Posts Tagged ‘Contact’

Sketch of American Astronomer, Space Scientist and Activist Carl Sagan

December 3, 2022

I’ve put up this sketch of Carl Sagan began he was one of the major figures in space research as well as a committed Humanist and political activist. He was also a major populariser of astronomy and science, most notably through his blockbusting TV series and its accompanying book, Cosmos. This was also notable for its soundtrack, composed by Vangelis, who also composed the music for Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and 1492: The Conquest of Paradise. According to the blurb on Cosmos’ back cover, Sagan was

‘(t)he director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking and Voyager expeditions to the planets, for which he received the NASA medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and for Distinguished Public Service, and the international astronautics prize, the Prix Galabert. He has served as Chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, as chairman of the astronomy section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as a President of the Planetology Section of the American Geophysical Union. For twelve years, he was Editor-in-Chief of Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted to planetary research. In addition to 400 published scientific and popular articles, Dr. Sagan (was) the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Intelligent Life in the Universe, The Cosmic Connection, The Dragons of Eden, Murmurs of Earth and Broca’s Brain. In 1975 he received the Joseph Priestly Award “for distinguished contributions to the welfare of mankind,” and in 1978 the Pulitzer Prize for literature.’

It was Sagan who suggested that Black Holes could be used as interstellar subways so that spaceships from one part of the universe could use them to travel faster than light to another part of the cosmos connected by the wormhole passing between the Black Hole and its White Hole. He also suggested that Venus could be terraformed into a living, habitable world through the introduction of genetically engineered bacteria that would consume its toxic carbon dioxide atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen. He also noted that Mars had a large instability in its rotation, and that this could have resulted in its current, millions-year long period of lifelessness. But it was possible that in time its rotation would return to a more hospitable position and the planet would once more bloom into life. He was also a staunch advocate of the view that the universe was inhabited by intelligent alien civilisations and that one day we would contact them. He also wrote a later book, Pale Blue Dot, after the view of the Earth from space.

He was also a fierce opponent of what he considered to be superstition. He was one of the founders of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal along with the stage magician James Randi. They were formed in response to the publication of Gauqelin’s research suggesting there really was a link between the star sign under which people were born and their later careers. He was alarmed by the rise of Creationism and the New Age, and expressed his fears about them in his book, The Demon Haunted World. He was afraid that this would lead to a new Dark Age in which people would wake up every morning to anxiously look through their horoscopes.

He was also greatly concerned with the environment and global warming and the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s he also proposed the idea of nuclear winter. This was the idea that a nuclear war would send millions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, blocking out the sunlight and causing temperatures to plunge. This has since been rejected by scientists, but I have seen it suggested as one of the causes for the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this case it was the dust thrown up by the asteroid’s impact 65 million years ago that blocked out the sun’s light, after the initial holocaust caused by its impact.

During the inquiry following the Challenger disaster, Sagan claimed that it had occurred because the Shuttle was poorly designed, the result of a compromise between NASA and the military. The Shuttle was originally intended to be fully reusable and smaller. However, the armed forces insisted on it becoming larger so that it could carry military satellites into space. The result was that it was larger, and only partially reusable as it required an external tank to carry the extra fuel it needed to reach orbit. This was jettisoned after its fuel was consumed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

He also wrote the SF novel, Contact, later filmed with Jodie Foster playing the lead. This was about a female astronomer, who makes contact radio contact with aliens, a method Sagan himself strongly advocated. Following their instructions, she constructs an artificial wormhole portal that transports her across space so she can finally meet them. I remember coming across the book in the Cheltenham branch of Waterstones in the 1980s and was rather put off by its blurb. This boasted about it challenging and refuting racism, sexism and so on. All good stuff, of course, but a bit too PC for me.

Many of these themes appear in Cosmos. This was his personal view of the history of science, and while I loved it at the time, I have serious issues with some of the claims now. One of the problems is that he accepts what we were all told at school, that the Greek philosophers were scientists. He believed that if Greek science had progressed, we would have had space travel by now. The ancient Greeks were certainly responsible for laying the foundations of western science, but they were not quite scientists in the modern sense. They used deduction rather than the scientific method of induction. Deduction meant that they observed a phenomenon and then invented an explanation. In induction, devised by Francis Bacon in the 16th/17th century, the scientist observes a phenomenon, comes up with an explanation, and then devises an experiment to disprove it. If the explanation passes the test, it is tentatively accepted as true until a later observation or experiment disproves it. The ancient Greeks didn’t do much practical experimentation.

