Popularizers of science are a patchwork breed. On rare occasions a great scientist whose work is a pivot point in history, Charles Darwin for instance, has been a skillful writer of books that laymen could read with pleasure. But most scientific geniuses find popular writing difficult, and though publishers sometimes persuade them to try, the results are seldom notable. Einstein’s best book for laymen was a collaboration with Leopold Infeld. Niels Bohr struggled to explain quantum mechanics to ordinary mortals but his style was almost impenetrable. At the other extreme are writers like the legendary Isaac Asimov who, though trained in science, recognize that their talent lies not in making discoveries but in writing about science with such enthusiasm, and such obedience to that admirable maxim “eschew obfuscation,” that their books have done more for public understanding of science than twenty universities.
Somewhere in the middle are those who pursue a distinguished scientific career and also have a flair for colorful writing. One thinks of T. H. Huxley, the great science popularizer of his day, and of a long chain of British astronomers—Robert Ball, Arthur Stanley Eddington, James Jeans, Fred Hoyle, Dennis Sciama, to name a few—who took time off from professional labors to explain astronomy to the public.
In the United States the two best-known astronomers now writing books for a general audience are Robert Jastrow and Carl Sagan. Jastrow, however, has limited his attention to astronomy whereas Sagan is all over the lot. Dragons of Eden, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, is about the evolution of human intelligence. His just-published book, Broca’s Brain, contains twenty-five short essays, dazzling in their range and eloquence.
The title essay which opens the book is a typical example of Sagan’s ability to mix science with philosophy. In the “innards” of the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris, hidden from the public, he is startled to come upon a large collection of human brains. It had been started by Paul Broca, a famous French neurologist and anthropologist, and the father of brain surgery. “Broca’s area,” on the cerebral cortex near the left temple, is a part of the brain that controls speech. Broca’s discovery of this area, Sagan reminds us, was one of the first discoveries of functional differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres.
A bottle label catches Sagan’s eye: “P. Broca.” Yes, Broca’s own brain has found its way into the collection. Holding the container in his hands starts a sequence of fantastic thoughts in Sagan’s living brain. Is there a sense in which Broca is still in there? Will science someday find a way to scan a preserved brain and extract its memories? Would such an “ultimate breach of privacy” be a good thing?
And now Sagan asks himself if there are scientific questions that ought not to be asked. He thinks of a good example. If humanity were to destroy itself in nuclear warfare would it not be better had no questions been asked about atomic energy? All scientific inquiries carry risks, but Sagan finally decides it is best in the long run to ask everything. The chapter ends with Sagan wondering whether this idea itself might “be sitting there still, sluggish with formalin, in Broca’s brain.”
In the book’s second essay the micro-structure of a grain of salt starts Sagan meditating on how much of the universe is knowable. It is no coincidence that the next chapter is about Albert Einstein because Einstein thought deeply on just this question, and in an autobiographical sketch wrote about how his attempt to understand a minute portion of the huge universe, glowing out there like a “great eternal riddle,” had been the dominant passion of his life. (Sagan’s essays are independent of one another but, as he tells us, carefully arranged.)
“In Praise of Science and Technology” is a chapter in which Sagan sees no way to reverse direction on the perilous road along which science is propelling us. “We are the first species to take evolution into our own hands.” With this power comes also, as we know only too well, the power to self-destruct. Which fork we take depends in part on public understanding of science. It is here, Sagan feels strongly, that the best agents for such education—television, motion pictures, and the press—have failed us. Not only is their science “often dreary, inaccurate, ponderous, grossly caricatured,” at times it is even hostile to science. This indictment carries us into the book’s next section, “The Paradoxers.”
Paradoxer is a gentle, old-fashioned term. Scientists today, talking among themselves, do not hesitate to speak of cranks and crackpots. In more public discourse they call them pseudoscientists. These are not scientists with eccentric ideas—such ideas are published constantly in “establishment” journals—but eccentric ignoramuses who work in far-out fringe areas where extraordinary claims are loudly trumpeted with an extraordinary absence of evidence. At the moment our country is experiencing two major paradoxical trends.
