YES, VIRGINIA, THE ANCIENT GREEKS REALLY DID DISCOVER THAT THE EARTH ISN’T FLAT
SCIENCE AND CARL SAGAN’S “COSMOS”
Just finished reading Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” We have, here in Good Karma Homestay, a small library consisting mainly of Tom Clancy and Michael Creighton novels, several Krishnamurti biographies, a couple of ayurvedic cookbooks and a host of spiritual tomes, the last being the largest category by far. Searching for something to read the other day, I spotted Sagan’s book, a paperback at over 300 pages, and immediately waxed nostalgic recalling the excitement and awe I felt exploring the cosmos with Sagan through his PBS television series of the same name. The wonder of the beautiful colors and shapes of the galaxies, the awe of the vast distances between stars, the gorgeous nebulae of expanding universes, the mind blowing re-discovery of the science of the ancients: the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mayans and the Ottomans and how much the ancients knew about the stars, the planets and the universe with not a Hubble Telescope in sight.
But what impressed me more than anything in my reading, was the science. Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Statistics – all there, all underpinning and illuminating the magnificence of the cosmos, all brought in and explained in understandable and awe inspiring terms. It’s been a long time since I thought about the fact, the scientific fact, that we and the many distant stars we see in the night sky are of the same substances. That in itself is pretty awesome and sends shivers down my spine. Plus the fact that Eratosthenes, working in the scientific center of the world at the time, Alexandria, Egypt, around 300 BC – yes, that’s right folks, 1,800 years before Columbus – proved that the earth wasn’t flat, but curved. Not only that, which to my mind is pretty damned great, he also determined that the circumference of the earth was 40,000 kilometers or 25,000 miles. Pretty much right on the money. How did he discover these facts? Through scientific investigation and experimentation involving sticks – one in Alexandria and one up in Syene about 800 kilometers up the Nile River. Pretty damned amazing!
The television program upon which the book is based, was a late 1970’s production that took the country by storm and was eagerly anticipated and watched by yours truly. The printed version of “Cosmos” was published in 1980. This is the same year that another storm shook the country, this one a political one; the election of Ronald Reagan. (You knew I would get here.) And while I would love to say that the mistrust that’s rampant around the country today towards science has nothing to do with the election of Ronald Mr. Communicator Reagan, I won’t. Because, indeed, the election of Reagan was not only the start of the conservative economic and political revolution, it also heralded the beginning of the nation’s slide into belief, opinion, conjecture and just plain bullshit as substitutes for reason, facts, data, analysis and, yes, science.
Climate change is an easy one. For thirty years we ignored the obvious. But it’s not the only arena in which the right wing culture wars have eroded methodical investigation, the weighing of alternatives, the proofs and disproofs that science and we rely on to make the decisions we need to make to ensure the health, well-being and, indeed, the survival, of our society. Today we are having national “discussions” about the age of the earth. Now that wouldn’t be so bad if such discussions were based on rational thinking or empirical data. But they are based on unscientific, ideological and religious interpretations that put the age of the earth at 4,000 or 6,000 years as opposed to the scientifically determined age of five or six billion years. Not even close. Then there is the “discussion” of how a woman can self-prevent a pregnancy due to rape. Or we could cite the ongoing argument that Darwin’s theory of evolution is bogus, because it is a theory and not fact, not that anyone has come up with a better idea, religious creationism and simultaneity notwithstanding.
I’m not a scientist. I do believe in science and the methods science uses to explore and uncover the secrets of nature and develop the products of science that we use every day. I recall when the whole “Darwin’s theory of evolution is a scientific hoax” first hit the scene back in the 1980’s and I basically thought: “Who cares? They are only religious nut cases who don’t know what they’re talking about.” I thought that all the anti-science and anti-intellectual “fads” would soon disappear like hula hoops or The Twist. Fast forward thirty years and we have state legislatures who are mandating the teaching – or “the consideration of” - alternate narratives about the age and creation of the earth as well as about Darwin’s theories of evolution. This, if you’ll pardon my French, is just fucking insane. If this “alternative” universe had been introduced by some teacher when I was in public school, he or she would surely have been fired on the spot.
