Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On star stuff, 'Science's Unruly Earth Mother,' and the scientific art of empirical rebellion

Award-winning science writer, editor, and theorist

“Every scientific idea passes through three stages,” wrote William Whewell in his 1840 Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences:

First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed or claimed to be of only minor importance.
Third, it is accepted as self-evident. 

Other versions and variations have appeared since, with the emergency rider that as a last resort a great new idea, to get itself properly noticed, may have to wait for the deaths of its most authoritative, and threatened, belittlers. (Noteworthy here is Arthur C. Clarke's first law, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”) Such is one of the aporias in the history and philosophy of science, which is, after all, practiced by highly creative, highly fallible humans—that big-headed species whose members are wont to attribute near 100% correctness to their own beliefs. It is not seemly for authorities, including scientists, to wallow in a miasma of maybes. And yet this is a significant irony, as it is precisely the institutionalization of getting it wrong, of doing experiments that set up the possibility of making mistakes, and then of recognizing and correcting those mistakes, that has made science the most effective and pragmatic engine of knowledge acquisition on the planet, and given it its authority.

Cosmic Apprentice is dedicated to my parents, the pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis and the famous astronomer Carl Sagan. Although they divorced when I was three, and I heard gossip in 2002 China that my mother somehow sabotaged my father’s career, and more recently, on new atheist evolutionist Jerry Coyne’s blog that my father would be embarrassed by my mother’s ideas, the truth is that she more than he was ahead of her time. Not only have I fulfilled the maudlin fantasy of a child of divorce by putting them together again in my book but I would argue that certain tribal but anti-science forces have worked to marginalize my mother’s work relative to my father’s. One is a fundamental conservativism in the face of new ideas, whether testable and tested or not. My father was a prolific scientific and popular author, whose media presence essentially democratized enlightenment scientific knowledge using the powerful medium of television. Like certain other cultural figures his visage is displayed above quotes in sight-bite memes on Facebook. The most famous of these snippets (and it is enough to make some theologians apoplectic) is that we are “star stuff”—the materialist realization that the most numerous atoms in our bodies, hydrogen, is also the most numerous atom in the universe, a glittering panorama whose celebrity status will be written in lights long after earthbound luminaries have expired and their names have been forgotten.

My father’s advocacy of the possibility of life on other planets would have gotten him into a heap of trouble in another time. Giordano Bruno was lured to Rome by the papacy, then detained, then sentenced to death, a spike driven through his palate and one through his tongue, after which he was burnt at the stake (the crowd threatening to boycott such future public conflagrations if they were to be thoughtlessly deprived of the enjoyment of hearing the impenitent’s screams), for prematurely espousing such sentiments. But by the time of the space race, NASA Moon landings, American technology and popularization of science via the excitement of science fiction, my father’s idée fixe (as my mother termed it) of the probability of extraterrestrial life was no longer an invitation to state murder. It was informed speculation, not heresy. What once drove a stake through Bruno’s tongue, was now used to draw attention to global science education and planetary connectedness. Even the Vatican, which has its own retinue of astronomers, is interested in the possibility of life in outer space, perhaps in part because, as I recently read in a science fiction story, aliens and robots could increase the numbers of the Catholic devout. (See: "Habemus Papam" by Helmuth W. Mommers, included in the anthology The Black Mirror and Other Stories.)

Lynn Margulis, mother of Dorion Sagan,
was dubbed "Science's Unruly
Earth Mother" by Nature magazine.
My mother’s contributions, while overlapping with those of my father (she helped found the Planetary Biology Internship and the Planetary Biology and Microbial Ecology programs at NASA), were more untimely. She thus required more of Brunian and Galilean fortitude to make her case. Fortunately, she was fearless. She worked doggedly for decades, and compiled striking and multifarious evidence for the theory, now genetically proven, that our mitochondria derive from free-living bacteria. With James E. Lovelock, who once shared an office with my father, she focused attention on the deep biological contribution to processes that had previously been considered solely geological. However, this second contribution, colorfully named Gaia, after the Greek term for mother Earth, attracted a hippie following, echoed Native American views, and emboldened feminists fed up with patriarchy and Christianity—associations that led to an initial knee-jerk dismissal by mainstream scientists. Yet it is now taught on college campuses all over the world under a different name: Earth systems science—the study of the cybernetic loops and links, some hundreds of millions of years in the making, between life and the environment. For her trailblazing trouble she was tagged in the top science magazine Nature as “Science’s Unruly Earth Mother.”

But that was then. In the weeks and months since she died in 2011, the public has been inundated with a spate of articles on the microbial constitution of our biological, physiological, and psychological identity—often without mentioning her. On Whewell’s amusing scale her world-scientific insights are caught between stages two and three, which we may paraphrase as “You’re right, but the idea is trivial” and “You’re right, the idea is important, but yes we knew this all along.”


Dorion Sagan is author of numerous books that have been translated into thirteen languages. In Cosmic Apprentice, a volume of essays that challenge scientific and philosophical dogma, he discusses his mother’s ideas in "The Human is More than Human," and explores the reticence to new ideas in "Priests of the Modern Age."

"Profound, elegant, and funny, Cosmic Apprentice is a treat for anyone who likes to think—that is, for any true member of the Craniata, equipped with both brains and backbones!"
Greg Bear

"As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science. The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics."
—Brain Pickings

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