Sagan also followed the popular explanation of the evolution of the brain, in which there is a lower, animal brain with the higher faculties evolving later, so there’s a primitive reptile brain and a more advanced mammal brain. But Victorian scientists found that both types of brain structure were present in the earliest, most primitive animals. He also followed the standard, accepted narrative that the Roman Catholic church had suppressed scientific knowledge and experimentation during the Middle Ages. This has since been rejected by historians of science. To many such historians now, the Middle Ages after the 8/9th centuries were an age of innovation and discovery. Jean Gimpel’s book proposing the idea was called The Medieval Machine, after the invention of the clock, to symbolise the period’s belief in a universe governed by law, discoverable by human reason under the light of the divine. And rather than the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance leading to a new enlightened, rational order, it had the potential to do the opposite. The medieval philosophers and theologians were Aristotelians but were very aware of the flaws in Aristotelian science and had modified it over the centuries in order to conform more closely to observed reality. But the Renaissance Humanists would have dumped all this, and so we would have been back to square one with no further scientific advances than what was permitted through a rigid adherence to Aristotle’s thought.

There’s also an anti-Christian element in Cosmos too. He describes how Hypatia, the late Neoplatonist female philosopher was murdered by a group of Christian monks in the 4th century. Hypatia has symbolised for a long time to radical atheists the fundamentally anti-science, and to feminists, the misogyny in Christianity. But by this time Neoplatonism was a mixture of science and mystical speculation, forming what has been called ‘the mind’s road to God’. The real motives for her murder weren’t that she was some kind of pagan threat, but more from a power struggle between the authorities in that part of the Roman world.

Sagan is also critical of western imperialism and describes the horrors the Conquistadors inflicted on the Aztecs and other peoples of the New World. He’s right and this section is clearly a product of its time, with the rise of anti-colonial movements among the world’s indigenous peoples, the Black Civil Rights movement in the US and the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as Reagan’s new Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust. But looking at this 40 years later, it’s also one-sided. Europe wasn’t the only expansionist, brutal, imperialist culture. Islam was also militaristic and expansionist, and at the time the Spaniards conquered South America, the Turkish empire was expanding and subjugating parts of Europe, while Muslim pirates were raiding the continent as far as Iceland for slaves.

It’s also dated from an archaeological standpoint. At one point Sagan discusses the Bronze Age collapse of the societies of the Ancient Near East, showing how it was characterised by a series of crises, similar to the process of the fall of other, later civilisations into Dark Ages, but that these aren’t causes in themselves. It’s Systems Analysis, which was popular at the time, but which I think has also become subsequently passe.

All that said, Sagan was right about global warming, whose devastating effects he illustrated with the example of the planet Venus. This has also suffered catastrophic heating due to its greater nearness to the Sun. This released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a runaway greenhouse effect so that it is now a hell planet of burning temperatures and sulphuric acid rain. He also wasn’t wrong about the threat of renewed militarism and nuclear war and was a welcome voice against Reagan’s strident belligerence.

As a science populariser, his influence has also been immense. Cosmos was a bestseller, and I think it prepared the way for other bestselling works by astronomers and scientists like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. And I certainly was not surprised when Brian Cox, the scientist, not the actor, said in an interview in the Radio Times that he was a massive admirer of Sagan. That came across to me very strongly from his numerous TV series about space and the planets.

Vangelis’ Theme from Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’

September 10, 2022

Here’s something which I hope will be a bit lighter after the last two day’s solemnity. It’s a video of the theme music to the 1980s blockbuster science and space documentary series, Cosmos, presented by Carl Sagan, which I’ve taken from Nedsrubiquitous’ channel on YouTube. Cosmos was one of the great space and science fact shows of the 1980s, and its accompanying book became a bestseller. Sagan himself was a Humanist and an opponent of militarism, imperialism and nuclear weapons, as well as sexism and racism. Later in the decade he presented evidence to the international authorities that a nuclear war would result in a global winter that would destroy life on this planet. Well, whatever survived the nuclear holocaust, I suppose. When NASA was holding its inquiry into the causes of the Challenger disaster, Sagan stated that the design of the Space Shuttle had been severely compromised in the interests of the military. He said that initially the Shuttle was to be smaller and completely reusable, but the armed forces objected as they wanted something big enough to put military spy satellites into space. Hence the Shuttle was only partly reusable through the addition of a fuel tank that was jettisoned and left to burn up. He also wrote a Science Fiction book, Contact, about a female scientist who establishes contact with aliens. It was later filmed with Jodie Foster. I don’t agree with Sagan’s atheism, but he was an inspirational science communicator. I wasn’t surprised when Prof Brian Cox said that he had been inspired by Sagan, because after all the space and science series Cox had done it seemed to be glaringly obvious.

The music for the series was composed and performed by the awesome Vangelis, responsible for the theme to Chariots of Fire, The Conquest of Paradise and Blade Runner. I think the music was an important element in the show’s popularity and was one of a number of themes collected in the album Space Invaded. If I remember correctly, that is. Sagan died a few years ago of prostate cancer, but still remains one of the giants of astronomy and explaining difficult concepts to a mass audience.

The video features pictures and quotes from the man himself and NASA, as well as beautiful photographs of space and the space telescopes that capture them.