28 June 2013


Dorion Sagan. Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches From the Edge of Science. University of Minnesota, 2013.

In this collection of essays, Dorion Sagan, the son of the astronomer Carl Sagan and the biologist Lynn Margulis, covers a range of topics around the boundaries of science and philosophy. Here he vigorously defends the Gaia hypothesis, and presents the argument that life not only modulates the atmosphere but has also affected the structure of the planet itself, including the development of plate tectonics.
He also strongly defends his mother’s views on the role of symbiosis on evolution.  He also tackles subjects such as free will, the true meaning of entropy (which he links to the spreading of energy rather than increasing disorder) and the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza.

He also defends his mother’s involvement with a variety of fringe topics, ranging from unorthodox views on AIDS to 9/11 conspiracy theories, and it seems that she was being sucked ever deeper into the American conspiracy sub-culture in her later years. This seems to be part of a more general “professor emeritus syndrome”, in which retired academics go “demob happy” when freed from the restraints of academia and its convoluted politics.

Dorion Sagan follows his mother down this contrarian road, in his case endorsing the theories of J. Marvin Herndon, a nuclear physicist, who has claimed that the earth started out as a gas giant like Jupiter, and that all the geologists have got in wrong. When people claim to have created whole new syntheses of knowledge which proves that just about everybody else is wrong, they are likely to either geniuses or cranks. Past experience suggests that the odds are always on the later. Sagan also tells us that unlike lucky old Galileo, who just had his life threatened and his liberty taken away by the Inquisition, Herndon has it much worse; he is a real victim, because he has been laughed at by his colleagues.

The problems with this book come from what the blurb calls Sagan’s “counter cultural sensibility” and he himself calls an attempt to link science with “continental philosophy”, i.e. the sort of stuff satirised by Alan Sokal.  Note 7 on p 248 of this book however outdoes any satire.

This sort of thing makes reading it very difficult, and much of the biology is well above my pay grade, but I am sure it should be of interest to those more knowledgeable on the topic. Sagan also queries why we are so obsessed with searching for and trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, when we know so little about the fellow life forms that share our planet. -- Peter Rogerson.

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