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.
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?
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.)
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.