Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (book review)

"The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir." - Page 29

I love Carl Sagan. The way he brought science, astronomy, history, skepticism, etc. to the common man in his acclaimed 1970s show, Cosmos, was so admirable. The Demon-Haunted World has been on my "to read" list for a long time now. It was originally published 20 years ago, in 1996, and then he died later on that year from cancer, so he didn't get to enjoy its success. He wrote it over a ten-year period, and that patient, careful, finely tuned aspect of it comes out quite evidently in the book, which I'm going to call a marvelous one. In it, he covers numerous topics that overlap each other in regard to the intriguing historical nature of people having the same tendency throughout history of letting their minds get carried away with them, for example, repeatedly, tenaciously and mistakenly searching the sky or their dreams for signs and beings that simply aren't there, be they gods, devils, angels or aliens coming to take them away and/or use them. So, with all the scholasticism of a great skeptic, scientist and historian, he covers matters such as the crop-circle hysteria, the age-old problem of confusing dreams with reality; he covers hallucinations, demons, visions of the Virgin Mary (and how, for hundreds of years, it's always been about the Church trying to influence politics to its liking and been a huge cash grab each and every single time) and the sheer, grand-scale brutality of the witch hunts; he tackles UFO sightings and abductions, hypnotism and government propaganda, giving examples of modern-day "witch hunts." He has a very well thought-out baloney-detection criteria that he lays out for the reader point for point, and he applies it to all sketchy matters that cry out to be debunked.

All the chapters meld into each other so fluidly, the end of one usually being a kind of precursor to the next. He was so brilliant. And his passion for the sciences is so refreshing. I love how he explains the closely nit nature between democracy and science, and how both are at the root of the philosophies and outlooks of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who truly were ingenious men (scientific men) with almost superhuman foresight. And he often uses previous chapters to bolster arguments in a given one and show how a present chapter ties into what was discussed much earlier on in the book. As is to be expected, it's all very erudite, rational, logical, and fueled by a zeal and wonder for life and the truth.

"Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both." - Pages 29-30

I learned so much from reading it about science, history and the things which have shaped our civilization and species. I love the section in Chapter 18 where he refutes the claim that the roots of science are in fact the religious (in particularly monotheistic) demand for the truth. Nonsense! It came from our ancestors' need to survive (namely by hunting) by analyzing and understanding the natural world around them:

"They scrutinized the shape of the depressions. The footprints of a fast-moving animal display a more elongated symmetry. A slightly lame animal favors the afflicted foot, puts less weight on it, and leaves a fainter imprint. A heavier animal leaves a deeper and broader hollow. The correlation functions are in the heads of the hunters.

In the course of the day, the footprints erode a little. The walls of the depressions tend to crumble. Windblown sand accumulates on the floor of the hollow. Perhaps bits of leaf, twigs, or grass are blown into it. The longer you wait, the more erosion there is.

The method is essentially identical to what planetary astronomers use in analyzing craters left by impacting worldlets: other things being equal, the shallower the crater, the older it is." - Page 313

Really fascinating stuff, in my opinion.

It's not only people who have a passion for truth and knowledge and people whose minds are darkened by their credulity for pseudoscience, propaganda and sensationalism who need to read this book, however. It's also a large number of people out there, many of whom actually dwell and thrive in academia, who think that science is just more faith-based religion, who need to read it as well. The relentlessly rigorous scrutiny for facts by experimentation and peer review that goes into scientific research simply does not exist in monotheism, polytheism, the New Age, etc., and it's in fact anathema to them. And non-scientists can know certain scientific discoveries to be factual if those discoveries have spawned actual innovation. For example, I may not understand the mathematical calculations of Thomas Edison, but I know they must be correct - because now we have the light bulb. And if his findings, in their raw form, were incorrect, we'd still have to be lighting candles in order to see. I may not understand the physics expressed in the equations of Sir Isaac Newton, but I know he must have been right, or planes, rockets, probes that have flown across our solar system and landed on meteors and comets, etc., wouldn't get off the ground - hell, wouldn't even exist. I don't know how Albert Einstein discovered E=MC2, but I know he must have been right, since now we have atomic power, and the latter could not exist without the former. I can't for the life of me understand quantum mechanics, but I know it's real and absurdly precise, given it can calculate the distance from New York City to Los Angeles within a hair's width!! Therefore, no faith is required to know any of those things to be accurate. In Chapter 23, entitled, Maxwell and The Nerds, Sagan discusses the immense, world-shaping discoveries and scientific contributions of James Clerk Maxwell. A lot of it is way over my head, but "[t]he now conventional understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum - running in wavelength from gamma rays to X rays to ultraviolet light to visible light to infrared light to radio waves - is due to Maxwell. So is radio, television, and radar" (386).

"The linking-up of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays, and communication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell's judgement to include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain and in the Nazi defeat in World War II (which I like to think of as "Dafty," the boy who didn't fit in, reaching into the future and saving the descendants of his tormentors); the control and navigation of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of the electrical power and microelectronics industries." - Pages 392-393

Arguably, the most important aspects of what Sagan has to say in this last and mighty tome of his, because he really did care about the world a lot, is his emphasis on the importance and intrinsically emancipatory nature of literacy and that the skepticism and scrutiny involved in science must be thoroughly taught (all over the world) within educational systems, so that people have a full grasp of it by the time they leave high school, and, more importantly, that they direct that rigorous, intellectual ability towards their politicians and justice system. That way, the people keep their governments from running amok by creating arbitrary laws that only serve themselves and subject the people, bringing them closer and closer to an Orwellian world with Big Brother in absolute power and control, and a history that is rewritten time and time again to suit him.

"Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we're true to its values, it can tell us when we're being lied to." - Page 38

Anyway, I could go on and on talking about all the fascinating, eye-opening and extremely important things Sagan has to say, as I've only just scratched the surface here, but I'll do you a favour, and leave you with the joy of reading the rest all on your own.

My rating: five stars!

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