Time slips away once again. I can't believe today is September 21.
Since my last post I've been reading Keay Davidson's well-researched and well-written biography of Carl Sagan and appreciating several timely Sagan connections: with recent news from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), concerning Richard Dawkins' new book, and with this coming Saturday's trip to the Yerkes Observatory with my friend, Richard.
I'll get to the connections momentarily, but first I want to recommend Davidson's book to anyone who has an interest in Sagan's career, scientific accomplishments, professional shortcomings, and (pretty much like the rest of us) sometimes painful personal life. Carl Sagan: A Life (1999) is as informative about America's growing fascination with science and the intrigues of academic career-building in the 1960s, 70s and 80s as it is about Sagan's own story. I also like Davidson's style, which is literary and often punctuated with memorable passages like the following one, which appears just after mentioning that in the early days of solar system exploration, most U.S. scientists weren't that interested in placing cameras on board spacecrafts. Instead they wanted instruments that measured things. Now, of course, no one in their right mind would think of excluding them:
Time and again, space probes with cameras have exposed the unexpected. As a result, the solar system has proven to be far more complex than ever anticipated. With few exceptions, each new world seems unique unto itself, like a hitherto unknown epoch in the history of abstract art. Mere numbers cannot convey such richness. In space, a picture is worth a billion bytes.
Maybe more than a billion bytes, because cameras on current space missions have dramatically improved since Davidson's work was published ten years ago.
The connections? Coincidentally, soon after reading the passage above NASA announced the release of more than 1,500 new images from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They're so impressive and art-like that even if there were no other photographs of celestial objects available for our Earth-bound eyes to take in, these would inspire us to find ways to collect more. Two of my favorites appear below, but the complete set can be sampled here.
Spider Trough Network (ESP_013827_0950). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Sagan enthusiastically supported the idea of life in the cosmos, including intelligent life, often detrimentally to his scientific standing with colleagues. In fact, his entire career and much of his great popular appeal was associated with the prospect of life beyond Earth both inside and outside our solar system: How does life originate? What is it like? What will its eventual discovery teach us? Sagan would have marvelled at the details captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He would not have been surprised at the images suggesting water once flowed across the Martian landscape. He and Jim Pollack, his first graduate student and collaborator over three decades, correctly anticipated the diverse character of the planet's topography long before it was mapped by orbiters.
Spectacular gullies near Gorgonum Chaos (PSP_003583_1425). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Given his interests Sagan also would have appreciated last week's news resulting from the first detailed measurements of the smallest exoplanet so far discovered, a world some 500 light years away called CoRoT-7b. Using the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph attached to the European Southern Observatory's 3.6 meter telescope at La Silla in Chile, astronomers spent an unprecedented 70 hours collecting precise data on CoRoT-7b's star in order to determine the planet's mass and density. The conclusion: CoRoT-7b has roughly five times the mass of Earth and a similar structure. But it orbits at a high rate of speed and very close in, which means its surface temperatures are extreme. In theory, lava or perhaps boiling oceans exist there.
Artist's impression of CoRoT-7b orbiting its star. Credit: ESO/L. Calcada
The connection with Dawkins is much closer to home, but first some background. Sagan was clearly the most effective popularizer of science and scientific thinking in recent history, beginning with his bestselling book, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective (1973), and culminating with the groundbreaking PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which first aired in September 1980. According to The Science Channel, the 13-part series has since been seen in more than 60 countries by over 600 million people.
Dawkins, a biologist and atheist who arrived on the scene with a popular work called The Selfish Gene (1976), has written other bestselling books about evolution and the urgent need to abandon religion in human affairs. For Dawkins, science alone is sufficient to answer the largest questions about life and its purpose. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has little patience for believers who also do science -- and also apparently for believers who like reading about science.
This all came into clear focus last week when I read a review of Dawkins' latest work, The Greatest Show on Earth (2009), on New Scientist. Written for a general audience, it makes the case for evolution at the expense of creationism and intelligent design. What caught my attention was the reviewer's following observation:
Implying that your audience is stupid does not qualify as a great new angle.
The reviewer (Randy Olson) doesn't say The Greatest Show on Earth is a bad book. He points out that Dawkins has an axe to grind, and wonders why the author is still so intent on sharpening it after all these years.
In contrast, Davidson shares an anecdote about Sagan which is insightful and, to me, very likeable. In 1974, Sagan refused to sign a petition titled "Objections to Astrology," which was then circulating among prominent scientists. Eventually 186 signatures were obtained and the document was published in the September-October 1975 issue of The Humanist. Sagan's reasons for not signing were published a few months later; in part, he thought the petition had an "authoritarian tone" that could "do more damage than good." He didn't believe in astrology, but he recognized that many do, and he didn't want to be a part of an effort that might cut important dialog short.
And then there's this coming Saturday's trip to the Yerkes Observatory on Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. I've never seen it, and neither has my former driving colleague and good buddy, Richard, who I'm pleased to say enthusisatically agreed to join me when I suggested the idea several weeks ago. Richard and I share an interest in astronomy (among other subjects), and I'm sure we'll enjoy this trek much as we have our other excursions.
The connection I discovered through Davdison's book is that Sagan studied and worked at Yerkes for a year when he was just 22 and beginning his doctoral program in astronomy at The University of Chicago. Back then (1956-1957), the astronomy department was based at Yerkes, so Sagan moved to Williams Bay and, like all the other Yerkes staffers at the time, he gave public astronomy lectures in the observatory on Saturday afternoons.
I'll think about him doing that as we listen to the program a few days from now.
I'm looking forward to it.
Next stop: tbd
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter