioneer 10) as the positions and periods of 14 pulsars with respect to the Solar System of launch. Pulsars are cosmic clocks that are running down at largely known rates. The recipients of the message must ask themselves not only where it was possible to see 14 pulsars arrayed in such a relative position, but also when it was possible to see them. The answers are: Only from a very small volume of the Milky Way Galaxy and in a single year in the history of the Galaxy. Within that small volume there are perhaps a thousand stars; only one is antiticipated to have the array of planets with relative distances as indicated at the bottom of the diagram (carried by Pioneer 10).
The virtue of thinking about life elsewhere is that it forces us to stretch our imaginations. Biology the evolutionary process has never invented the wheel, in spite of the fact that its selective advantages are manifest. Wheels are of use only where there are surfaces to roll on. Since the planet Earth is a bump place with few long, smooth areas, there was no advantage to evolving the wheel. We can very well imagine another planet with enormous long stretches of smooth lava fields in which wheeled organisms are abundant.
Oxygen chauvinism is common. If a planet has no oxygen, it is alleged to be uninhabitable. This view ignores the fact that life arose on Earth in the absence of oxygen... fundamentally, oxygen is a poisonous gas. There are many organisms on Earth that do without oxygen and many that are poisoned by it. In a brilliant set of evolutionary adaptations, organisms like insects and frogs and fish learned not only to survive in the presence of this poisonous gas but actually to use it.
Just as we are organisms completely at home only on the land, although we evolved from the sea, the universe may be populated with societies that arose on planets but that are comfortable only in the depths of interstellar space.
John Lilly is replete with dolphin anecdotes of first or second hand. In one, a dolphin was captured in the open, put aboard a small ship in a plastic tank, and confronted his captors with a set of sounds, whistles, screeches, and drones that had a remarkably imitative character. They sounded like seagulls, fog horns, train whistles the noises of shore. The dolphin has been captured by shore creatures and was attempting to male shore talk, as a well-brought-up guest would. In another tale, a dolphin held in captivity for some time was let loose in the open sea and followed. When it made contact with a school of dolphins, there was an extremely long and involved sequence of sounds from the liberated prisoner. Was it an account of his imprisonment?
It is possible that planets with very hostile environments by terrerstrial standards will be explored by men inside machines like enormous prosthetic devices... there may be telepuppets, devices landed on another planet by fully controlled by an individual human being in orbit, all of whose senses are in a feedback loop with the device.
There is a practical geocentrism to our everyday life. We still talk about the Sun rising and setting rather than the Earth turning... space exploration will bring a little humility.
Astronomy is not taught in public schools in America. The ancient Greeks considered astronomy one of the half dozen or so subjects required for the education of free men. I find, in discussions with first-graders and hippie communards, congressmen and cab drivers, that there is an enormous untapped reservoir of interest and excitement in things astronomical. Most newspapers in America have a daily syndicated astrology column. How many have a daily syndicated astronomy column, or even a science column?
I recieve a great deal of mail, all kinds of mail... but over the years there is one letter that stands out in my mind as the most poignant and charming of its type. There came in the post an 85-page handwritten letter, written in green ballpoint ink, from a gentleman in a mental hospital in Ottawa... he had the interesting and perceptive idea that gods survive only as long as they have worshippers. What happens then to the gods who are no longer believed in, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome for example? Well, he concluded, they are reduced to the status of ordinary human beings, no longer with the powers of the godhead. Such retired deities, he reasoned, would be thrown into insane asylums. Therefore, the most reasonable method of locating these defrocked gods was to incarcerate himself in the local mental institution which he promptly did. While we may disagree with some of the steps in his reasoning, we probably all agree that the gentleman did the right thing.
THE SOLAR SYSTEM
In all the history of mankind, there will only one generation that will be first to explore the Solar System, one generation for which, in childhood, the planets are distant and indistinct discs moving through the night sky, and for which, in old age, the planets are places, diverse new worlds in the course of exploration. To all who come after us, the present moment will be a pivotal instant in the history of mankind. There are not many generations given an opportunity as historically significant as this one.