From the day President Kennedy pledged that we would land a man on the moon and return him (a “her” astronaut was unthinkable) safely to earth within a decade, the entire country was hooked on the space program and the scientific study of space. We watched every launch, terrorized that something would explode, crossing our fingers until the white plume of the ascending booster rocket was no longer visible. The entire nation was glued to their living room television sets when Neil Armstrong planted his space boot on the surface of the moon and uttered “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” So can someone tell me where our space program has gone? Is NASA secretly preparing a manned mission to Mars that they haven’t told us about? No? Then where is it? We get piddly mechanical probes rather than the truly big, exciting adventure voyages space exploration should be all about that, in turn, excite people about science. NASA’s budgets keep getting smaller as time goes on since it appears that the exploration of space is no longer of interest compared to the building of $8 billion dollar apiece Eisenhower Class aircraft carriers. And the privatization of the space program hasn’t gone that well either, given that Reagan told us the private sector can always do it better; after a decade the privatized space program hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet. Yes, there is the International Space Station where we rotate trips and astronauts with Russia on Russian made rockets. Yawn!
So in reading through “Cosmos” I came to the realization that the introduction of Faith-Based- Science in our classrooms is not benign nor some passing fad as I once thought. It is symptomatic of the larger consequences of substituting conjecture and opinion for hard, scientific fact. Now, I have no problem with the teaching of religion, pseudo-scientific religion included, but not in our public schools. Private religions schools, Saturday religious classes, Sunday Summer School – absolutely. Teach away. But the erosion of confidence in science and the substitution of “notions” for facts has the greater effect of eroding confidence in ourselves, in our ability to meet the challenges that life throws at us on a daily basis. I often use the examples of why Europe, China and Japan have high speed trains and we don’t, to say nothing of China and Japan’s mag-lev trains. Why them and not us? Why is our infrastructure so badly deteriorated when this is not the case elsewhere in the high-income countries around the world? Why do Europeans have cheaper, faster internet service than we do?
Why is there even the slightest hint of a discussion that vaccinations cause autism? It’s been proven scientifically that this is not the case. And yet this “notion” persists.
Science is not the be all and end all of life. But if you take a look at the history of the world, the ancient civilizations that lasted the longest, like China, Greece, Egypt, Rome, the Ottomans, they all had very inquisitive natures and exhibited a high level of scientific inquiry. In a way, it makes a great deal of sense – if you want to ensure that your civilization is a long and productive one, then your people had better be curious about what happens around them and strive to find out what’s up so that you don’t suddenly find your civilization blown away by a virus you didn’t take heed of and failed to investigate its life-cycle. Or you self-destruct because you still believe that comets are messengers from the gods that portend the end of your divine monarch’s reign.
I do so hate blaming the entire collapse of American society on Ronald Reagan. Well, let me restate that. As a matter of fact, I love blaming the entire collapse of American society on Ronald Regan. But not because I believe he was the cause, at least directly. But it was during his Administration that the seeds of the conservative revolution were planted and took swift root. And these seeds included the anti-science, anti-intellectual seeds that have pretty much come into full flower today. The really scary part of this anti-science, anti-intellectualism meme, is that it might just be intentional since if you can’t prove through facts and data that “cutting taxes creates jobs” but no one cares because to do so would involve some sort of objective inquiry and analysis and no one can be bothered about such pesky nonsense, then you’re home free aren’t you?
As Sagan points out, we quite possibly, if not probably, are living on a unique planet populated with unique animals we call human beings. And this despite the billions upon billions of potential solar systems with planetary systems encircling one or more suns out there in the cosmos. From the most common of the cosmic elements, hydrogen and helium, worked and wrought by storms of radiation, the detritus of stars exploding, worlds collapsing upon themselves, waves of elementary particles shooting through the endless cosmos, we - our planet and us - were lucky enough out of the billions upon billions of possible combinations to have of been given the gift of life on the precious, fragile world that we call Earth. And we know this through science, not religion, not mythology, not conjecture or opinion but hard, tough, methodical science. It’s time we put science back into its proper place in our lives and our society and tell those anti-science, anti-intelligence, ignorant humans that they are just plain wrong.
So tonight, if it’s not too cold or hot where you are and the sky is clear, go outside. Stand out in the open. Gaze up to the dark night sky filled with distant stars billions and billions of miles and billions and billions of light years in time away from us and take in all its wonders. And know that, no, you didn’t make that, but it surely did make you.
PS: Although Al Gore is probably third on the conservative’s list of greatest Satanic influences on America after Obama and Hillary, his book “The Assault on Reason” is worth reading. In it he describes the long descent into this age of anti-science and anti-intelligence, the impacts of this “movement” and how we got there.
PPS: I just discovered that Seth MacFarlane has created a docuseries called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” in tribute to Carl Sagan. Will definitely catch it.