One is a byproduct of the new wave of Protestant fundamentalism. It is generating a flood of crank books and periodicals attacking evolution, and reviving ancient beliefs in witchcraft, poltergeists, and demon possession. The great success of The Exorcist and its imitations reflects this shabby trend, and now we have The Late Great Planet Earth, narrated by (of all people) Orson Welles. This film, based on Hal Lindsey’s preposterous book of the same name (sales: 10 million copies!), is about how our old Earth will soon end with the rise of anti-Christ, the Battle of Armageddon, and the Second Coming. America’s leading apocalyptic faiths—Seventh-Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and assorted one-man denominations who stress the impending Parousia (e.g., Billy Graham)—are flourishing as never before. (Herbert Armstrong’s World Wide Church of God, which grew fabulously rich by ridiculing evolution and preaching a trivial variant of Seventh-Day Adventism, seems to have suffered a setback since the old man excommunicated his Priapic son and heir, Garner Ted.)
Galloping alongside the fundamentalist awakening is the “occult explosion”—the public’s obsession with astrology,* pseudoscience, and all things paranormal. The two trends overlap because Christians who believe in Satan can accept all of the alleged outrageous phenomena and attribute most of it to fallen angels rather than to God or science. Few scientists care to speak out on either trend, and it is not hard to understand why.
Consider the curious case of Immanuel Velikovsky, whose books are closely linked to the fundamentalist revival. A devout believer in orthodox Judaism, Dr. Velikovsky (he was trained in psychoanalysis) set himself the task of revising the laws of astronomy and physics, and rewriting vast globs of ancient history, to spin an incredible tale about the planet Venus that would “explain” the major miracles of the Old Testament. Macmillan’s lavish advertising for Velikovsky’s first book, Worlds in Collision, made no secret of how the book supported the historicity of Old Testament miracles. There is no question that the book would never have found a major publisher, would never have become a bestseller, had it not had a strong appeal to old-time religionists.
About 1500 BC, Velikovsky claims, an enormous comet was thrown out of Jupiter. It grazed the earth on one or two occasions, thereby accounting for Joshua’s success in making the sun and moon stand still, Moses’ success in parting the Red Sea, the origin of manna from heaven, the plague of extraterrestrial flies (the flies were carried by the comet), the flood of Noah, and many other wondrous Old Testament events, not to mention the formation of mountains and oil deposits known to be millions of years old. Eventually the giant comet, by some means equally unknown to astronomers, abruptly changed its eccentric elliptical orbit to an almost circular one, and became Venus. All this just a few thousand years ago!
To astronomers and physicists, without exception, Velikovsky’s scenario is so crazy that most of them saw no reason why they should waste time even reading him. It is to Sagan’s credit that he perceived the rise of the Velikovsky cult (in drum-beating articles in Harper’s, Reader’s Digest, miserable little occult magazines such as Fate, pseudoscholarly periodicals devoted to Velikovsky, and so on) as symptomatic of a deplorable trend. Unlike most of his colleagues, even to the dismay of some who felt he was risking his reputation, Sagan took the time not only to read Velikovsky but to spell out, in a language anyone could comprehend, the fundamental howlers of Velikovsky’s central scenario.
Sagan’s chapter “Venus and Dr. Velikovsky” is a masterpiece of anti-anti-science rhetoric. I can think of no job in English to rival it except perhaps H.G. Wells’s little book, Mr. Belloc Objects, in which Wells ripped to shreds Hilaire Belloc’s ill-informed effort to disprove evolution. Velikovsky’s admirers will, naturally, nitpick at Sagan’s essay, and fume with indignation about the dogmatism of establishment science and the “persecution” of a modern Galileo. Even Belloc replied to Wells with a book called Mr. Belloc Still Objects, in which he revealed himself to be more ignorant of science than he had formerly appeared. No one with a modicum of knowledge about astronomy and physics can read Sagan’s chapter without grasping the fact that there is no Velikovskian challenge to astronomy, never was one, and never will be. The big noise is just the sound of an ignorant public being had.
