Friday, 3 November 2006

Book: Broca's Brain - Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: An encouragement to us all to be open, think and doubt everything about the world around us.
Broca's Brain is a book of immense importance to me, personally. I read it first when I was 10 years old, and I remember that at the time I took it with me wherever I went - a habit developed over years of being dragged by my parents to visit boring relatives.
On one of those visits the cousin whose place we were visiting, a grown up, giggled at the sight of the book's cover (pictured here; it's the book's Hebrew version). The cause was the drawing of a naked man accompanied by a naked woman.
When I explained that this is the drawing attached to the Pioneer spaceships in order to portray what people look like to an alien passing by, my cousin reacted just the same as she would have reacted if I was to recite the first 1000 digits following 3.14; my words belonged to a world totally foreign to her.
My cousin should have probably read the book; then she may have understood me better, because it is thinking and openness to a systematic evaluation of ideas that Carl Sagan is trying to install in his readers through this book.
Made of a collection of independent thoughts to do with the world of science and its philosophies, the book approaches many different aspects of one basic thing - scientific evaluation.
Sagan starts by trying to entice the reader into admiring this world that we live in for its many marvels, most of which we fail to appreciate because we take them for granted or just fail to notice them. He warns us of delving into the exotic world of unfounded theories - be it religion or some conspiracy theories claiming extraordinary claims along the lines of life being created by aliens, for while these should be evaluated they should also be judged along the same harsh lines a scientific theory should be judged upon. He also scorns people who block free thought in the name of some holly idea and calls them "paradox" people, devoting significant efforts into explaining the weaknesses of their approach.
Sagan doesn't just preach, he makes his points by telling us stories of scientific discoveries, both old and cutting edge. His style his fluent and the read is just fascinating, making a popular science book a thrilling read - quite a rare feat. There is no denying that Sagan is an enthusiast that knows how to excite others along.
The book is not perfect, though. Written in the mid seventies, some of it does feel as if its past its expiration date. For example, Sagan dedicates quite a lot of pages to counter a theory saying that Venus (the planet) is actually a comet that split out of Jupiter, shaved the earth a few times, and then settled to where it currently is; the theory is used to explain a few biblical events, such as the parting of the Red Sea. Thing is, while this theory might have been "popular" and talked about in the seventies, no one sane would even mention it now; and while this may be attributed to Sagan's great efforts to counter it, one does feel as if Sagan is wasting his effort on nothing.
Another drawback is Sagan's eternal love and devotion to the concept of us not being alone in this universe. While I tend to think that Sagan is right there, due to the same statistical reasoning he's applying, I also think that paying the issue too much thought at this stage where we can't do much about it is a bit redundant. Once again, the passage of time makes us look at things differently, and the way we used to think when going out to space was "hot" is different to the cynical way we look at our current spin driven world.
Despite its age, the book discusses issues that are hot on today's agenda. Way before the greenhouse effect became the hot topic it is today, Sagan analyzes its effects on neighboring solar system planets and moons, trying to deduct on the way it would apply to earth. He does it to prove his point that by thinking systematically and exploring things which might seem out of our world, we can learn a lot about this world and thus benefit significantly. If some of us weren't already doing so, we would have still thought our world is flat.
However many problems the book may have, it is the best manuscript I am aware of for instructing people on how to open their minds and think; and that achievement cannot be trifled with.
Overall: Personally, I would give this book 6 stars; but to contemporary readers interested in knowing whether they should devote their time to the book I would quote 4 stars.

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