Closing the book

I just finished Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark about a minute ago. I’ve been working through it for months, reading bits and pieces of it whenever I had free time, and upon seeing how gorgeous it was outside and that there were only about 35 pages left, I resolved to finish it today. I ended up coming inside for the last bits, due to rising breezes and diminishing sunlight.

Anyway, especially for the last couple of months, I’ve been experiencing a weird phenomenon with the book. I’ll be discussing some issue one day, and then while reading the next day, I’ll find that Sagan has addressed the same issue. A couple of weeks ago, it was the matter of scientists’ ethical obligations and whether or not to mark some fields as “off-limits.” Then it was SETI and astrobiology, and the matter of teaching science and critical thinking in school, or about a dozen other topics. I’ve had a little chuckle to myself when I’ve recently thought “he must have been psychic.”

The other phenomenon I’ve experienced is the sheer wealth of information contained within that orange-black-and-white tome. I’ve found myself craving a highlighter, that I might go over the passages that really stand out and speak to me, but I’d have a book positively dripping with yellow. I’ve been honestly and without hyperbole describing it as “the best book ever written on the subject of everything.” I lament the fact that I won’t be able to keep all this in my head for the rest of my life. The passages throughout this book are so perfect, so useful, so relevant, that I’d like to have them at my fingertips for quoting and showing off in various arguments and other writings.

So, as I finished the acknowledgments, these two phenomena collided. Dr. Sagan had anticipated this, too. I nearly cried.

The book is indexed.

Thanks, Carl. You’re the best.

Some Pig

My wireless mouse died the other night. Spectacularly died, actually. I thought it just was a matter of replacing batteries, but they were leaking acid after I put them into the mouse. I went through two sets of batteries before I concluded that it was the mouse, not the double-A’s, that were the problem.

So, I went to the local Wal-Mart at 11:45 to find a new mouse. I ended up picking up a wireless mouse/keyboard combo, since my wireless keyboard died earlier in the year. I wish I’d paid attention to the manufacturer of my current mouse before I left, since I ended up replacing it with something by the same company, but it worked well through two years, so I’m not too upset.

Salutations!Anyway, while I was walking around the electronics section, trying to decide what to get, the various TVs out front were showing the new live-action “Charlotte’s Web.” I didn’t catch the film in theaters, though I heard it ended up being pretty good. It was one of my favorite books as a kid, and I even re-read it just a couple summers ago.

But one thing I never caught, one thing that didn’t even occur to me until that night, is that Charlotte’s Web is a scientific fable.

So, if you don’t remember the basic story, it goes something like this: in the latest litter of pigs, one is kind of a runt. John Arable, owner of the farm, decides to kill it, but his daughter Fern persuades him not to. He gives it to her as a pet, and she names it Wilbur. Wilbur’s a cheerful and inquisitive pig, and he befriends the various animals on the farm, particularly a spider named Charlotte. When he discovers that he’s going to be Christmas dinner, he enlists Charlotte’s help, and she makes a web over his pen, with the words “SOME PIG” woven into it. The amazing sight saves Wilbur’s life, and its repetition allows him to survive indefinitely.

Anyway, when the first amazing web appears, the family and townsfolk gather round and proclaim it a miracle. They attribute it to some special properties in Wilbur, or to magic–God is never mentioned explicitly, but I seem to recall that a pastor is involved. They look at this incredible phenomenon, and in it they find justification for all sorts of mystical thinking and magical powers.

But, in reality, this spiderweb was actually the work of a spider. And while that might seem obvious, no one even seems to consider it. The only magic is the natural magic of altruism and love, embodied in a selfless act to save a friend. Reality is less surprising, perhaps, than magical fantasy, but the reader recognizes that the real story is far more amazing, far more beautiful, and far more poignant than the popular myth.

To me, recognizing that human imagination can never quite match the natural world in terms of rich, unexpected, awe-inspiring majesty, is the heart of the scientific pursuit.