I started reading this book two days ago, when I found myself with an hour to kill at lunch and nothing else to do. I went to the base library, looking for something that would fit in my cargo pocket. I was considering Vonnegut, there was a small Vonnegut book that I had not read that would easily fit. Then I thought of non-fiction, and reflected that since I had been reading The Dark Tower series, my non-fiction reading had kind of dropped off, with promises to re-commence after concluding that series.
So I found this book. I picked it up and started reading it in the library aisle, as you do, and found an easy, comforting prose conveying a tale of a boy becoming entranced by the wonders of science. I am referring to the preface, where a young Sagan sees marvelous scientific achievements at the 1939 World’s Fair. More about that later. The quote, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.” appears early in the book. I can’t remember if it’s in the preface or chapter 1, but it succinctly summarizes what I see as the foundational principle of Sagan’s work as a science communicator. I have not finished the book, but so far Sagan as a writer shows a sincere desire to share the wonders of science.
It is sometimes said that when you are reading, you are in conversation with the mind of the writer. This book gives that impression immediately. Sagan invites the reader to encounter his views, and wants, more than anything it seems, to infect the reader with the same awe and reverence for the natural world and respect for the scientific method that marked his life.
The Friendly Scientist
The refreshing thing that I’m finding in this book, mainly what led me to post on it, was the tone. Sagan doesn’t resort to polemics, at least not on the scale of a New Atheist. Sagan focuses his criticism on pseudoscience such as alien abduction theorists, crystal believers, cryptozoologists et al. He doesn’t shy away from putting the screws to religion, but the way he does it just seems nicer. Maybe it is the time in which the book came out, 1996, you couldn’t get away with bashing religion, even if that may include nothing more than listing true historical facts of religious believers and organizations.
I am reminded that Carl Sagan was, and remains, an educator. As such, I get the feeling that he has a great deal of experience talking people gently out of unfalsifiable beliefs whatever form they take. He does mention that in the book, particularly a long conversation with a limo driver at the beginning of the first chapter.
There are some real gems in this book. I’ve not yet read halfway, but I feel strongly about what I’ve read so far so I wanted to post about it. Here are a few:
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have. -Albert Einstein
Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. -Hippocrates
From the author:
If it were widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for pseudoscience.
Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
Final Word (for now)
This book is incredible. I’m really enjoying it, and can’t wait to continue getting to know Carl Sagan.