Thursday, December 20, 2007


Ex Libris Veritas

It is time for the second annual Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon, on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of his death. My entry for this year is a paean to learning from Cosmos that, considering the fate of scholarship in Alexandria, bears an implicit warning about the vulnerability of science and education to the forces of politics and sectarianism that is all too pertinent today.

[T]he greatest marvel of Alexandria was the library and its associated museum ... the first true research institute in the history of the world. The scholars of the library studied the entire Cosmos. Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together. Here was a community of scholars, exploring physics, literature, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, biology, and engineering. Science and scholarship had come of age. Genius flourished there. The Alexandrian Library is where we humans first collected, seriously and systematically, the knowledge of the world.

In addition to Eratosthenes [who calculated the circumference of the Earth], there was the astronomer Hipparchus, who mapped the constellations and estimated the brightness of the stars; Euclid, who brilliantly systematized geometry and told his king, struggling over a difficult mathematical problem, "There is no royal road to geometry"; Dionysius of Thrace, the man who defined the parts of speech and did for the study of language what Euclid did for geometry; Herophilus, the physiologist who firmly established that the brain rather than the heart is the seat of intelligence; Heron of Alexandria, inventor of gear trains and steam engines and the author of Automata, the first book on robots; Apollonius of Perga, the mathematician who demonstrated the forms of the conic sections" -- ellipse, parabola and hyperbola -- the curves, as we now know, followed in their orbits by the planets, the comets and the stars; Archimedes, the greatest mechanical genius until Leonardo da Vinci; and the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, who compiled much of what is today the pseudoscience of astrology: his Earth-centered universe held sway for 1,500 years, a reminder that intellectual capacity is no guarantee against being dead wrong.
It is a measure of the man that, in reciting the glories of our species' past achievements, he would include a reminder that humility is an important lesson too.

There's no more appropriate ending for this occasion than the final words from Cosmos:

[W]e are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.


To see the other posts in the blog-a-thon, go to Joel's Humanistic Blog.

My own blog is full o f mispelled words and grammar errors and other writing problems. I say this so you know I hope to laugh with you rather than at you:
"Euclid, who brilliantly systematized geometry and told his king, snuggling over a difficult mathematical problem, "There is no royal road to geometry""

Its cute to imaging the two snuggling together while doing math problems.
Thanks. It is the result of the twin evils of OCR and bad editing skills. (Now corrected!)
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