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Entry 1120, on 2009-11-18 at 22:49:03 (Rating 2, Science)

Most people are inspired by something. It can be a belief system or a place or a person. I think you can tell a lot about a person by asking them what they find inspirational. So what kinds of things do people find an inspiration? Sometimes its a popular figure like a sportsperson or an entertainer, sometimes its a religious thing, and sometimes its a more technical or intellectual thing or person.

So what is it for me? Probably the thing that inspires me most is the awesome vastness and subtlety of the universe. There are also some people I find inspiring and one of them would be Carl Sagan. If you have never heard of him, he was a professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He also served as an advisor and consultant to NASA, and played a major role in the establishment of SETI projects. As an author he won a Pulitzer Prize and was most famous as a science communicator especially for a television series (produced in 1980) called "Cosmos".

Sagan died at the relatively young age of 62 in 1996 and is missed by both science enthusiasts and skeptics (because he was also famous for his skepticism). I was pleased to see that November 7 was set aside as the first annual Carl Sagan day. Unfortunately I only found out about this after the event or I'm sure I would have done something special that day, like watch some favourite scenes from Cosmos.

The thing I liked about Sagan was the way he made astronomy and cosmology interesting and approachable without dumbing them down too much. Very few others have done this as well as he did. At the time his efforts were a bit controversial because some of his fellow scientists didn't think popularising science was a worthy activity but in many ways he helped make the subject the acceptable discipline it is today. Many universities now have specific programs aimed at increasing the public understanding of science. Richard Dawkins is probably the most famous person in this role as the of Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.

Sagan made some perceptive quotes during his career. Here are a few I found on the internet (although I'm not sure that all of them were totally original)...

As a skeptic I love this one: "the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." So when I laugh at creationists its not because they are misunderstood geniuses, its really because they are amusing clowns! (see my blog entry "Laughing at Catholics" from 2009-11-13 for more on this).

Another which can be applied nicely to religious people as well as believers in other paranormal and superstitious beliefs is: "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Me too!

Sagan also noticed the poor standard of scientific literacy in American society: "I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star." And I know people at the university I work at that don't know what a day or year is (as far as their astronomical origin is concerned).

Reinforcing this idea he said: "We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology" which lead to: "We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." This hasn't improved much since he originally said it either.

He was aware that pure facts by themselves are useless though: "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere." Great advances in science have been the result of great imagination (Einstein being the greatest example) but these can't be just random junk, like homoeopathy for example. Imagination is fine but the result of imaginative ideas must be testable and fit the facts.

I don't think he was the first to make this observation: "The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent." Of course, the anthropic principle might contradict this, but one day I think we will find why there are aspects of the universe which seem to be strangely conducive to the appearance of life.

Even if there are factors in the universe which seem to me friendly to life its still obvious that life isn't really a significant part of the universe as a whole: "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."

And finally, a thought which sums it all up for true science fanatics: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."


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