License to wonder

By Phil Plait | November 9, 2009 1:00 pm

Speaking of Sagan… BABlogee Rob Rollins sent me this link to a great essay by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. It’s about science, how it’s done, and the sense of wonder it evokes.

One of my favorite things to do is to take a set of facts and use them to imagine how the world might work. In writing about some of these ideas, my aim is not to be correct — how can I be, when the answer isn’t known? — but to be thought-provoking, to ask questions, to make people wonder.

Speculation is a difficult thing to master, and far more difficult to control: when does speculation tread into the territory of nonsense, or jump too far in its suppositions? Yet without it, science is on a treadmill, going nowhere.

Happily, science does go somewhere. It goes everywhere! And best yet? It takes you with it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Science
MORE ABOUT: Olivia Judson

Comments (14)

Links to this Post

  1. The right question « Inside the Sphere | November 10, 2009
  1. I, up until about a year ago, was confirmed Christian – Bible is infallible, Earth is 6000 years old, evolution didn’t exist. After my favorite pastor was kicked out of the church for being human (AFAIK – he had fallen back into a drug habit because he was in intense back pain) I started questioning my religion.

    When questioning my religion, I also started looking deeply into the nature of the world, and that’s when I discovered precisely how much beauty there was in science, how much amazement and wonder. If I could have done the math (I’ve got discalcula, so numbers are definitely not my strong point) I would probably have become a scientist of sort instead of a government employee (honestly, from youth I’ve always wanted to do sciencey things.)

    I think it was two months ago when I finally let my last vestige of Christianity drop. I’m now confirmed atheist, and without the shackles of an ancient religion holding me back, I truly have begun seeing the universe and everything in it from a different light now.

    And you know, it all started because of the Apollo 11 anniversary, finding Phil’s original webpage (moon hoax stuff,) and picking up both of his books.

    Phil – thanks for opening the eyes of a previously religious nut to how freakin’ awesome science is.

  2. Alareth

    I’ve had believers try to tell me my world is a cold and empty place without a god to attribute everything to. It’s the opposite. It’s more miraculous and wonderful than they can imagine.

    All the seperate factors that have to go into making something as simple as a rainbow or a flower are that much more amazing than “God did it”

  3. Jesse

    I love this blog. I love space. I’m not a fan of Sagan, but its not for his stance on atheism or whatever. A lot of arguments made by Mr. Plait are made with the tagline of skepticism. Why is Sagan revered then, when he was a self-proclaimed pot head? To me, you really have a pretty big disconnect there – bordering on hypocrisy. You preach skepticism in all facets, yet you take what Sagan (regardless of what you think about pot, a self admitted illegal drug user) as great stuff? Trying to adopt this skepticism mindset, that doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Skepticism and Science aren’t bent for ‘guys who say totally awesome things’. If you would discount 1 person for being a regular pot user, you’ve got to question the other.

    Regardless, love the blog! :)

  4. Jesse- The fact that Sagan smoked pot has absolutely nothing to do with the love of cosmology that he preached so avidly. If you want to be a skeptic, be a skeptic of the argument itself, not the person making it.

  5. @ Kevin, thank you for sharing your story. yeah, science is probably much more humbling and awe inspiring than any religion has even imagined trying to be. :)

    @ Jesse, first of all, it’s Dr. Plait. An Astronomy PhD actually means something. Otherwise Opiecan pretty much nailed it. There are a great many people out there that have made incredible contributions to the world that did things I didn’t agree with in other areas. Didn’t invalidate their contributions to the area they are(were) experts in.

  6. Alareth, I agree. I know people who find existentialism to be a depressing philosophy because it implies a meaningless existence. But I know an existentialist who finds it to be the exact opposite – since there is no objective meaning to existence, he is free to find his own purpose in life without worrying about the consequences in the afterlife.

    From that perspective, I believe that the people who live their entire lives believing in fulfillment from the next life are tragically sad.

  7. Cheyenne

    I had no idea Sagan was a fan of the reefer.

    “I can remember another early visual experience with cannabis, in which I viewed a candle flame and discovered in the heart of the flame, standing with magnificent indifference, the black-hatted and -cloaked Spanish gentleman who appears on the label of the Sandeman sherry bottle.” Oh wow there are ones way better than that on the internet.

    I bet he saw some REALLY groovy stuff through his telescopes from time to time!

    But aside from the use of a rather benign drug he really did inspire a lot of people to head into science. And that is a good thing.

  8. AJ

    ahaha thats one of the reasons i love sagan! how is smoking pot related 2 being a skeptic? anyway, sagan was a great man…

  9. I can’t believe anyone cares whether a particular person has had a smoke or not. Mr Sagan or Clinton or Obama for that matter would be right at home in Oz where at least a third of the population has smoked dope at one time or another. More or should I say higher depending on the age group.
    I was actually more shocked to find recently that Obama still smoke cigarettes. Man, I do not dig on that.

  10. JenniferBurdoo

    Re: speculation, SF writers can have a hand in that too. One of my favorite novels, and the one that turned me on to “hard” science fiction, was Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement, which presupposes a planet with several hundred times the gravity of Earth. What would it look like? Turns out it would be highly oblate, and because of the way light works the horizon would appear to be above the viewer. What would it be like to live there? You’d have to be pretty small and flat, because a fall of just a few inches could kill you. And you might think the world is shaped like a bowl…

  11. Rob in PA

    Glad you could use the link, Phil…kudo’s to my dad who sent it to me! Wonder has to come first, leading to speculation….and finally proof (or not!)…but without the wonder…you’re right…it’s a treadmill. I think we sometimes get so busy in the day to day that we forget to wonder. It’s a shame, really. Next time it snows, go outside and lay down perfectly still and watch the snow flakes as they come down toward you….why are they moving that way, dancing to and fro before landing on or around you. Listen to the sound they make when they land. Go outside at night and look at the sky, all the familiar sights, the moon and the planets along the ecliptic, the milky way, the familiar constellations….and then, instead of seeing them as a 2D canvas that we are accustomed to viewing…view it all instead as a person sitting on a spinning ball hurling through spaces, with everything moving around you…get the sense that we are not just spectators…we are PARTICIPANTS! How the heck does it all work? Where are we going? This is where it all starts.

    And to the folks who are down on Carl, sure he could be a little pompous at times, but just go read his “pale blue dot” speech again….nuff said.

    Thanks again for a great site!

  12. JT

    I had no idea that Sagan used pot, and now that I know I can’t think of a single reason why I should care in the slightest.

    Jesse, you would have us believe that we are bad skeptics because we don’t stop liking Sagan’s message because of some completely irrelevant detail about his personal life.

    Honestly, no more needs be said than that.

  13. CTReader

    BTW… “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to all Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex” by Olivia Judson is one of the funniest books that I actually learned a lot of stuff from. I highly recommend it.

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