The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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The Two Pillars of the Sensible and Sensitive Mind: Carl Sagan on Mastering the Vital Balance of Skepticism and Openness

Fine-tuning the machinery of distinguishing the valid from the non-valid.

David Foster Wallace famously argued that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Yet in an age of ceaseless sensationalism, pseudoscience, and a relentless race for shortcuts, quick answers, and silver bullets, knowing what to think seems increasingly challenging. We come up with tools like The Baloney Detection Kit and create wonderful animations to teach kids about critical thinking, but the art of thinking critically is a habit that requires careful and consistent cultivation. In his remarkable essay titled “The Burden of Skepticism,” originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) — always the articulate and passionate explainer — captured the duality and osmotic balance of critical thinking beautifully:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Here’s to an exquisite addition to these famous definitions of science.


Carl Sagan on Books

How to reach across the millennia and access magic.

The love of books and the advocacy for reading are running themes around here, as is the love of Carl Sagan. Naturally, this excerpt from the 11th episode of his legendary 1980s Cosmos series, titled “The Persistence of Memory,” is making my heart sing in more ways than the universe can hold.

Half a millennium after Galileo asserted that books give us superhuman powers, Sagan marvels:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

Complement with Sagan’s own reading list, Kafka on what books do for the human soul, and Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful meditation on why we read.


The Voyagers: A Short Film About How Carl Sagan Fell in Love

A thousand billion years of love, or what the vastness of space has to do with eternal mixtapes.

In 1977, NASA launched two unmanned missions into space, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Though originally intended to study Saturn and Jupiter over the course of two years, the probes have long outlasted and outtraveled their purpose and destination, on course to exit the solar system this month. Attached to each Voyager is a gold-plated record, known as The Golden Record — an epic compilation of images and sounds from Earth encrypted into binary code, the ultimate mixtape of humanity. Engineers predict it will last a billion years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Golden Record was conceived by the great Carl Sagan and was inspired by his childhood visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he witnessed the famous burial of the Westinghouse time capsule. And while its story is fairly well-known, few realize it’s actually a most magical love story — the story of Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan, the creative director on the Golden Record project, with whom Sagan spent the rest of his life.

The Voyagers is a beautiful short film by video artist and filmmaker Penny Lane, made of remixed public domain footage — a living testament to the creative capacity of remix culture — using the story of the legendary interstellar journey and the Golden Record to tell a bigger, beautiful story about love and the gift of chance. Lane takes the Golden Record, “a Valentine dedicated to the tiny chance that in some distant time and place we might make contact,” and translates it into a Valentine to her own “fellow traveler,” all the while paying profound homage to Sagan’s spirit and legacy.

Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.” ~ Annie Druyan

How sublime it is to lose oneself in the poetry of Lane’s closing words:

It’s hard to imagine the Golden Record being made now. I wish Carl Sagan were here to say, ‘You know what? A thousand billion years is a really long time. Nobody can know what will happen. Why not try? Why not reach for something amazing?’ There is no way to forestall what can’t be fathomed, no way to guess what hurts we’re trying to protect ourselves from. We have to know in order to love, we have to risk everything, we have to open ourselves up to contact — even with the possibility of disaster.”

via Short of the Week; HT MetaFilter


A Painting of Cancer Cells Inspired by Carl Sagan

What supernovas have to do with cancer cells.

When she lost her friend Cathy to cancer, artist Michele Banks (whose stunning biological watercolors you might recall) set out to tell her friend’s story in the language she speaks most fluently and eloquently: painting. But she didn’t want it to be another “cancer painting.” Instead, she found unlikely inspiration at the intersection of the deadly disease and Carl Sagan’s iconic, life-affirming idea that we’re all made of “star stuff” — she saw a striking parallel between supernovas and dividing cancer cells. The result is simply breathtaking.

I was reading about astronomer Carl Sagan, who often expressed the idea that humans are made of “star stuff”. That is, that all the basic elements of life on earth derive from “space debris” from the gigantic explosions of massive, ancient stars. This concept is at once so simple and so mind-boggling that it’s a struggle to absorb, much less to express artistically. I started looking around for ideas of how to visually portray the basic elements such as hydrogen, helium and nitrogen. Um. This is difficult, because you can’t see them. If you do a Google image search on Carbon, it comes up with a lot of gray-black cars. But when I thought about how the elements were released, I found supernovas. Not only are supernovas beautiful and awe-inspiring, they bear a strong resemblance to dividing cells, especially explosively dividing cancer cells.” ~ Michele Banks

Curiously, Sagan himself also had myelodysplastic syndrome, or “preleukemia,” and underwent three bone marrow transplants before losing the long and difficult fight in 1996. Banks reflects:

This painting, besides celebrating the cosmic connection that all living creatures share, goes out to Cathy and Carl. From the infinitely tiny cells deep in the marrow of their bones, to the billions of stars in the sky.”

You can find Banks on Twitter and her beautiful prints on Etsy.

In a similar vein, don’t forget composer Alexandra Pajak’s Sounds of HIV, which “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart


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