Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sagan's latest

Carl Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, published last November, is an edited version of his 1985 Gifford Lectures . Subtitled A Personal View of the Search for God, one topic it discusses is what evidence we should find if the universe had been created by a divine being. On the way, we get a lot of information on astrology and cosmology. It's not the first or last time Sagan talks about these issues from the perspective of someone who considers science to be a kind of "informed worship", but it's different to see what he has to say in a lecture format, especially in a series founded to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term". For over a hundred years, some of the world's foremost thinkers have been invited to give the Gifford lectures. Speakers have included physicist Niels Bohr, novelist Iris Murdoch, and one of the founders of psychology,William James. In fact, Sagan's title playfully recalls William James' famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. And the book is illustrated with the slides Sagan used during his lectures (yup, slides -- this was 1985, remember).

I'm especially looking forward to reading the questions and answers at the end. But I couldn't wait to to say that the fun of reading this book starts with the very first slide. It's an illustration of the solar system, but what we know about the solar system has already changed: the slide shows 9 planets, and in 2003, just 7 years after Sagan's death, a 10th planet was discovered. Just thinking about that difference is exciting. What we "know" changes so fast! Sagan was always pushing for that change -- you have to wonder what he would say if he were giving those lectures now.

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