Thursday, March 29, 2012

Before Sagan came Bronowski

During my second year of graduate school I became obsessed with Carl Sagan. I read many of his books - Dragons of Eden being my favorite. I incessantly watched episodes of the Cosmos series. The more episodes I watched the more I fell in love with the history of science. It became clear to me that, contrary to popular belief, science is an extremely HUMAN endeavor. The series clearly demonstrated how concepts build on each other over time. Understanding how this process of accumulating concepts works is essential to understanding any one branch of science, no matter how tiny and frail that branch may be.

When I found out that Sagan had based his Cosmos on the earlier work of another I was immediately primed to go deeper into this rabbit hole. His name was Jacob Bronowski and he produced a 13 part series called the Ascent of Man. This series made its debut on the BBC in 1973. Tragically, Bronowski died a year later. Though the title might be a bit misogynistic for this age the messages within are timeless. 

Recently in the middle of dinner at a sushi restaurant here in southern Oregon I had an encounter with a creationist in his early 30s. I saw this as an opportunity to try and teach him the evidence for evolution and the geologic age of the earth in the most direct way possible. One question that many creationists ask is how could a person just come into existence randomly? How could all the atoms of a human being just pop into existence? 

Back at Umi-Sushi this very question was asked. I tried my best to explain that this is not what evolution suggests and that physical beings are the product of millions of years of accumulated chance. I tried my best to explain this and I hope my partner in conversation stayed with me. The fact that he continued to ask questions told me he was indeed open-minded. I caught him at a good time in his life as he was not totally entrenched in his beliefs as I suspect some people can be. Questions were sparked in his head and that was the first step. I wish I had memorized the unscripted monologue Jacob Brosowski launches into in the video below. Beginning at 30:30 in he explains a concept echoed by Carl Sagan - in essence we are made of star-stuff. As I have talked to people over the years who have had their own scientific epiphanies, the epiphany, in many cases begins with this beautiful notion that every human being began to exist in the center of a star somewhere out there. 

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