One of the reasons that planetary astronomy is such a delight these days is that it is possible to find out what's really right. In the old days you could make any guess you liked about a planetary environment, and there was little chance that anyone could ever prove you wrong. Today, spacecraft hang like the swords of Damocles over each hypothesis spun by planetary theoreticians and the theoreticians can be observed in a curious amalgam of hope and fear as each new burst of spacecraft planetary information comes winging in.
We can calculate something about what it would be like to stand on Phobos (a moon of Mars). Mars, less than six thousand miles away, would fill about half the sky of Phobos. Marsrise would be a spectacular event.
When Phobos is above the day hemisphere of Mars, the reddish light of Mars would be enough to read by night on Phobos... Because of their small size, Phobos and Deimos have very low gravitational accelerations. If you can perform a standing high jump of two or three feet on Earth, you could perform a standing high jump of half a mile on Phobos. Even more interesting would be a game like baseball on Phobos. The velocity necessary to launch an object into orbit about Phobos is only about 20 miles an hour.
Sooner or later, certainly on a time scale of centuries, there will be instruments, and then men, on the surface of Phobos looking up with awe at the immense red planet that fills the sky from zenith to horizon.
And what about the opposite view? What do the moons of Barsoom look like from the surface of Mars?
Twelve thousand years ago may have been a time on Mars of balmy temperatures, soft nights, and the trickle of liquid water down innumerable streams and rivulets, rushing out to join mighty, gushing rivers. Some of these rivers would have flowed into the great Coprates Rift Valley.
Venus is a planet that appears to have undergone a runaway greenhouse effect. A massive quantity of carbon dioxide and water vapour has been put into the atmosphere, so cloaking the surface as to permit little infrared thermal emission to escape into space. The greenhouse effect has heated the surface to 900 degree F or more.
The Sun is steadily growing brighter. About four billion years from now the Sun will be sufficiently bright that there will be a greatly enhanced runaway greenhouse effect on Earth, just as there is today onn Venus. Our oceans will boil... the Earth will be an uninhabitable cauldron. However, remarkably, the same increase in the brightness of the Sun will convert Mars from a place where the average temperature is 100 degrees F below to a place that has temperatures almost exactly the same as those on Earth today. Our remote descendents, of any, may wish to take advantage of this coincidence.
Both subtly and profoundly, the activities of life have affected the environment of our planet. Oxygen is produced almost entirely by green-plant photosynthesis... there is a feedback loop in which the climate itself may to some degree be controlled by gas-exchange reactions in which the life forms on Earth engage. In a way, life on Earth has terraformed Terra. It has to some extent made the Earth the way it is.
Is it possible that at some time in the future we might be able similarly to terraform other planets, to convert a Mars or Venus, into a habitable environment? It may very well be that on time scales of hundreds of years we will have the capability of converting Mars into a much more Earth-like planet than it would otherwise be... It is possible that the injection of appropriately grown algae into the clouds of Venus would in time convert the present extremely hostile environment of Venus into one much more pleasant for human beings.
At the very beginning of the 20th century, competent scientific and lay opinion held that airplanes were impossible... this is the century in which some of the oldest dreams of Man have been realized, in which mankind has sprouted wings and realized the aspirations of Daedalus and da Vinci. Air-breathing, man-carrying machines now circumnavigate our planet in less than a day; other machines, skimming above the atmosphere, carry men around our globe in 90 minutes. There is a generation of man and women for whom, in their youth, the planets ere unimaginably distant points of light, and the Moon was the paradign of the unattainable. Those same men and women, in middle life, have seen their fellows walk upon the surface of the Moon... there is only one generation of humans in the 10-million-year history of mankind that will live through such a transition.
The Earth is overcrowded in a psychological sense. For that restless and ambition-driven fraction of mankind that has blazed new paths for our species, there are no new places to go. There are places inside of ourselves, but this is not the forte of such individuals... at just this time in our history comes the possibility fo exploring and colonizing our neighboring words in space.
