Thursday, July 22, 2021

Carl Sagan, the Demon-Haunted World


Book Review, by Peter McKenzie-Brown

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark 

By Carl Sagan; 457 pages

Carl Edward Sagan 1934–1996) was an American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator. Initially an associate professor at Harvard, Sagan later moved to Cornell where he would spend most of his career as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author, or editor of some twenty books. He also narrated and co-wrote the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which half a billion people worldwide have seen. His papers, containing 595,000 items, are archived at The Library of Congress.

Sagan published The Demon-Haunted World a quarter of a century ago. To a degree, it includes material he had published elsewhere, including In it, he makes it his business to present the reality of the cosmos in language people can enjoy and understand. Simply put, it’s the best book with a focus on science and technology I’ve ever read. The depth of his source material boggles the mind – at least, it boggled my mind….

As his acknowledgements confirm, the book includes material he had published elsewhere, and “parts of four of the chapters were written with my wife and long-time collaborator, Ann Druyan, who is also the elected Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists.” The book’s title is the same as that itself uses the same title as chapter 7, “The Demon-Haunted World.” In places, it illuminates US constitutional history at the time of Thomas Jefferson; witchcraft trials in Würzburg, Germany, in 1631; the manipulation of historic memory in Russia under Stalin; the monopoly of media ownership; Linus Pauling and the test ban treaty of 1963; and Edward Teller’s enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb. To cite one of these examples, consider witchcraft. His descriptions of witch-hunting are horrific. To my surprise, witches were not always women. In the early days, the correct way to send them to hell, however, was clear: Burn them at the stake. This was done with gusto in many places, and the German city of Würzburg reached a local crescendo in 1598. Citing the chronicles of the day, Sagan writes that those who received this treatment included:

The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs. Kanzler; the tailor’s fat wife; the woman cook of Mr. Mengerdorf; a stranger; a strange woman; Baunoch, a senator, the fattest citizen in Würzburg; the old smith of the court; an old woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; Lieblers’ daughter; Goebel’s child, the most beautiful girl in Würzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys from the Minster, each 12 years old; Steppers’ little daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of Knerts, the butcher; the infant daughter of doctor Schultz; a blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach....

Sagan adds in the following paragraph, “...[T]his was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. No one knows how many were killed altogether – perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning, and justifying were selfless. Just ask them.”

In the years since these atrocities took place, democratic institutions have civilised the law in most advanced countries, mostly ending such behaviour. Also, of course, we have developed science and technology, each of which contributed to the growth of the other. Centuries of scientific and technological development notwithstanding, when this book first appeared, alien- landing in the UK were supposedly creating crop circles, and such specialists as psychokinetic athletes, crystal therapists, faith healers and spiritualists were exciting those fascinated with the unknown.

The aim of this book is scientific literacy. Using the data available in 1996, he says that “63% of American adults are unaware that the last dinosaur died before the first human arose; 75% do not know that antibiotics kill bacteria but not viruses; 57% do not know that ‘electrons’ are smaller than atoms. Polls show that something like half of American adults do not know that the earth goes around the sun and takes a year to do it. I can find in my undergraduate classes at Cornell University bright students who did not know that the stars rise and set at night or even that the sun is a star.”

Reading this book makes scepticism seem to be a warm, positive thing – a tool helping reveal the real wonder of the world around us, and one that also helps us reject the delusions. As Sagan dissects human folly, he tells some great anecdotes: he teases the Dalai Lama, speaks knowledgeably about Leviticus, Exodus, Numbers, the Gospels, and western philosophy, going back to Plato. He also takes aim at attitudes in western societies that dismiss education and rebuff systematic curiosity.

Each chapter begins with a big contrast of ideas. For example, chapter23 (titled “Maxwell and The Nerds”) contrasts the statement from US president Ronald Reagan, circa 1980, “Why should we subsidise intellectual curiosity?” with a 1790 quote from the first US president, George Washington: “There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature,” America’s first president said. “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.” (Tangentially, Sagan reports that Ronald and Nancy Reagan relied on an astrologer for advice in private and public matters.)

The “Maxwell and the Nerds” chapter is the one I understand least, but since these comments are getting a bit lengthy, I will conclude my comments with a few words about James Clerk Maxwell. He was a genius born in Scotland in 1831, and in 1872 became a professor in experimental physics at Cambridge. After an explanation of some mathematical equations which make no sense to me, Sagan writes this paragraph, with which I will end these comments: “The linking up of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays, and communication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell’s judgment to include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain and in the Nazi defeat in World War II…; the control and navigation of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of the electrical power and microelectronics industries.”

In short, gentlemen, this is a longish but high-impact, readable book.





Friday, July 16, 2021

Free as a Bird


The Tragic Loss of Species

Peter McKenzie-Brown

What, exactly, is Canada’s biggest export to America? Conservationists would say “birds,” naturally - for example, the Chestnut-collared Longspur pictured here.

