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Cosmic Apprentice

Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Cosmic Apprentice
    Book Description:

    In the pursuit of knowledge, Dorion Sagan argues in this dazzlingly eclectic, rigorously crafted, and deliciously witty collection of essays, scientific authoritarianism and philosophical obscurantism are equally formidable obstacles to discovery. As science has become more specialized and more costly, its questing spirit has been constrained by dogma. And philosophy, perhaps the discipline best placed to question orthodoxy, has retreated behind dense theoretical language and arcane topics of learning.

    Guided by a capacious, democratic view of science inspired by the examples set by his late parents-Carl Sagan, who popularized the study of the cosmos, and Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary biologist who repeatedly clashed with the scientific establishment-Sagan draws on classical and contemporary philosophy to intervene provocatively in often-charged debates on thermodynamics, linear and nonlinear time, purpose, ethics, the links between language and psychedelic drugs, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the occupation of the human body by microbial others. Informed by a countercultural sensibility, a deep engagement with speculative thought, and a hardheaded scientific skepticism, he advances controversial positions on such seemingly sacrosanct subjects as evolution and entropy. At the same time, he creatively considers a wide range of thinkers, from Socrates to Bataille and Descartes to von Uexküll, to reflect on sex, biopolitics, and the free will of Kermit the Frog.

    Refreshingly nonconformist and polemically incisive,Cosmic Apprenticechallenges readers to reject both dogma and cliché and instead recover the intellectual spirit of adventure that should-and can once again-animate both science and philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8437-3
    Subjects: Philosophy, General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
    (pp. 1-14)

    Recognizing itself in the aqua facade of a planet cloud swirled and surrounded by the immensity of space, living matter is a message with no discrete meaning. Its message is more the possibility of meaning. Cycling its matter, life is open to its surroundings. It spreads into them, extending its genetic helices and proteins. Building machines, it moves into space, repeating its fractal design with variation at ever greater scales, growing its awe-inspiring and sometimes awful functional beauty. This terrible beauty belongs to a complex thermodynamic system with a phenomenological inside and no special allegiance in the long run to...


    • CHAPTER 1 THE HUMAN IS MORE THAN HUMAN Interspecies Communities and the New Facts of Life
      (pp. 17-32)

      “This universe,” says the physicist Richard Feynman, “just goes on, with its edge as unknown as the bottom of the bottomless sea … just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, and just as incomplete as the poetic pictures that came before. But see that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observation could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is.”¹

      Well, it is to this universe that I want to turn again, and to a specific part of it. I want to...

    • CHAPTER 2 BATAILLEʹS SUN AND THE ETHICAL ABYSS Late-Night Thoughts on the Problem of an Affirmative Biopolitics
      (pp. 33-40)

      Today is the first day of the rest of your strife. In thinking about ethics we come up against some of the most difficult problems. One person’s righteous indignation is another’s reactionary oppression. The citizen’s free speech can be the government’s hate speech. The model’s sexy furs are PETA’s incontrovertible evidence of animal slaughter. Your nice iPhone may entail child labor, environmental degradation, and a Chinese worker’s exploitation. Even the seemingly innocent sweep of a linoleum countertop may represent, from another level, microbial genocide. When this example was brought up before a roomful of students in Danville, Kentucky, in the...

      (pp. 41-50)

      “Today” I received this strange news item, but it had no address on it, so I am passing it on to lucky you. By post-man I will have meant (mostly) posthuman. And he (so to speak) rings twice. At least.

      The first ringing is literal and refers to what comes after humans in evolution. The first ringing announcement that the posthuman has arrived has to do with speciation, guesswork, machines; with loose predictions that fall off a cliff of accuracy as we extrapolate physically nonextrapolatable trends into the future. The classic example of such a trend is the graph of...


      (pp. 53-59)

      Quantitatively, dust refers to solid particles with diameters of less than 500 micrometers. A micrometer, also known as a micron, is a millionth of a meter, or 0.000039 of an inch. The eye of a needle is 750 microns wide, enough to get some camel dust through. The diameter of the period that ends this sentence is about 450 microns—it would make a nice little piece of dust if it could be liberated from the prison of this page.

      But despite its physical insignificance, dust has outsized negative connotations. It is an avatar of the unclean. It is the...

      (pp. 60-68)

      In hisLetters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman,Lord Chesterfield, the eighteenth-century British statesman and man of letters, offered the following concise account of sex: “The expense is damnable, the pleasure momentary and the position ludicrous.”

      Despite the droll nature of his quip, Chesterfield’s observation highlights some deep truths about our status as living, breeding beings on this planet. The damnable expense—which in Chesterfield’s case doubtless refers to the money and time spent in wooing, dating, and engaging in matrimony—theoretically applies to all sexually reproductive organisms.


      (pp. 69-77)

      At the end of the year last, in a party diverse with ethnicity and artistry, not to mention anarchists, a question was asked of me by none other than myself. Yet, as it was done in company, I credit the question as much to my companions.

      You see, after I described some of my political views, mentioning the strange question of the status of the Federal Reserve as a private corporation, as well as some of the scientific anomalies surrounding the events of 9/11, I was told that my views pretty much matched those of members of the Tea Party....