The example of the earliest exploration of the New World suggests that the hiatus in space will be only temporary.
The spacecraft trip from the Earth to the Moon is faster than was the galleon trip from Spain to the Canary Islands in the 15th and 16th centuries. The voyage from Earth to Mars will take as long as did the sailing time from England to North America; the journey from the Earth to the moons of Jupiter will require about the same time as did the voyage from France to Siam in the 18th century. Moreover, th fraction of the gross national product of the US or USSR that is being expended even in the more costly manned space programs is just comparable to the fraction of the GNP spent by England and France in the 16th and 17th centuries on their exploratory ventures by sailing ships.
I believe that Pioneer 10 will be intercepted, by interstellar voyagers from the planet Earth, overtaking and heaving to this ancient space derelict as if the 'Nina', with its crew jabbering in Castilian about falling off the edge of the world, were to be intercepted, somewhere off Tristan de Cunha, by the aircraft carrier 'John F. Kennedy'.
BEYOND THE SOLAR SYSTEM
From earliest times, human beings have pondered their place in the universe. They have wondered whether they are in some sense connected with the awesome and immense cosmos in which Earth is imbedded. Many thousands of years ago, a pseudo-science called astrology was invented. The positions of the planets at the birth of a child were supposed to play a major role in determing his or her future... we know now that the planets are worlds more or less like our own. We know that their light and gravity have negligible influence on a newborn babe. We know that there are enormous numbers of other objects asteroids, comets, pulsars, quasars, exploding galaxies, black holes, and the rest objects not known to the ancient speculators who invented astrology. The universe is immensely grander than they could have imagined.
The search for a connection, a hooking-up between people and the universe, has not diminished since the dawn of astrology. The same human needs exist despite the advances of science. But the deep human need to seek and understand our connection with the universe is a goal well within our grasp.
The fate of individual human beings may not now be connected in a deep way with the rest of the universe, but the matter out of which each of us is made is intimately tied to processes that occured immense intervals of time and enormous distances in space away from us. Our Sun is a second or third generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of starstuff.
During the filming
of "2001: A Space Odyssey", Stanley Kubrick, who obviously had a grasp
for detail, became concerned that extraterrestrial intelligence might be
discovered before the $10.5 million film was released, rendering the plot
line obsolete, if not erroneous. Lloyd's of London was approached to underwrite
an insurance policy protecting against losses should extraterrestrial intelligence
be discovered. They declined to write such a policy... and missed a good
The spacecraft's crew was to make contact with extraterrestrials. Kubrick favoured extraterrestrials not profoundly different from human beings. Kubrick's preference had one distinct advantage, an economic one. The alternative portrayal of extraterrestrials, whatever it was, was bound to be expensive. Over dinner, I argued that the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing like us is ever to likely to evolve again anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials. Kubrick experimented during production with many representations of extraterrestrial life, including a pirouetting dancer in black tights with white polka dots. Photographed against a black background, this would have been visually very effective. He finally decided on a surrealistic representation of extraterrestrial intelligence. The movie played a significant role in expanding the average person's awareness of the cosmic perspective.
We now have, for the first time, the tools to make contact with civilizations on planets of other stars/ It is an astonishing fact that the great 1000-foot diameter radio telescope of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, run by Cornell University, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, would be able to communicate with an identical copy of itself anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy.
In considering the problem of interstellar communication, some people are worried. What if a civilization we come into contact with is more advanced than we? The history of contact between advanced and backward technological civilizations on Earth is a sorry one... should we not keep quiet? There are those who predict a dire catastrophe if we broadcast our presence to another star. The message aboard Pioneer 10 was criticized by a few, because it 'gave away' our position in the Galaxy... but in any case, it is too late. We have already announced our presence. The initial radio broadcasts, starting with Marconi and reaching significant intensity in the 1920s, have leaked through the ionosphere and are expanding at the velocity of light in a spherical wavefront centered around the Earth. And in that wavefront, an advanced technical civilization can pick up the tinny transmissions of Enrico Caruso arias, the Scopes trial, the 1928 election returns, the big jazz bands. These are the harbingers of the cultures of Earth, our first emissaries to the stars.