Although Sagan devotes more space to Velikovsky than to any other paradoxer, his chapter on “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers” is an amusing survey of the still-growing public interest in the paranormal. It opens with an account of Alexander, the Uri Geller of the days of Marcus Aurelius, a handsome psychic charlatan about whom Lucian wrote a famous exposé. Before he is through, Sagan has touched on Spiritualism, astral projection, reincarnation, precognitive dreams, Erich von Däniken’s infantile theories, mind-reading horses, P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant (a famous fake of a fake), the Bermuda triangle, astrology, extra-terrestrial UFOs, and parapsychology. Leading parapsychologists will object strenuously to being lumped together with most of these things, yet they themselves contribute to bizarre books and periodicals in which all these notions are stirred together. To the general public, alas, the voice of Sagan is much less impressive than the voices of Burt Lancaster and Raymond Burr, who each narrated one of the two worst television documentaries ever made about the paranormal. The big networks, responding to public hunger for the occult, thus furnish the feedback that accelerates the trend.
Leading book publishers, with rare exceptions, are providing the same irresponsible feedback. Sagan was wryly amused when the editor in chief of a top publishing house, prompted by a discussion of H.R. Haldeman’s account of Watergate, declared: “We believe a publisher has an obligation to check out the accuracy of certain controversial nonfiction works. Our procedure is to send the book out for an objective reading by an independent authority in the field.”
“This,” adds Sagan, “is by an editor whose firm has in fact published some of the most egregious pseudoscience of recent decades.” Sagan does not list them, but it would be easy to name fifty books of worthless science that in recent years have earned fortunes for authors and publishers, not one of which was sent out for evaluation by an expert. Lippincott’s book on cloning by David Rorvik (“A fraud and a jackass” was how Rorvik was described by the distinguished geneticist Beatrice Mintz) is only one of the latest examples of this sleazy, money-grubbing genre.
One of Sagan’s paradoxer essays is about a recent flap (occasioned by Robert Temple’s book, The Sirius Mystery) over the Dogon, an African tribe whose legends include some amazingly accurate astronomical information they could not have acquired without telescopes. Temple’s thesis is that Dogon legends support the idea of contacts by extraterrestrial astronauts. Sagan argues the far more plausible view that the myths derive from recent contacts with visiting Europeans. Another paradoxer chapter analyzes the ingenious numerology of Norman Bloom, leader of the Children of God cult. Bloom has invented several new proofs of God based on such astronomical coincidences as that the sun and moon, seen from earth, have disks of almost identical size.
The paradoxer section closes with a nostalgic tribute to early science fiction and high praise of some contemporary SF authors. Like Ray Bradbury, Sagan was hooked as a boy on the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, only to become disenchanted when he later realized how little science Burroughs understood. He ticks off some SF themes that were favorites of pioneer writers but are no longer usable: the twilight zone around Mercury, the steamy jungles of Venus, the canals on Mars.
The essays of Section 3 report on recent solar-system discoveries. Sagan still hopes that primitive organisms lurk somewhere on Mars. He argues that life forms may float in the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, and perhaps flourish on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan is larger than Mercury, almost as big as Mars, and has an atmosphere more like ours than any other body in the solar system.
Section 4, “The Future,” discusses the increasing speeds of travel on earth and in space, the life of Robert Goddard (pioneer of rocket propulsion), the rapidity with which astronomy is becoming an experimental science, ways of searching for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the growing power of machine intelligence. Three chapters on “Ultimate Questions” close the volume.
