Sunday, July 12, 2009

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."

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