So, last week the blogosphere had this thing honoring Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death. I’m bringing up the rear, here, but wanted to throw my two Abe’s worth in.
One of my fondest memories was watching Cosmos as a preadolescent and feeling for the first time the Sirenic-call from astronomy and physics — a secular passion which dominated the next 20 years of my life. I spent the 80s and 90s immersed in astronomy. I invested in telescopes, subscribed to astronomy magazines, devoured countless nonfiction works from Sagan and his colleagues, led one of the largest and oldest amateur astronomy organizations in the Midwest, volunteered at observatories, lectured at science museums, and majored in astrophysics while at college.
As happens to us all, my priorities changed as I got older and my family grew. Astronomy plays only a little part in my secular life now, as a modest hobby. But whenever I stand under the quiet, velvety expanse on a clear night, armed only with a small telescope and a red flashlight, I hear the sirens calling, and I know that it all started with the seed planted by that PBS series in 1980.
So I respect and appreciate him for that.
On the other hand, I have always had mixed feelings about Sagan. Superficially, you’d think I’d be the biggest fan of the world’s most famous science writer. But I was intrigued, for instance, by how little respect Sagan got from academia. The public’s view of Sagan was one of a man esteemed by his colleagues, leading the field of 20th-century astronomy; in fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Certainly, Sagan did his share of research, and his scientific career was nothing to slouch at, but he wasn’t necessarily known as a leader in his field. Many colleagues were irked that Sagan got his academic appointments based on his fame, not his credentials. Rumors abound of an underground “anti-Carl” attitude at Cornell, where students and faculty quietly fumed at how rare he actually appeared on campus, in between book tours and Tonight Show appearances.
Another troubling thing about Sagan to me was his sometimes contradictory attitudes toward critical thinking, scientific method, and even religion. The Demon Haunted World is one of my favorite non-fiction tomes, and if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. The book is essentially a lecture against the perils of non-critical thinking, and contains lessons for anyone whose life contains the need for effective persuasion (scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, parents, etc.). Included is the famous Baloney Detection Kit, a set of guidelines to which successful critical thinkers should adhere.
Sprinkled throughout the book, Sagan excellently debunks the more famous examples of pseudoscience, like crop circles, magical religious healers, and so forth. But on numerous occasions, Sagan falls prey to the same foibles against which he lectures so strongly; engaging in ad hominem and straw man attacks against any who don’t hold his political or religious views.
The same pitfalls were shown in his book/movie Contact, where all non-scientific characters were presented as antagonists, and as stereotypical caricatures (a blundering priest who emotionally scars a young girl; a new-age religious hippie who quits priesthood “because of the celibacy thing”; a terrorist who kills because, well, because his faith directs him to; a fanatical right-wing religious politico; reactionary warmongers; etc.).
I remain honestly puzzled as to the current ‘fad’ of modern intellectuals who practically attempt to deify Sagan. I think he would have found that deliciously ironic.
To me, Sagan’s most enduring legacy should be his contagious attitude about the wonders of the cosmos, and the diminutive, humble place humans occupy in the universe. Second, as a writer, he should be given props for his talent in expressing the ridiculously complex in ways that laypersons could grasp, like in this scene from Travels in Space and Time, where he cogently explains relativistic time dilation:
Often, he would begin a lecture with a single sentence that would completely hook his audience:
“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the Universe.”
Every time I hear that lecture, I must admit I get goose bumps.
That type of effective persuasion and contagious enthusiasm is becoming rare among science popularizers. Those still “holding the candle” include Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene, two more authors whose works you should devote some spare time to reading.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urge to watch The Edge of Forever again.
Joseph Barbera (of Hanna-Barbera fame) died today at age 95.
It’s unfortunate that most only remember Hanna-Barbera for their poorly-animated-looping-backgrounds cartoons of the 60s and 70s cartoons (“How long have we walked by that pik-a-nik basket, Boo-boo?”) or the Flintstones. In fact, their best work was Tom and Jerry, and the cross-town friendly competition with Warner Brothers in post-WWII Hollywood was where the art of animation really became legendary.
Here is the pinnacle of Barbera’s career:
If you’ve got spare time, go here to see over one and a half hours of Tom & Jerry cartoons that reside in the public domain.
Lauren at LMNOP has compiled a list of America’s Most Fonted, the seven most overused & overabused typefaces used in amateur desktop publishing.
I was somewhere about half-way through scanning the comments to her post when I realized how pathetically geeky I was. I actually caught myself rooting for and against certain fonts. I’m sorry that you’re ashamed by association.
Ugly fonts, cutesy fonts, unreadable fonts, bad fonts . . . they have terrorized us for far too long, infiltrating our homes via e-mail, IM, and low-rent ValPak ads. Here, LMNOP presents the seven worst fonts–and the people who use them.
Technical Writers landed the #13 spot, averaging about $58k per year, with 75% of them making over $48k. The field is expected to grow by 23% over the next ten years. Curriculum Developer came in at 18th ($56K average), and Editor was ranked #19 ($78k).
For the umpteenth year in a row, Software Engineer was listed at number one.
An escapee from a government contractor’s test lab, the monkey lives in hiding, hacking away at the keyboard to bring you random thoughts, stories, news, and graphics. Depending on his mood, he may be informative, amusing, obnoxious, or inane.