“Sunday Sermon,” the most philosophical of the three, begins with a marvelous anecdote that Bertrand Russell liked to recall. When Russell entered prison for his pacifist sentiments during the First World War, a gate warder had to ask some questions. Russell called himself an agnostic. The warder wanted to know how to spell it, then sighed and said, “Well, there are many religions but I suppose they all worship the same God.” This remark, said Russell, kept him cheerful for a week.
Sagan, too, is an agnostic. Like Huxley, who not only called himself an agnostic but even invented the word, Sagan does not deny the possibility of a creator God, but, as did Einstein, he prefers Spinoza’s pantheistic deity, the totality of being. As we learn more and more about the universe, writes Sagan, we find less and less for the traditional God to do. When a quasar explodes, a million planets, many perhaps with intelligent life, are obliterated. On such a scale human events seem inconsequential. To all this a traditional theist might reply that science is revealing more and more for God to do, that small size does not something inconsequential make, and that a quasar explosion is no harder to reconcile with a personal God than an earthquake that snuffs out thousands of human lives.
But no matter. Sagan closes with a statement so fair-minded that I cannot imagine anyone, from dogmatic atheist to conservative Catholic, disagreeing. “My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence is provided by such a God. We would be unappreciative of that gift…if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species.”
“Gott and the Turtles” takes its title from J. Richard Gott and the endless stack of turtles that uphold the earth in some Asian myths. In 1974 Gott and his associates published strong evidence that the universe lacks sufficient matter to provide enough gravity to halt its expansion. But as Sagan puts it, “The issue is still teetering.” The missing matter may yet be found, and in the next few decades we “shall see if Gott knows.”
The book’s last chapter, “The Amniotic Universe,” leaps from Gott to Grof—Stanlislav Grof, a Czechoslovakian psychiatrist now in the United States, and the author of two recent books on the unconscious mind. Along with some of Freud’s early disciples Grof believes that we retain dim unconscious memories of our birth. Sagan speculates on the roles that such memories, if indeed they exist, might play in the evolution of religious mythologies, perhaps even in cosmologies. Is it possible, he wonders, that the originators of the now-discredited steady state theory (in which the universe placidly maintains its overall structure throughout eternity) were born by Caesarian section? If so, they would have escaped those traumatic birth stages that could have predisposed them to the big bang!
This is Sagan in his most whimsical mood. But no one could be more seriously exhilarated by the frontiers of tomorrow’s science. Near the end of his book’s introduction Sagan predicts that in the next few decades astronomers may even learn the answer to that awesome question: How did our cosmos get started?
If Sagan means no more than deciding between a one-big-bang and an oscillating model that endlessly repeats bangs and crunches, he may be right, but if he means solving the ultimate riddle of the universe’s origin I must respectfully demur. Neither model touches the metaphysical problem of genesis. On this question one cannot even imagine an advance in cosmology that could put science in a better position to answer the riddle than could Plato or Aristotle.
“In all of the four-billion-year history of life on our planet,” Sagan concludes his introduction, “in all of the four-million-year history of the human family, there is only one generation privileged to live through that unique transitional moment: that generation is ourselves.”
On the continuum of scientific progress one can indeed mark off unique periods, but will our generation be unique in throwing light on “ultimate questions”? Or unique in the awesomeness of scientific questions it answers? There is an old joke about Adam and Eve as they walked hand in hand out of the (amniotic?) Garden of Eden. “We are living, my dear,” said Adam, “in a time of great transition.”
June 14, 1979
The latest issue of the Author’s Guild Bulletin reports that the highest price ever paid for paperback reprint rights to a book of nonfiction was the $2.25 million just given by Fawcett to Harper & Row for Linda Goodman’s Love Signs. Bantam had offered $1 million, and three other paperback houses had bid beyond $1.7 million. Houghton Mifflin is currently advertising Jeane Dixon’s Horoscopes for Dogs as “the book of the year for everyone who loves a dog!” ↩