    • CHAPTER 7 OF WHALES AND ALIENS The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth
      (pp. 78-84)

      Half my little life ago, under the influence ofP. cubensis—aka psychedelic mushrooms—I, and two of my reprobate friends, found ourselves among a sea of tourists in Quincy Market. After overhearing a mini Sopranos-style imbiber declaiming loudly upon the niceties of female lace, frilly clothing, and all things that tied, we shambled on through the colorful commerce toward nature, or what was left of it down near the harbor.

      We found ourselves noses to Plexiglas at the outdoor tank of the Boston Aquarium, attempting to make “Hoover,” the great bull seal and for us the aquarium’s main attraction,...


    • CHAPTER 8 THERMOSEMIOSIS Boltzmannʹs Sleight, Trimʹs Hat, and the Confusion concerning Entropy
      (pp. 87-110)

      Thermodynamics started off bright enough, practical and blond, saving the world from its limits. But then, overcome by shadows, its shiny children got dirt in their fingernails, soot in their hair; the world darkened with a foreboding of smokestacks. To the injury of overpopulation was added the attractiveness of thermodynamics as an incentive for geek speak, theoretical discussions that, with poetic justice, generated more heat than light.

      Unlike economics, a different kind of dismal science, thermodynamics was an indisputable success, its application helping ignite the Industrial Revolution and its theory, in the form of Maxwell’s demon, helping kindle computers and...

      (pp. 111-119)

      Nature is not just red in tooth and claw but green with symbiotic chloroplasts, yellow with chrysophyte algae, and flamingo-pink with ingested carotenoids. It is an amazing psychedelic display of spiraling foraminifera, radiating radiolaria, and diatomaceous earth-making diatoms. It is not just hemoglobin red with the blood of animals but nacreous and jeweled with strange partnerships, luminous microbes illuminating deep-sea animals, floating cathedrals of calcium and silicon, oceans full of miniature filigreed and fragile pillbox, star-shaped, and coin forms. On land, hordes of green beings alchemically transform sunlight and dirt and animal exhaust into fruit and flowers and, at another...

      (pp. 120-130)

      Why are we here? Might this all just be a big fluke? Even if evolution is, as Arthur Koestler said, like an “epic recited by a stutterer,”¹ what is the plot? It seemed like God had a good idea, but then he got sidetracked. Where is he going with this thing?

      I believe the writer Kurt Vonnegut touched on the heart of this question. Before a full house of mostly women at Smith College, he first drew a chart that graphed stories. On the X axis he drew time, on the Y happiness. By making a line, he showed, he...


    • CHAPTER 11 PRIESTS OF THE MODERN AGE Scientific Revolutions and the Kook-Critic Continuum, Being a Play of Crackpots, Skeptics, Conformists, and the Curious
      (pp. 133-163)

      “Scientists are the priests of the modern age, and they must be watched very closely,” wrote Samuel Butler at the end of the nineteenth century. Butler had converted to an evolutionary view after he read Charles Darwin’sOrigin of Species. Since Butler had freed himself, with great difficulty, from his father’s religious doctrine and its ambience, Victorian hypocrisy, he refused subjugation of his critical, curious mind to yet a new authority.

      If Giordano Bruno had been burned at the stake and Galileo Galilei put under house arrest for following their open minds and engaging the evidence—threatening the ecclesiastical arbiters...

      (pp. 164-184)

      Like a gray geode cracked open to reveal coruscating crystals of amethyst, the history of science sometimes surprises. Empedocles imagined an ancient world of organs mating and merging with one another to create bizarre half-hewn beasts, the most favorable matches surviving. Aristotle, schooled in Platonic typology and sick of unlikely stories of cross-species mating, metamorphosed mortals, and shape-shifting gods, rejected Empedocles out of hand.

      But the chronological vortex of knowledge’s wayward march turns on itself like a DNA molecule: Now we know that Aristotle, first biologist though he may be, was wrong on both counts. Empedocles’s intuition of natural selection...

      (pp. 185-198)

      Like the mime in a circus who pretends, from the dirty floor, to balance the high-wire walker, or the clown who, twirling her fingers with a gleeful simper, seems to send the acrobats falling head over heels in their aerial somersaults, before reaching through thin air to catch a helping hand, so we may be pretending that we are running the show. Only in our case we don’t seem to know we are pretending. The performers wear no special clothes. They are not paid union dues or the celebratory object of a special occasion. The big top, far from being...

      (pp. 199-224)

      I grew up in Timothy Leary’s old neighborhood. Newton Center in the mid-1970s was past the glory days of Orange Sunshine, but a few kids knew about it. We did all right though, with our Blotter, Microdot, and Windowpane, which catapulted me, one fine afternoon, after a whole hit and an emergency purchase with shaky fingers (I was not a smoker) of a pack of Marlboros, and a harrowing walk that turned into a run, from Murray Road, the oldest alternative high school east of the Mississippi, a converted elementary school with a Ping-Pong table in the front entrance across...

    (pp. 225-238)

    G. evelyn hutchinson, considered the single most important author to understand the fundaments of modern ecology, emphasized that a scientific theory’s primary value was not its usefulness but its ability to produce a form of enlightenment, similar to a great work of art.¹ And while Friedrich Schelling, the German idealist who tried to respond to Baruch Spinoza’s ideas on freedom, reportedly said there was no use in criticizing a philosopher for being incomprehensible, I think it’s better to follow Richard Feynman’s advice—that if you understand an idea you should be able to explain its gist to your grandmother. The...

    (pp. 239-240)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 241-264)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 265-293)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 294-294)