Sunday, July 19, 2009

Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan (1997)

Carl Sagan was a famous scientist, teacher, and writer of books and creator of the series Cosmos, creations that tried to popularize science and increase the concept of free and logical thinking. Carl Sagan died in 1996 of the disease myelodysplasia (Wikipedia), after a long medical treatment. This death was a great loss to science, given that Sagan died at the fairly young age of 62 (he probably had a number of books, lectures and television series still in him, something that would have done much more to popularize science). This book is composed of essays written by Carl Sagan on different subjects, and was published after his death by his widow Ann Druyan. The title of the book is a spoof on the term 'Billions and Billions', a term that was never uttered by Sagan, but which was used satirically in various ways including by TV standup comedians.

Billions and Billions (by Carl Sagan), published in 1997

Chapters of the book:

Part I: The Power and Beauty of Quantification
1. Billions and Billions
2. The Persian Chessboard
3. Monday Night Hunters
4. The Gaze of God and the Dripping Faucet
5. Four Cosmic Questions
6. So Many Suns, So Many Worlds

Part II: What Are Conservatives Conserving?
7. The World That Came In The Mail
8. The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?
9. Croesus and Cassandra
10. A Piece of the Sky Is Missing
11. Ambush: The Warming of the World
12. Escape from Ambush
13. Religion and Science: An Alliance

Part III: Where Hearts and Minds Collide
14. The Common Enemy
15. Abortion: Is It Possible to Be Both "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice"
16. The Rules of the Game
17. Gettysburg and Now
18. The Twentieth Century
19. In the Valley of the Shadow

The book is worth reading for the essays.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Contact, a science fiction book by Carl Sagan (1985)

Contact is famous as a science movie starring Jodie Foster, released in 1997. The movie was a great science fiction movie, earning more than $140 million worldwide, and won a Hugo Award. The movie was based on the novel by the same name, published in 1985. In fact, Carl Sagan had been working on a story for a film on the theme of Contact ever since 1979 along with his wife Ann Druyan, and had been working on the idea with Warner Bros., but the movie never got made in that timeline, and hence Carl Sagan started working on a book on the same idea, and released the book in 1985. Years after the book, the idea for a movie was again taken up, and after a change of directors and script-writers, the movie was finally released in 1997. There are differences between the book and the movie, with the number of travelers being different, the detail of the machine (the machine had to be detailed much more thoroughly in the movie version), as well as whether there is hope in the end.

Contact, a science fiction novel by Carl Sagan published in 1985, released as a movie starring Jodie Foster in 1997

The book takes up the story of contact from extra-terrestrials, but this is not the Independence Day or Encounters of the Third Kind kind of contact, this is more about the kind of contacts that scientists think will happen; through the twin model of mathematics (the only universal language in which people can communicate through), and through radio waves from outer space, which is what scientists are looking for through the SETI and other similar programs.
The book is about Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, who is the director of "Project Argus," a project in a large number of radio telescopes in New Mexico have been dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Then suddenly, one day, they receive a signal that seems to confirm that there are indeed other intelligence sources in the galaxy. The signals contain a blueprint for building an advanced machine without disclosing what the machine will do. The design are in excess of current capabilities and require a huge effort.
Eventually, the machine is built, and it takes 5 passengers to the center of the Milky Way through a number of wormholes, where the passengers seemingly meet people who were part of their life such as close relatives (these are in fact the senders of the message who have taken this form). However, when the travelers return to earth, the journey of many hours seems to have been done in 20 minutes, video footage has been burned out, and they are faced with a skeptical Government machinery, suspected of fraud. The one possible ray of hope is mathematics, with a message encoded inside the further section of Pi.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan (1977)

To read a science book can be dreary or boring; or it can be enlightening, imparting a wonderful education. It all depends on the author, and Carl Sagan was a wonderful author in this regard. He explains the concepts and ideas thoroughly, dosing an imparting of humour into the whole explanation and making it actually fun to read. Evolution is a heavy topic, and is also a political hot potato in the United States, where many bible groups believe that God (or intelligent design) is the creator of all life in the world, and more detrimentally to science, evolution is just a theory with no proof, a postulation by atheist scientists who do not recognize the importance of a supreme being in the whole aspect of creation.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan (1977)