One hundred years ago, we had no domestic radio and television signals leaking out into space. One hundred years from now the development of tight beam transmission by satellites and cable television and new technologies may mean that again no radio and television signals would be leaking into space. It may be that such signals are detectable only for a few hundred years in the multi-billion-year history of a planet.
The vast distances between the stars imply that there will be no cosmic dialogies by radio transmission. Suppose we receive a signal from a civilization at some likely distance for first contact, such as 300 light years. The total round-trip communication time would be 600 years. 600 years ago, the Black Death stalked Europe, the Ming dynasty was founded, Charles the Wise sat on the French throne, and the Aztecs were hanging those who polluted the water and the air. 600 years is a long time on Earth. Interstellar communication will not be a dialogue. It will be a monologue. The dumb guys will hear from the smart guys, as if the astrologer of Charles the Wise were to receive a message from us.
Some individuals find the absence of a dialogue distressing. Philip Morrison, of MIT, has pointed out that such cultural monologues are entirely common in the history of mankind; that that entire cultural patrimony of classical Greece, which has influenced our civilization in a profound way, has traveled in only one direction in time. The Greeks have sent their wisdom to us on paper and parchment, and not by radio waves, but the principle is the same. The scientific, logical, cultural and ethical knowledge to be gained by tuning into galactic transmissions may be, in the long run, the most profound single event in the history of our civilization. There will be information in what we will no longer be able to call the humanities because our communicants will not be human. There will be a deparochialization of the way we view the cosmos and ourselves.
If we define an advanced civilization as one able to engage in long-distance radio communication using large radio telescopes, there has been an advanced civilization on our planet for only about ten years.
Civilizations hundreds of thousands or millions of years beyond us should have scienes and technologies so far beyond our present capabilities as to be indistinguishable from magic. It is not that what they can do violates the laws of physics; it is that we will not understand how they are able to use the laws of physics to do what they do. It is possible that we are so backward and so uninteresting to such civilizations as not to be worthy fo contact, or at least much contact. There may be a few specialists in primitive planetary societies who receive master's degress in studying Earth or listening to our raspy radio traffic. There may be amateurs Boy Scouts, radio hams and the equivalent who may be interested in developments on Earth.
two very advanced civilizations will likely use a science and a technology
inaccessible to us. We are like the inhabitants of an isolated valley in
New Guinea who communicate with societies in neighboring valleys (quite
different societies, I might add) by runner and by drum. When asked how
a very advanced society will communicate, they might guess by an extremely
rapid runner or by an improbably large drum. They might not guess a technology
beyond their ken. And yet, all the while, a vast international cable and
radio traffic passes over them, around them, and through them...
We will listen for the interstellar drums, but we will miss the interstellar cables. We are likely to receive our first messages from the drummers of the neighboring galactic valleys from civilizations only somewhat in our future. The civilizations vastly more advanced than we, will be, for a long time, remote both in distance and in accessibility. At a future time of vigorous interstellar radio traffic, the very advanced civilizations may be, for us, still insubstantial legends.
There is only one category
of legend (indicating ancient extraterrestrial visits) that would be convincing:
When information is contained in the legend that could not possibly have
been generated by the civilization that created the legend if, for example,
a number transmitted from thousands of years ago as holy turns out to the
nuclear fine-structure contant.
In the frieze of the great Aztec pyramids at San Juan Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City, there is a repated figure, described as a rain god, but looking for all the world like an amphibious-tracked vehicle with four headlights. I do not believe for a moment that such vehicles were indigenous in Aztec times among other reasons, because they are too close to what we have today rather then too far from it. There artifacts are, in fact, psychological projection tests.
