Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World (1995)

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote this book before he died of pneumonia in '96, after a long struggle against myelodysplasia. Sagan is credited with popularizing science -- remember Contact, the 1997 film starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey? That was based on a 1985 novel written by Sagan. He's a cool nerd.

The Demon-Haunted World reminds readers of the hysterics our species is capable of when we're not using our critical thinking skillz. Sagan writes about UFO mania (X-Files wooo!), faith healing, witch hunts, and about this one guy who claimed to channel a thousand-year-old spirit and was a sensation in Australia -- and then he admitted he had made it all up -- and then people wrote to him saying, "We believe in you." LOL

This book comes before our internet age, so I find it a little quaint, especially since he advocates making information readily available and I just used Wikipedia about ten times to write the first paragraph of this post. But of course, the point is not just to regurgitate facts -- Sagan earnestly believed that human societies have to promote science learning to improve the human condition, and science learning means questioning everything. Be skeptical!, he urges readers. Think it through! But if even if you have all the evidence and you know you're right, don't be a jerk about it!

Sagan says: learn science (the earlier the better), or at least cultivate a scientific (read: evidence hoor) mind.

I have zero talent in anything above the science basics, which is a shame because otherwise I'd be a veterinarian right now and my real life-based cat comics would be supplemented with dog, hamster, fish, ferret, bird, and who-knows-what-else comics. I might even have drawn humorous strips of me learning the veterinary ropes on cows and horses and pigs and chickens. Or alligators? But, alas.

Where was I? Oh yes, The Demon-Haunted World. It's a good read because of its instructive examples, although he does go on for too long about alien abductions. Also, ironically--for all his arguments against the notion that science is too hard, Sagan completely lost me when he explained Maxwell's equations demonstrating the electromagnetic field. Heck, I would've skipped them even if the symbols had shown up correctly on my Kindle. SCIENCE IS HARD OKAY

But yes, science is a candle in the dark. The wax is solidified ethics, social responsibility, and moral decency;  the wick is intellectual curiosity and talent; and the flame is knowledge. 

Everything is better with sparkles. Just ask vampires.

(And Carl Sagan turns over in his grave...)

Happy Friday!

Summer Book Recommendations