“The open road still softly calls,” Carl Sagan said, optimistically, in this film.
Can you spare a penny to keep the road open? To answer the call?
“The open road still softly calls,” Carl Sagan said, optimistically, in this film.
Can you spare a penny to keep the road open? To answer the call?
It’s been one of those weeks, and I missed posting anything early for Carl Sagan’s birthday, a day on which many work to keep his memory and wisdom alive.
Here are a few of the tributes, from Twitter.
Are we already too late?
In The Demon-Haunted World in 1995, astronomer and thinker Carl Sagan worried about the directions America was heading, intellectually, and what it could mean for the future. He wrote:
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.
Sagan had hope. His book’s full title is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark.
Should we hold that hope today? Elections in 2016 demonstrated that false news does sway the electorate, superstition can overcome knowledge. Worse, too many Americans cannot tell the difference. In a time when millions of Americans profess to work to find “the way,” we confront those same people wandering aimlessly through American culture, apparently with little clue as to how far off the path of reality they are, or any real understanding of what “the way” would even look like. Their compasses operate on faith, not magnetism; their compass needles point whichever way they want them to point, with no fixed power to guide them.
Sagan didn’t write that long ago. A child born in 1995 just voted in her first national election — we hope. Perhaps she didn’t bother to register, and did not vote. What causes our national lack of motivation to even vote, to push our government in the directions we think it should go?
How do we remove the barriers to that motivation? is a more important question.
Was Sagan right? Are we doomed?
We have cause to worry, I think.
To be sure, we can find pockets of hope. Girl Scouts demonstrate great success with new programs to attract girls to careers in science, with special camps for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Boy Scouts have their own initiative. But the Texas legislature cut back on math, science and geography requirements for graduation. For every hopeful sign, there’s another sinister sign.
How can we tell civilization, and humanity, gain ground?
“Science as a candle in the dark” is a good image.
How can we provide light in the darkness, if we don’t have a candle, and we can’t find matches?
The Tweet that piqued my interest tonight:
You’ve heard the news by now: Voyager I has left the system.
What are we to think of that?
” . . . astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.”
– Carl Sagan on how images of Earth from space change our perspective
Sagan’s words in the full passage impart a larger message, about caring for our planet and our neighbors on it.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi
In other words, we’re on our own. What are we going to do about that?
It would be good to have better photo credits, including the genius who put together the montage.
It’s not exactly a hoax. It started out as just bad reporting of history.
In his search for an easier route from Spain to China, in which he stumbled into the Americas, Christopher Columbus knew with certainty the Earth is a round ball. The story that he proved the Earth round, or rather than he laid the foundations for Magellan to prove the Earth round, is only a story, mostly devoid of fact. Sailors knew something was up just from their having watched things while sailing on the ocean. One can deduce the ball shape of the planet by watching other ships as they sail away, and sink below the horizon. Were sailors of a more scientific bent, they could have made much of the fact that the guy in the crow’s nest could see a ship moving away — or an island or a continent — for a time longer than those a few dozen feet below, on the deck of the ship.
Long before that a Greek librarian and polymath, Eratosthenes, figured out that the surface of the Earth is curved, deduced that the planet is basically a ball, and calculated very closely how big the ball is, merely by noting the different shadows cast by the sun at the Spring/Vernal Equinox. Carl Sagan used this story way back in his famous PBS series, Cosmos. It’s still interesting, informative and instructive today (surely Texas 9th grade geography teachers use this example all the time, no? 9th grade math teachers? Say, what?).
How did he do it? Wikipedia — as usual — has a good, relatively lay explanation:
Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth without leaving Egypt. Eratosthenes knew that, on the summer solstice, at local noon in the Ancient Egyptian city of Swenet (known in Greek as Syene, and in the modern day as Aswan) on the Tropic of Cancer, the sun would appear at the zenith, directly overhead (he had been told that the shadow of someone looking down a deep well would block the reflection of the Sun at noon). Using a gnomon, he measured the sun’s angle of elevation at noon on the solstice in his hometown of Alexandria, and found it to be 1/50th of a circle (7°12′) south of the zenith. Assuming that the Earth was spherical (360°), and that Alexandria was due north of Syene, he concluded that the meridian arc distance from Alexandria to Syene must therefore be 1/50 = 7°12’/360°, and was therefore 1/50 of the total circumference of the Earth. His knowledge of the size of Egypt after many generations of surveying trips for the Pharaonic bookkeepers gave a distance between the cities of 5,000 stadia (about 500 geographical miles or 927.7 km). This distance was corroborated by inquiring about the time that it takes to travel from Syene to Alexandria by camel. He rounded the result to a final value of 700 stadia per degree, which implies a circumference of 252,000 stadia. The exact size of the stadion he used is frequently argued. The common Attic stadion was about 185 m, which would imply a circumference of 46,620 km, which is off the actual circumference by 16.3%; too large an error to be considered as ‘accurate’. However, if we assume that Eratosthenes used the “Egyptian stadion” of about 157.5 m, his measurement turns out to be 39,690 km, an error of less than 2%.
Description of Bathtub Art Figure 1:
Syene () is located on the Tropic of Cancer, so that at summer solstice the sun appears at the zenith, directly overhead. In Alexandria () the sun is south of the zenith at the same time. So the circumference of earth can be calculated being times the distance between and .
Erastothenes measured the angle to be 1/50 of a circle and his access to knowledge of the size of Egypt gave a north/south distance between Alexandria and Syene of 5000 stadia. His circumference of the Earth was therefore 250 000 stadia. Certain accepted values of the length of the stadia in use at the time give an error of less than 6% for the true value for the polar circumference.