Carl Sagan does not go against religion, he is more for the use of common sense and logic, backed by a scientific bent of mind, which looks for proof and theories that can explain life and its mysteries. So, Carl Sagan takes the theory of evolution, from the primordial single cell creatures to the age of reptiles to the evolution of highly intelligent species such as humans. He also takes on the human fear of reptiles, suggesting this fear to be based on early human's struggle against predators. Sagan also does a lot of detailing on subjects such as the search for a quantitative way of measuring intelligence (using the brain to body mass ratio), the evolution and structure of the brain, why do humans dream, etc.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and was a continuation of the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture in Natural Philosophy which Sagan gave at the University of Toronto. The chapters of the book are:

The Cosmic Calendar
Genes and Brains
The Brain and the Chariot
Eden as a Metaphor: The Evolution of Man
The Abstractions of Beasts
Tales of Dim Eden
Lovers and Madmen
The Future Evolution of the Brain
Knowledge is Our Destiny:Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan (1979): Wonderful short essays

Carl Sagan is extremely famous for his books on science. These books take on various questions on science, and provide an education to people in such a way that the story-telling does not seem to be very high-brown, or above the head. If you read the book normally, by the end of the book, you will certainly have learned something. And that was the mission statement of Carl Sagan, who wrote a number of books seemingly to explain science to the masses. Broca's Brain (the full name of the book is "Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science"). It was one in a series of books written by Carl Sagan, having been written just after 'The Dragons of Eden'. After Broca's Brain, Sagan went onto one of his major creations, something he will be known for long (Cosmos).
The title of the book is one of the interesting questions that Carl Sagan poses for his readers. The book is named for the French physician, anatomist and anthropologist, Paul Broca (1824 – 1880). At a time when medical science had not progressed too much, Broca is best known for discovering the previously unsuspected fact that the brain is compartmentalized into functional regions. He used to save hundreds of human brains in jars of formalin, part of his belief that science could predict the behavior of humans through a process that comprises of a study of the physical structure of the brain, as well as the known behavior of the people whose brains were so studied.

Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan (1979)

So, when Carl Sagan visits this place, and sees Broca's brain similarly preserved, he asks a question that is more of a religious question; how much of Paul Broca can still be found in the contents of the jar. After all, if a person is known by their thoughts and actions (both of these controlled by the brain), then having the brain preserved would mean that you could still study the physical structure of the brain and make some conclusions.
The book is a fascinating study in which Sagan tries to combine the discussion of science with an interleaving of philosophy, at the same time never leaving the thorough logic and discussion that are necessary while coming to a conclusion. The book is a series of essays, based on articles published in various magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, Physics Today, Playboy and Scientific American, published between the years 1974 and 1979.
The book discusses a number of subjects, including the petty rivalry between scientists, discusses science fiction, how the planets were named, frauds and charlatans, and so on. The book has a fascinating quote by Carl Sagan near the end: "My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence were provided by such a god...on the other hand if such a god does not exist then our curiosity and intelligence are the essential tools for survival. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is essential for the welfare of the human species."

Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980): Great book about science

Carl Sagan (Wikipedia) died in 1996 of cancer, dying relatively young at the age of 62. Carl Sagan was one of the people who did a huge amount to popularize the concept of science, especially related to space travel. His most popular work to date remains Cosmos, which was also made into an incredible 13 part TV series in 1980 (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage), that has so far been seen by 600 million people (including a large number of children). I remember being fascinated by the series when it used to come on TV when I was a child; there is a certain fascination of the heavens that draws people to it, especially children. The series should be made essential watching for school going children all over.

Cosmos by Carl Edward Sagan (1980)

The book is based on the series, and is considered a companion to the TV series. It is one the best-selling books in the area of science, while typically science books do not sell as well. The book is divided into 13 chapters, and follows the TV series to a large extent, but there are certain variations (typically when Carl Sagan has already written about something in an earlier book, and it is explained in detail in the TV series). The various chapters are:

1. The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
2. One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
3. The Harmony of Worlds
4. Heaven and Hell
5. Blues for a Red Planet
6. Travelers' Tales
7. The Backbone of Night
8. Travels in Space and Time
9. The Lives of the Stars
10. The Edge of Forever
11. The Persistence of Memory
12. Encyclopaedia Galactica
13. Who Speaks for Earth?
Appendix 1: Reductio ad Absurdum and the Square Root of Two
Appendix 2: The Five Pythagorean Solids
For Further Reading

If you want to buy the series on video, click on this link.