Sunday, May 27, 2012

Three Footnotes from Cosmos

Thanks to lovely Abebooks, I'm now the proud owner of a battered paperback of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and a battered hardback (without dust jacket) of James Burke's Connections – and both for less than a fiver, including P&P. Bargain.

I've been working my way through the TV version of Connections on Youtube and will blog about it more when I get to the end (at my current rate, sometime towards the end of the century). But for a flavour of its style and confidence, you can't beat this extraordinary piece to camera:

I've not seen all the TV version of Cosmos but a lot of the material was covered in my astronomy GCSE, so reading the book has been a bit of a refresher course. It's a history of science, similar to The Ascent of Man, but focusing on our knowledge of astronomy.

It's striking how much has been learned and achieved in the 30 years since the book came out. Sagan details Voyager's exciting new discoveries about the Galilean moons but can only guess at the nature of Titan. He enthuses about the possibility of sending roving machines to explore Mars. He speculates on the causes of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event (which wiped out the dinosaurs), but doesn't mention the possibility of a large meteorite hitting the Earth. That's especially odd given that elsewhere he talks about the probabilities of large meteorite impacts, such as in Tunguska in 1908.

Sagan packs in fascinating titbits and detail, such as Kepler's efforts to save his mum from being tried as a witch. Excitingly, it's got footnotes instead of endnotes (and an index – so top marks all round), which means plenty of extra nuggets of fact to explode your brain.

For example, Sagan talks at one point about the scale of the Solar System, reminding us that, in terms of our ability to traverse it, the Earth was once a much bigger place. And then he drops in another striking analogy:
“In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you could travel from Holland to China in a year or two, the time it has taken Voyager to travel from Earth to Jupiter.* 
* Or, to make a different comparison, a fertilized egg takes as long to wander from the Fallopian tubes and implant itself in the uterus as Apollo 11 took to journey to the Moon; and as long to develop into a full-term infant as Viking took on its trip to Mars. The normal human lifetime is longer than Voyager will take to venture beyond the orbit of Pluto.”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 159. 
Like James Burke, Sagan is good at making a connection between two apparently disparate things to create a sense of wonder. But I like how the last sentence of the following footnote so lightly declines to impose or invent a reason:
“The sixth century B.C. was a time of remarkable intellectual and spiritual ferment across the planet. Not only was it the time of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and others in Ionia, but also the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho who caused Africa to be circumnavigated, of Zoroaster in Persia, Confucius and Lao-tse in China, the Jewish prophets in Israel, Egypt and Babylon, and Gautama Buddha in India. It is hard to think these activities altogether unrelated.”  
Ibid., p. 206.
And, again like Burke, Sagan is good at accounting for chance and circumstance in the slow, steady progress of science through the ages. He uses a Tlingit (Native American) account of meeting the French explorer Count of La Pérouse when he “discovered” Alaska in the 1780s to discuss what first contact with an alien culture might be like. But, explaining that La Pérouse and all but one of his crew died in the South Pacific in 1788, Sagan notes:
“When La Pérouse was mustering the ship's company in France, there were many bright and eager young men who applied but were turned down. One of them was a Corsican artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. It was an interesting branch point in the history of the world. If La Pérouse had accepted Bonaparte, the Rosetta stone might never have been found, Champollion might never have decrypted Egyptian hieroglyphics, and in many more important respects our recent history might have changed significantly.” 
Ibid. p 334. 
Three short asides, additional to the main narrative, and you could base a science-fiction novel on each of them. Yet the thing that's stayed with me most since I finished the book earlier this week is his reference to the 1975 paper “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence” by James W Prescott:
“The neuropsychologist James W. Prescott has performed a startling cross-cultural statistical analysis of 400 preindustrial societies and found that cultures that lavish physical affection on infants tend to be disinclined to violence ... Prescott believes that cultures with a predisposition for violence are composed of individuals who have been deprived – during at least one or two critical stages in life, infancy and adolescence – of the pleasures of the body. Where physical affection is encouraged, theft, organized religion and invidious displays of wealth are inconspicuous; where infants are physically punished, there tends to be slavery, frequent killing, torturing and mutilation of enemies, a devotion to the inferiority of women, and a belief in one or more supernatural beings who intervene in daily life.” 
Ibid., p. 360.
I'm fascinated by this, but can't help wondering if that conclusion isn't too much what we'd like to believe to be true. There's something chilling, too, in the lightness with which he seems to suggest that organised religion is a symptom of childhood neglect.


Anonymous said...

Very nice, and thanks for reminding of the James Burke series. What a marvellous piece to camera that is... achieved through a combination of fine writing, exemplary presenting skill, and wonderful timing.

I also remember enjoying James Burke's series "The Day the Universe Changed." And before that, a studio-based series called "The Burke Connection." And he was one of my favourite presenters of "Tomorrow's World."

0tralala said...

Yes, he's cool. Amid the amazing material on the Sky at Night Apollo 11 DVD is some great stuff with him explaining how a spacesuit works as he takes it off, and explaining the emergency procedures for the Saturn V crew.