A fun little exercise, but a remarkable achievement for anyone about 240 years before the birth of of the Biblical Jesus. Syene, now known as Aswan, is on what we now call the Tropic of Cancer (the “tropics” were named by the Greeks, but I am uncertain whether the line had that name in Eratosthenes’s time). The date is probably not important, so much as the observation that the sun was vertical at noon on a given date — and then Eratosthenes’s experiment to see whether that were true in Alexandria, and then his understanding of what that might mean and his work to assemble the data to make the calculations. High school students — heck, junior high school students — should be able to figure all that out today, if they had the basics down. I suspect that knowing this story would be a spur to students to learn the elements of the mystery and how it was solved, and what it might mean for later navigators of the oceans, land and air, for astronomers, for farmers and for mathematics.
I also like this story because it presents a strange conundrum, a paradox about what people know, and what they may reason from the foundation of what they know. Our friend and frequent commenter Morgan, whose blog he calls the House of Eratosthenes. I suspect he thinks himself some latter-day Eratosthenian (“Latter-day Erats?”). He says as much in his blog FAQ:
I’m just like Eratosthenes peeking into a well here, and I don’t know what it means yet.
It’s an entertaining read and more enlightening that one might think from his forays here, so you probably ought to go read the FAQ and the reasons Morgan misbelieves liberals miss out on Eratosthenes’s wisdom. Morgan has an explanation of Eratosthenes and his discoveries which I find too brief to be accurate (and I’m not sure why Morgan finds the name “Beta” to be dubious; being a polymath was not a small thing then, or now; second best in everything means one is first in the All-Around, first in the academic centathlon or millathlon — no mean set of feats at all). I find that funny because, while he makes a pretense and some effort to following Eratosthenes and scientific methods, to me he seems to find science and logic things to run away from, as in our recent discussion where he ends up defending Anthony Watts’s erroneous views because Watts’s critics didn’t link to Watts (see comments in “It’s raining crazy,” and see also Morgan’s own post, which defies explanation). Eratosthenes would find that funny, too, I hope, but not a demonstration of Eratosthenian logic and calculation.
Does anyone doubt where Carl Sagan would be in the debate between the dozen serious scientists and hundreds of political wankers who deny climate change, and the thousands of scientists and good citizens who recognize that it occurs and think we should get on with saving the future?
Tip of the old scrub brush to Fred Clark at Slacktivist, whose compilation posts often overflow with stuff you ought to know or see, and whose post today sent me to Joe at It’s Okay to Be Smart and “Top 10 Reasons We Know The Earth Is Round.”
May 15, 1953, saw the publication in Science of Stanley Miller’s dramatic experiment showing that essential chemicals of life rise spontaneously.
As usual, the real history is better and much more serendipitous than anyone could imagine in a fictional account; here’s an account from the International Astrobiology Society (ISSOL), from their 2003 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Miller’s paper’s publication:
The University of Chicago Chemistry Department seminars were held on Mondays in Kent Hall, an old building where the floors creaked and there was a smell of dust and mildew. Only the most distinguished scientists were invited to speak at this seminar, many had Nobel prizes or were to receive one, and the list included Franck, Urey, Calvin, Seaborg, Eigen, Libby and Taube.
But this day was different because a second year graduate student, Stanley Lloyd Miller, was speaking, and the room was full because the word had spread that something important was to be presented. In addition to the famous scientists and less famous but equally high-powered scientists was an undergraduate, Carl Sagan attending his first chemistry seminar. The topic was the synthesis of important biological compounds, using conditions thought to have existed on the primitive Earth.
Miller reported that by sending repeated electric sparks through a sealed flask containing a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor, he had made some of the amino acids found in proteins. Perhaps, he suggested, this was how organic compounds were made on the ancient Earth before life existed.
While Miller was confident of his results, the rows of famous faces in his audience were, to say the least, intimidating. He was bombarded with questions. Were the analyses done correctly? Could there have been contamination? After the event, Miller thought that the questions had been constructive, but since the results were hard to believe, they had simply wanted to ensure that he had not made some mistake. However, Carl Sagan thought that Miller’s inquisitors seemed to be picky and did not appreciate the significance of the experiment. Even the relevance of Miller’s results to the origin of life were questioned. When someone asked Miller how he could really be sure this kind of process actually took place on the primitive Earth, Nobel Laureate Harold Urey, Miller’s research advisor, immediately interrupted, replying, “If God did not do it this way, then he missed a good bet.” The seminar ended amid the laughter, and the attendees filed out with some making complimentary remarks to Miller. Miller changed clothes, went back to the lab and started a paper chromatography run.
The events leading up to this dramatic seminar began two years earlier in October, 1951 when Urey presented the Chemistry Department seminar on the origin of the Solar system. In addition to the usual high powered scientists, the audience had contained the then first year graduate student, Stanley Miller.
This is an abridged version of the Stanley Miller’s 70th Birthday published in Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 30: 107-112, 2000 by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano and The Spark of Life – Darwin and the Primeval Soup by Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada, Perseus Books, 2000.
More than 50 years ago scientists demonstrated that basic chemicals of life, thought previously by some to be too complex to arise naturally, could occur in nature spontaneously. Much of the misunderstanding and crank science behind creationism is devoted to hiding these facts.
Lift a glass to Stanley Miller and his experiment today, a toast to learning, a toast to the truth.