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.