The mathematician Freeman Dyson offers a scheme in which the planet Jupiter is broken down piece by peice, transported to the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and reconstructed into a spherical shell a swarm of individual fragments revolving about the Sun. The advantage of Dyson's proposal is that all of the sunlight now wasted by not falling upon an inhabited planet could then be gainfully employed; and a population greatly in excess of that that now inhabits the Earth could be maintained. At the present rate of technological progress it will be possible to construct such a Dyson sphere in perhaps some thousands of years. In that case, other civilizations older than we may have already constructed such spherical swarms.
One round-trip communication by radio between us and the center of the Milky Way Galaxy would require 60000 years. Cultural homogenization of the Galaxy would require many such exchanges and I find it difficult to believe that fewer than 100 exchanges between the remotest parts of the Galaxy would be adequate for galactic cultural homegenization. If there exists a galactic community of civilizations that truly embraces much of the Milky Way, and if we are right that no information can be transmitted at a velocity faster than light, then most of the members and all the founding members of such a community must be at least millions of years more advanced than we are. For this reason I think it is a great conceit, the idea of the present Earth establishing radio contact and becoming a member of a galactic federation something like a bluejay applying to the UN for member-nation status.
We conclude that there cannot be a strongly cohesive network of communicating, unifyinf intelligences throughout the whole universe if (1) such galactic civilizations evolve upwards from individual planetary societies and if (2) the velocity of light is indeed a fixed limit on the speed of information transmission, as special relativity requires. Such a univeral intelligence is a kind of god that cannot exist.
There is a bizarre consequence of special relativity, important only close to the speed of light: The phenomenon called time dilation. Were we to travel close to the speed of light, time, as measured by our wristwatch or by our heartbeat, would pass more slowly than a comparable but stationary clock. Time dilation implies the possibility of time travel into the future. A space vehicle that could travel arbitrarily close to the speed of light arranges for time to move as slowly as desired. At the velocity of light, it would take 60000 years to cross from one end of the Galaxy to the other. But this time is measured by a stationary observer. A space vehicle able to move close to the speed of light could traverse the Galaxy in less than a single lifetime. Naturally, our friends and relatives would have changed some in the interval as would our society and probably even our planet. According to special relativity, there is no prospect of travelling at the speed of light, merely very close to it. And there is no possibility in this way of travelling backward in time; we can merely make time slow down, we cannot make it stop or reverse. The engineering problems involved in the design of space vehicles capable of such velocities is immense. Pioneer 10 is travelling at about 10000 times slower than the speed of light.
The death of stars is taking astronomers into unexpected and almost surreal celestial landscapes. One of these is the supernova explosion, the death throes of a star slightly more massive than our Sun. In a brief period of a few weeks to a few months, such an exploding star may become brighter than the rest of the galaxy in which it resides.
At the end of their lifetimes, stars more than about 2.5 times as massive as our Sun undergo a collapse so powerful that no known forces can stop it. The stars develop a pucker in the fabric of space, a 'black hole', ino which they disappear. The physics of black holes particularly rotating black holes os rather poorly understood at the present time. There is however, one conjecture that had been made which cannot be disproved and is worthy of note: Black holes may be apertures to elsewhen. Were we to plunge into a black hole, we would re-emerge, it is conjectured, in a different part of the universe and in another epoch in time... for all we know, black holes are the transportation conduits of advanced technological civilizations conceivably, conduits in time as well as in space.
Even if the Earth were started over again and only random forces again operated, nothing like a human being would be produced because human beings are the end product of an exquisitely complicated evolutionary pathway full of false starts and dead ends and statistical accidents. But we might well expect, if not human beings, organisms functionally not very different from ourselves.
are the most severe natural hazards that we know of, posing a long-term
threat to the future of our civilization and even our species."
- David Morrison, from the revised epilog to the book
# OTHER WORKS
It is sometimes said
that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the
world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the
world actually works that white light is made of colors, that color is
the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects
light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the
sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm
to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.
