500: Cosmic Apprentice by Dorion Sagan

by Gerard


500: Sagan, Dorion. Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 238 pp. ISBN 978-0-8166-8135-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 500: Science

Dorion Sagan’s Cosmic Apprentice is a scientific mugging. He takes everything you think you know about science and turns it on its head, tying together classic observations and modern revelations in such a way as to make ensure that you will question everything. He scoops up the whole world of modern science, including hallucinogenic research, bacterial genomics, the significance of dust, and the nature of scientific revolutions, squeezes them for all they’re worth.

Sagan’s mission is to show that everything is simultaneously connected and questionable. He focuses his time on scientists conducting research far outside the mainstream. These people are not kooks per se, but they are definitely not your run-of-the-mill pipette-wielding chemists or biologists. They are seeking to integrate whole systems of thought, systems that range from the microscopic to the cosmologic. He quotes research from far too many people to count.

There’s also a lot of cognitive science in here as well. How do we think about discovery? About failure? About thinking itself? These are both neurological and philosophic questions. An interesting motif that recurs in the chapters, however, is the notion of the free will in a world of interconnected systems. Given that everything in the universe is the result of billions of years of motion and reaction, what makes humanity so special that it doesn’t have to obey these laws? Each one of us may believe that we are unique and autonomous, but we are subject to the same processes that govern the ocean or the ant colony. We are at the mercy of our chemicals and invading bacteria. The feature that supposedly separates us from the rest of the universe is our self-perception. The problem occurs when we try to devise a test to prove or disprove free will.

It’s these intersections of science and philosophy that make this interesting. Sagan eagerly demonstrates ability to synthesize, or at least correlate, information from very disparate fields of study. This book is like reading Bill Bryson on acid. I liked it a lot, but next time, I’ll read it much slower. It’s just a lot to take in at once. If you have the stomach and can handle the ride, though. this one is well worth it.