Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World. By Carl Sagan

I´ve only read one book by astronomer Carl E. Sagan: Cosmos, this was a gift I had from one of my best friends.
It is still inside a box in my native city, and though I have seen it many times on the bookshelves at the library, I don´t buy it again, thinking that the concepts are too old, and the amazing pictures can be better seen at Google Earth, just to start with.
Today, I´ve been reading this review by Tim Radford, the science columnist at, here, some excerpts:

Carl Sagan. From

¨Carl Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World in 1996, in a very different world. Cellphones were used only for phone calls and most people didn't have one; the circulations of newspapers were counted in millions and cynics said the world wide web was a passing craze. (.....)
Sagan spent most of his life taking other people seriously: he considered their fears, anxieties and obsessions; he understood the appeal of easy explanations and glib answers; and he made it his business to present the reality of the cosmos to readers and listeners in language that they could enjoy.
He did not expect people to know the facts of science – and he was conscious of science's own occasional complacencies – but he did want people to understand the substance of science: the notion that startling claims should be supported by evidence that can be tested and challenged. He enjoyed writing for the magazine Parade, which was syndicated to more than half of all US newspapers, because through it he had access to 80 million readers. He also enjoyed addressing the marvels of the world and the things ordinary Americans wanted to marvel at: these were not necessarily identical.
Many of the chapters in this book were originally written for Parade, which is why, even though we need people like Sagan more than ever, it has an oddly dated feel. This sense of being caught up in the receding past is simply explained: in the decade before the publication of The Demon-Haunted World, many Americans believed that they were at risk of alien abduction. Little green creatures with cadaverous faces might whisk them up into spaceships, penetrate their torsos and collect their vital bodily fluids before returning them to their beds in perfect condition. (....)
When this book first appeared, aliens were still reportedly creating crop circles in England and committing improper acts on mysteriously unmarked adults in America. A few years later, Ming the Merciless and his minions had boarded their flying saucers and fled: vampires and werewolves and other grisly phenomena had begun to displace aliens, joined by the psychokinetic athletes, crystal therapists, faith healers and spiritualists who feed on fascination with the unknown. (...)
After reading a book like this, scepticism seems a warm, positive thing: a tool with which to expose the real wonder of the world around us, as well as to dismiss the delusions. In the course of enjoyable dissections of human folly, he tells some lovely anecdotes. He is confident enough to tease the Dalai Lama; he is aware enough to speak knowledgeably about Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers and the Gospels; and he takes aim at embedded attitudes in American and other cultures that dismiss education and reject systematic curiosity.
His range of reference is phenomenal. In one essay he illuminates US constitutional history at the time of Thomas Jefferson; witchcraft trials of Wurzburg, Germany, in 1631; the manipulation of historic memory in Russia under Stalin (he confesses to smuggling Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution into the USSR); the monopoly of media ownership; Linus Pauling and the test ban treaty of 1963; and Edward Teller's enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb.
Nor is he afraid of going back to the things that matter, arguing in the next essay that Thomas Jefferson "believed that the habit of scepticism is an essential prerequisite for responsible citizenship. He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared to the cost of ignorance, of leaving government to the wolves."
He may not always be right (he says that the word "demon" means knowledge in Greek, although the Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says it means genius, or divinity) but he is always on the right side: the side of generosity, freedom, tolerance and scholarship. (....)

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