- from "Pale Blue Dot"
What makes 'billions
and billions' so popular? It used to be that 'millions' was a byword for
a large number. The enormously rich were millionaires. There were almost
4 million Americans in 1787; by the beginning of World War II, there were
132 million. It is 93 million miles from the Earth to the Sun... but times
have changed. Now the world has a clutch of billionaires. The age of the
Earth is 4.6 billion years. The human population is pushing 6 billion people...
and there are all those billions of stars and galaxies. In 1980, when the
Cosmos television series was first shown, people were ready for billions.
- from "Billions and Billions"
It seems to me what
is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the
most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and
at the same time a great openness to new ideas
If you are only skeptical,
then no new ideas make it through to you
On the other hand, if you are
open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense
in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless
- from 1987 lecture "The Burden of Skepticism"
"There are many hypotheses
in physics of almost comparable brillance and elegance that have been rejected
because they did not survive such a confrontation with experiment. In my
view, the human condition would be greatly improved if such confrontations
and willingness to reject hypotheses were a regular part of our social,
political, economic, religious and cultural lives."
- The Dragons of Eden
The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.
I believe that the extraordinary should certainly be pursured. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Among Michael Faraday's many celebrated discoveries, some of obvious and immediate practical beneift, were more arcane findings in electricity and magnetism, then little more than laboratory curiosities. In the traditional dialogue between heads of state and heads of laboratories, the Queen asked Faraday of what use such studies were, to which he is said to have replied, "Madam, of what use is a baby?"
Those afraid of the
universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and
envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts
of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with
the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where
it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate
its deepest mysteries.
"You see, the religious
people, most of them, really think this planet is an experiment. That's
what their beliefs come down to. Some god or other is always fixing and
poking, messing around with tradesmen's wives, giving tablets on mountains,
commanding you to mutilate your children, telling people what words they
can say and what words they can't say, making people feel guilty about
enjoying themselves, and like that. Why can't the gods leave well enough
All this intervention speaks of incompetence. If God didn't want Lot's wife to look back, why didn't he make her obedient, so she'd do what her husband told her? Or if he hadn't made Lot such a shithead, maybe she would have listened to him more.
If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn't he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why's he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there's one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He's not good at design, he's not good at execution. He'd be out of business if there was any competition."
Anything you don't
understand, Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you
sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence.
You simply turn your mind off and say God did it.
- Dr. Arroway, in "Contact"
The major religions
on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can't all be correct.
And what if all of you are wrong? It's a possibility, you know. You must
care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing
contentions is to be skeptical. I'm not any more skeptical about your religious
beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in
my line of work, they're called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.
- Dr. Arroway, in "Contact"
The question 'Do you
believe in God?' has a peculiar structure. If I say no, do I mean I'm convinced
God doesn't exist, or do I mean I'm not convinced he does exist? Those
are two very different questions.
- Dr. Arroway, in "Contact"
We tell children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we think emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths before they're grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as adults depends on them knowing the world as it really is. We worry, and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus.
# OTHER QUOTES
"In a scientific age, what is a more reasonable and acceptable disguise for the classic religious mythos than the idea that we are being visited by messengers of a powerful, wise and benign advanced civilization?"
- speaking at a symposium of UFO sightings (1969)
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we've been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. it is simply too painful to acknowledge - even to ourselves - that we've been so credulous. So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new bamboozles rise.
- The Fine Art of Baloney Detection
In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
- CSICOP keynote address, 1987
# QUOTES ABOUT CARL SAGAN
I wish I had written this book... as I close this eloquent and fascinating book, I recall the final chapter title from one of Carl Sagan's earlier works, Cosmos. "Who Speaks for Earth?" is a rhetorical question, but I presume to answer it. My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl Sagan himself. He is wise, humane, polymathic, witty, well-read, and incapable of composing a dull sentence.
- message from Ingrid4040@aol.com on the Carl Sagan memorial site
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