Reviews

Carl Sagan pilots us once more into the cosmos, and a grand old Hollywood observatory reopens to the public. Plus: Soldiers' lives as seen through their own cameras.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Book
Carl Sagan and the science of God

What, another book by Carl Sagan? The idea of a publication from the storied astronomer—author of Contact and host of the wildly popular PBS television miniseries Cosmos—a decade after his death may smack of Bruce Lee's posthumous movie career. But this is no pastiche of outtakes. Sagan is serving up insight into humankind's weightiest question: What is the nature of God?

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God (Penguin, $27.95) is an edited transcription of nine invited talks given by Sagan at the University of Glasgow in 1985 as part of the Gifford Lectures, begun more than a century ago to promote discussion of so-called natural theology, which relies not on revelation but on reason and empirical experience.


Courtesy of Heidi Hammel, Mike De Pater, and the W. M. Keck Observatory

Sagan didn't study God, but he's given Him a hard look. Even as a kid, growing up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Sagan realized that the Bible, often advertised as perfect truth, revealed far less about cosmology than any high school geology text. Was there a better way to glean knowledge of the Almighty than by reading Scripture? Sagan thought so. He eases into his subject with an extended discussion of astronomy, the origin of life, and the premise that other intelligent beings exist on distant worlds. It's astrobiology light and at times has the feel of a coffee-table book. But Sagan's genius for explication gives fresh perspective to even well-worn material. He then moves on to the ever-popular idea that Earth was visited by alien astronauts in millennia past. This is not a digression about pseudoscience. Rather, Sagan is sharpening the logical tools he wields to address the matter of God's existence. How plausible is the premise? How convincing is the evidence?

Sagan approaches religion like any phenomenon. He isn't on a quest for life's meaning, for a comforting philosophy, or even a guide to how we should treat the neighbors. Sagan seeks truth of a demonstrable kind. As a puckish example, he wonders why the book of Genesis didn't include God-inspired truths—"Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes," say—as placeholder proofs that thousands of years later could certify His existence. Sagan would ask no less of those who maintain that aliens are sailing their saucers to Earth: What new knowledge have we harvested?

These lectures, of course, were intended to be heard, not read. The language is breezy, spiced with gentle repetition and sardonic comment. Unlike much popular science today, the reader isn't seduced by an easy introduction only to be mired in increasingly difficult material later on. The tone is even, the arguments polite. Devout readers may object to Sagan's presumption that belief should be hostage to rigorous experiment. Yet Sagan is often identified with the epigram, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." What could be more extraordinary than God?

Museum
Opening up the heavens, once more

More people have seen Halley's comet by peering through the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles than by any other means, naked eyes aside. Situated atop Mount Hollywood, the Griffith was the most popular public observatory in the world when it closed for renovation in 2002. Ninety-three million dollars later, it reopens in November with brand-new facilities. (DISCOVER is sponsoring the event.)


Courtesy of Anthony Cook, Griffith Observatory

World War II aviators and Apollo astronauts once used the Griffith's Samuel Oschin Planetarium to practice star identification and celestial navigation. Now it is completely refurbished with a new dome, star projector, sound system, and seats. The 1935 Art Deco main building is twice its original size; nearly 40,000 square feet have been added—buried beneath the observatory's front lawn—to house 60 new exhibits. On permanent display are a triple-beam solar telescope, the largest astronomical image ever produced (showing around a million galaxies), and the restored Foucault pendulum.

One of the highlights for the 50,000 field-tripping students who visit each year will be the refurbished Tesla coil, a transformer that spews jagged arcs of high-voltage electricity. The sight is so spectacular that visitors may not notice the bronze bust of James Dean, a tribute to the observatory's cameo in the film Rebel Without a Cause.


Book
When the writer is part of the story

When does the human tendency to question cease to promote progress and instead hinder it? Can debate be detrimental? These questions arise when reading

Celia Farber's book Serious Adverse Events: An Uncensored History of AIDS (Melville House, $16.95), which flips on its head almost every belief about AIDS—that HIV causes it and that current drug regimens help rather than harm.

Farber began covering AIDS 20 years ago at the magazine SPIN, under the editorship of DISCOVER's current CEO Bob Guccione Jr. Much of her writing from that time, reprinted and updated in this book, covers the ideas of controversial University of California at Berkeley biologist Peter Duesberg, who hypothesizes that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by drug use or poverty.

Most of the scientific establishment feels the debate ended long ago. The journal Science concluded in 1994 that Duesberg's ideas are unfounded; the previous year Nature's editor John Maddox warned that it was unsafe even to allow Duesberg to respond to criticism. "A person's 'right of reply' may conflict with a journal's obligations to its

Celia Farber (Courtesy of Melville House)

readers to provide them with authentic information," he wrote. But a few, like Nobel winners Kary Mullis and Walter Gilbert, disagree, asserting that no science should be censored. Duesberg's arguments have reached both those diagnosed with HIV and those who are making decisions about prevention and treatment (notably South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki). If Duesberg is correct, we have a gravely flawed scientific system where incorrect hypotheses can be verified and become big business. If wrong, his ideas are literally deadly.

Farber contends that she is simply covering the story, not commenting on the science. But a journalist who spends two decades reporting a controversial theory to the public would seem to have stepped out of the role of bystander and become a participant in the debate. Although questioning conventional wisdom is essential to scientific progress, this reader, at least, is left wondering if Farber is raising a question or implying an answer that has extreme consequences.

See Discover's interview with Celia Farber.

Film
Human specimens captured for posterity

The Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, running November 8 through 12 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, celebrates its 30th year with a collection of stories that human beings tell about themselves—cultural documentaries from the front lines of war, mental illness, sweatshops, and turtle collecting.


Courtesy of Senart Films/Scranton/Lacy Films

The offerings include an international selection of features and shorts that treat their often quirky subjects with poignancy and raw honesty. In John & Jane Toll-Free, night workers in India answer American 1-800 calls, adopt Western names, and study store flyers as though they were textbooks on the American mind. Chances of the World Changing follows the unraveling thread of one man's conservation obsession, begun in his Manhattan penthouse (with hundreds of turtles stacked bin over bin) and leading to a reptile-filled warehouse in New Jersey, outside of which he pitches a tent. In Flock of Dodos, a former evolutionary ecology professor expresses sharp-witted frustration with his colleagues—over poker—for their failure to defend themselves against the proponents of intelligent design. And in one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries this year, three New Hampshire National Guardsmen film their time in Iraq for The War Tapes, laying their patriotism, anxiety, cynicism, and laughter across the stark landscape.

Mead, whose home institution is the venue for this annual event, once said that she had spent most of her life "studying the lives of other peoples—faraway peoples—so that Americans might better understand themselves." At this year's festival, the camera is often turned in our own direction. On the screen, nearly raw, the data may indeed change our perspective.

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