I’ve been a birder for a quarter of a century, and it’s a glorious hobby. One of its great pleasures is that it lures me, my spouse and our birding friends into the natural world, where we train our binoculars on birds of extraordinary beauty and (usually) splendid song. In those years I have identified 133 individual species in Alberta alone – most recently, a Philadelphia Vireo. As we studied the avian world we learned, for example, that 914 avian species occur naturally north of the US/Mexican border. Of that large number, 426 species breed in Canada. For most, our land is their cradle.

As our interest grew, a friend acquainted us with the practice of bird banding. We are among many volunteers who help band beautiful Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, which breed in the Alberta foothills. Both species winter in the southern USA and northern Mexico. This is because of dramatic reductions in species populations during the early mid-20th Century because of changes in predation, farming, and forestry practices, and competition from such introduced species as the European Starling. This led to the development of “Bluebird Trails” – volunteer-made nesting boxes placed at intervals along highways and byways to provide safe breeding sites. Opportunistic Tree Swallows soon acquired a liking for these nesting boxes, so we band them, too.

Volunteers like us maintain the boxes, keep records of nesting successes, and – if licensed to do so – clip a band on one leg of adult and sufficiently mature nestlings. Our efforts are a miniscule part of a global effort to better understand our avian friends. We attach bands on the legs of the young just before they are about to leave the nest box. We also band adults we capture in the nest. When banded birds are recaptured, or if someone finds a band on their legs after they die, the ornithological community gains a better understanding of their migration patterns, ages, and changes in species behaviour over a well-defined period. The bands themselves neither harm nor hamper the birds.

The practice of bird banding is a logical continuation of birdwatching, which reflects the simple reality that people need nature to be happy – and little in nature is lovelier than birds and birdsong. Bird banding is a remarkable example of citizen science. It involves attaching a small, individually numbered aluminum or coloured plastic tag to the leg of a wild bird. These data are maintained in a central depository, available online. If you recapture a banded bird in or find one dead, email its band number, date, and location to the website given on the band.

Tracking the movements of individual birds and their life histories involves the efforts of countless volunteers. Banders and their assistants tend to be retirees, although professional ornithologists also do the deed. The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, which has 27 primary sites, tracks the movement of birds during their spring and fall migrations, using both observation and banding. Licensed banders and volunteers are afield before dawn during the migration seasons, erecting fine-meshed nets along known bird migration pathways. They sex, age, weigh and measure and make health assessments of captured birds. Most of Canada’s primary migration paths have seen banding for many years. For example, the Long Point Observatory on the northern shore of Lake Erie began doing so in 1960. Forty-seven years later, its volunteers banded their millionth bird. The long-term, continuous records from these sites track population patterns and species movement in our rapidly changing world. And they demonstrate clearly that many migrant species are declining in numbers.

Most birds are migratory, and the North American Migratory Bird Treaty recognizes that the countries through which they travel on these migrations need to protect them. During the chaos of World War I, American President Woodrow Wilson and King George V of Great Britain signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916; two years later, the US passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act – legislation which protects more than 1,100 migratory bird species by making it illegal to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell live or dead birds, feathers, eggs and nests,” except by permit. Most species of birds in Canada are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994 – first passed in 1917, and occasionally updated. This act recognizes Ottawa’s authority to pass and enforce regulations to protect species included in the convention. Similar legislation in America protects species in that country, though the list of bird species protected by each country can be different. Canada’s 1994 update kept our legislation consistent with US standards.

One result? In the 1930s, researchers determined that most birds migrate within the continent through four predictable corridors. This strengthened scientific consensus led to growing efforts to protect boreal lakes and forests, which constitute our biggest hatchery. Taken together, the continent’s tundra and boreal forests export three to five billion birds to the winter ecosystems of the Americas – southern Canada, the 48 contiguous states and as far afield as Mexico, the Caribbean and South America.

Recent technological developments are helping uncover the mysteries of bird migration, yielding detailed data about the hemispheric-scale movements of migratory birds. Most importantly, these systems provide information about what we can do to better protect birds, using increasingly sophisticated technology. For example, satellite tracking and geolocation devices provide detailed accounts of when and where birds move, and the places where they stop. This reveals areas where habitat protection is critical. Compared to banding, however, geo-tracking is an expensive way to obtain data.

Perhaps the most important recent advancement is Cornell University’s development of eBird, an app that provides endless information about our planet’s avian life.  It allows birders everywhere to submit their sightings and counts to a central database. As usage expands and the software becomes more sophisticated, ornithology will develop a greater understanding of the size and distribution of bird populations. Anyone interested in birds and in helping to ensure the species survival can sign up and submit their sightings to the database. A program named Bandit is one of several desktop applications for managing and submitting data for banded birds. Canadian banders use the no-charge software to store data obtained during banding operations until the season’s end, when they transfer their data to an Ottawa agency, which shares it with its US counterpart.

This continent’s ornithologists, with the help of the armies of banders and helpers, long ago established that migratory birds need intact habitats – vast in extent – to survive. A scientific report, Survival by Degrees, shows that 64 percent (389 of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news, the report says, is that immediate action can improve the chances for 76 percent of the threatened species. Centuries of bird science show what we can do to protect the birds we love and the wilderness areas we relish. To do nothing to protect our birds and their habitats would be enough to make us birders cry.