Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan - Book Review

"The Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan is considered to be one of his master piece works. I just had the chance to complete reading of this classic book where Sagan talks about science, witchcraft, pseudoscience, anti-science and more. Sagan tries to question the ignorance of general public towards science. Though this book is primarily focused on the US citizens, his arguments seem to apply to the entire world. Sagan also cautions the misuse of science for destruction of world peace apart from discussing its merits in detail. This book is primarily to motivate readers towards scientific skeptical thinking process in order to prevent others from fooling them.

The book contains a collection of Sagan's writings on science with few chapters co-authored with his wife and colleague, Ann Druyan. The initial chapters focus mainly on the Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO) claims by many US citizens and how there are false accounts of people about the aliens troubling them. He also explores the evidence supporting the landing of the space crafts classified as UFOs. He proves through proper insight and arguments how we are yet to encounter a single UFO in this world. He proves how the UFO claims are just hallucinations of the people and their landings are created by some miscreants among us.

Sagan explains the mental aspect of perceiving non-existent objects and how faith healers exploit them to treat people. He also maps how the hallucinations of people are responsible for reports for UFO and alien sightings. Sagan also explains how such mental frailties of humans are often exploited by mystics and religious gurus. Sagan spends most of this book on instructing how to classify science from other fake things. He even develops a baloney kit which can be used to authenticate scientific claims on the media. The most important thing is that Sagan never claims science is 100% perfect but shows how science has a self-correcting machinery built into the process itself to account for any errors.

The only scientific equations which appear in this book are those of James Maxwell. Maxwell's equations serve as the basic building blocks of electromagnetic fields and how they are related to light. Maxwell was a nerdy guy and when he invented those equations by chance, he did not know those equations would later inspire all the modern technologies such as TV, radio, search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), etc. Sagan illustrates Maxwell's life and his inventions to show why basic scientific research should always be supported even though no practical application is possible in near future. According to Sagan, as science underlies every technology, one should never neglect scientific research.

Sagan also explains the demerits of scientific research when the power shifts to those whose intentions are not that noble. To illustrate this aspect of destructive nature of science, Sagan uses the life of theoretical physicist Edward Teller, known as the "father of hydrogen bomb". Teller is supposedly the inventor of nuclear fusion weapon called hydrogen bomb. Teller was close to the US government and cajoled them into funding his research for this mass destruction weapon. Though faced with criticism by leading researchers such as Oppenheimer, Teller using his political contacts succeeded in developing hydrogen bomb. This scientific research was performed by Teller just to satisfy himself without any regard for the human welfare.

Edward Teller's life is in stark contrast to that of Linus Pauling who received Nobel prize in chemistry for his work on chemical bonds in molecules and another Nobel prize for peace later. The more interesting fact is that both the Nobel prizes were unshared with anyone else. Sagan explains how Teller and Pauling stand at the opposite spectrum of the exploitation of scientific research - the former advocating scientific research for mass destruction while the latter for human welfare. Sagan argues why we should follow some one like Pauling in order to use scientific research for constructive purposes and welfare of the people who fund the research.

Sagan also talks about the destructive effects of media especially TV. Young students around the world are misled by what is exposed as science in popular media. Most of the TV channels show pseudoscience, witchcraft, astrology and mysticism in the name of science which develops a disinterest in the audience towards pure science. Sagan provides illustrations as to how the present education system provides students with a false belief that investing time in scientific research is a waste. Sagan provides solutions through more scientific expositions like experiments and demonstrations in schools and universities. Sagan even talks about the politics in last few chapters which are a bit hard to understand for the readers who are not that aware of US history.

This book is a real treasure for those who want to explore what scientific research is all about and who do not want to be fooled by arbitrary claims by pseudo-scientists and mystics. I felt that this book is a bit incoherent in parts which is acceptable as Sagan aims to cover a plethora of topics in a single book. Some chapters may be a bit tough to comprehend for persons with limited scientific knowledge. However, I found this book as a indispensable resource for any person who wants to develop rational and skeptical thinking in life based on science. Except Sagan, I feel no other person could have inspired the significance of skeptical thinking and its advantages this well. Everyone must read this book at least once to avoid false media propaganda and fake spiritual mystic gurus. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

HarshaSimha said...
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