Sunday, June 14, 2009

Star Talk

Dr. Carl Sagan

Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson

One definition of the word "mentor," as a noun is: A wise and trusted teacher. If I've ever had one that man would be the late Dr. Carl Sagan.
Carl was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934, and died of a rare form of cancer, myelodysplasia, a form of leukemia, in 1996. He was a planetary astronomer, astrochemist, author, and hugely successful popularizer of science (earning him the jealousy of many of his colleagues). He was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.
He was the first to predict that the planet Venus would not be a balmy paradise which was the prevailing view, but extremely hot, up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, the closest approximation of the Christian myth of Hell produced by a runaway greenhouse effect, by analyzing the radio emissions emanating from that planet. Later the spacecraft Mariner 2, which he also worked closely with NASA on, confirmed his hypothesis. He was one of the first to propose that Saturn's moon Titan may have oceans of hydrocarbons on its surface, and that Europa may harbor a vast ocean of water beneath its icy crust. He helped popularize the idea of Nuclear Winter at the height of the Cold War, which is the theory that even if a minimal nuclear exchange were to occur between the United States and the then Soviet Union, the ashes and smoke raised into the atmosphere from burning cities would have devastating cooling effects globally, and there would be no winner in such an event, which helped redirect the foreign policy of both of those nations, reducing the risk of nuclear war.
He was also a major advocate of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which goes on to this day, even on my own computer when it's not in use, and he co-founded The Planetary Society, of which I am a member, the largest space-interest group in the world. I could go on and on.
I never had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sagan, although I did once meet his lovely wife, Ann Druyan, after his death at a memorial service in Pasadena, where the Planetary Society is based. But I feel that I did know him, as millions of others knew him, through his many books ( he was a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Dragons of Eden, a book concerning the evolution of intelligence, a feat especially notable as this was outside his field of specialty) and his autobiographies, and the wonderful PBS, 13 part mini-series, Cosmos, which as you may recall, dear readers, I gave a copy of to my lovely case manager, Erin, on the occasion of her 25th birthday, telling her at the time that it was the nicest thing I could have given her.
He was a wonderfully eloquent writer, who had the rare ability to explain complex, incredibly sophisticated ideas and theorys in an a often humorous way, that almost any one (Republican's excluded. They only wish to believe what their deluded world view states it is alright to believe, or what ever Rush Limbaugh spews to them) could easily, enjoyably understand. Even I could understand, and he opened my eyes to the mysteries of science and the universe we find ourselves in.
He was a frequent, valued guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Indeed, after Carl died in a hospital in Seattle, Johnny was the first to call Ann to offer condolences. I remember him discussing the newly discovered sulfur volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io, the first to be discovered off our own planet (by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which also has attached to it, as it now speeds out of the solar system, one of two gold records, that Carl organized, that depicts the music and sounds of Earth, on which then President Jimmy Carter introduced to those who may one day intercept the craft, "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours"), and if we return to the moon, of possible beacons that may be deployed on its surface that would be visible on earth.
"What would the beacons read," Johnny asked, "over one billion served." In referrance to an old McDonald's advertising slogan.
"Hopefully," Carl laughed, "something a little more elevated."
It is difficult to pick a favorite book of Carl's, they're all so good, but the one I reference and go back to time and again is The Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark. In it Dr. Sagan teaches all of us how to be sceptical.
Sceptical of what? Well, of almost anything.
If we wish to investigate our world and universe, we must be courageous in our investigations, and follow wherever the evidence takes us, not where we would like it to go. Being sceptical of all of the theories, ideas, belief systems, religions, ethics, business encounters, anything, is an exceptionally useful tool. All too often we accept at face value what we are told to believe, either by our government, our parents, our church, those who would sell us things, and encouraged not to ask any questions least we might upset the common orthodoxy. Wars have been waged because too few questions were asked of national leaders.
I choose to be sceptical, and investigate.
Demon Haunted World contains a 9 point Baloney Detection Kit, which can be used in trying to discover the truth... about anything:
1. Whenever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts."
2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
3. Arguments from authority carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future.
4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there is something to be explained think of all the different ways it could be explained.
5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours.
6. Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypothesizes.
7. If there is a chain argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.
8. Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypothesizes that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.
I've reproduced the Baloney Detection Kit verbatim and risk copy write infringement, but I believe Carl's estate, and Ann will agree that it is very important information to be passed along.
He even discusses the invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire that is living in you garage right now.
For many years Carl's was the face of science. Astronomy in particular, but all of the sciences in general. Since his death this position has remained void. Many scientists write books, some go on TV, or the radio, but none has taken the unique position that Carl once held.
Recently though, Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, President of the Planetary Society, and People Magazine’s Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive, has stepped up to the plate. He is the author of nine books, has appeared and hosted many television programs on PBS and cable, and is a leading, sought after authority in all things astronomical.
I even used him briefly as a scientific authority in my version of the film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (see, So Why The Day The Earth Stood Still). Thanks Neil!
I happen to listen to him on a fairly regular basis each Sunday, on Star Talk, his weekly radio program, hosted here in Los Angeles at noon, on KTLK, the progressive talk radio station (1150 AM, for those readers here in LA). He is joined by the delightful comedian and actress (and hot babe) Lynne Koplitz (come on Neil, you're a married man with two kids). The link below is to the show's web site, and I invite all of my dear readers to listen in, and talk of the stars.

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