When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.
The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.
NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.
As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.
He wrote the book Contact, and in 1997 was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.
Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.
Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
- Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
- Quantify, wherever possible.
- If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
- Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
- Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980
Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.
The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.
The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan
“S” is for Carl Sagan