Carl Sagan – Can We Know the Universe?

I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate.” – Carl Sagan, on being high

Cosmology. Astrophysics. What images are conjured up when you think of these areas of science? I mean this is actually rocket science, right?

The epitome of intelligence. The dry, hard
slog through thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, relativity. And what of the typical astrophysicist? Synonymity is an overkill, but boring and astrophysicist tend to light up the same pathways in my brain.

This is why Carl Sagan is a personal hero of mine. Not only did he popularise a pretty inaccessible area of science, but he broke down a couple of cliches in the process. Other than altering the lay perception of the physicist, he demonstrated that by smoking a joint, your brain won’t leak out of your ears. This is more than just a ‘yay weed’ thing though. It’s about challenging government and media disinformation as well as social convention. Sagan was a square peg in a round hole, and I like that. And so should you.

Before the weed tangent I think I was building up to talk about accessibility, which is the strongest facet of Can We Know the Universe?, and the main reason I love it.

This essay is one which investigates the nature of knowledge and what is is to actually know something. The term ‘know’ is banded about all over the shop. For example, I know the dimensions of my bathroom so well that I have been able to take a piss in the night without fully waking up. An amazing feat, but can I say I actually and comprehensively know my bathroom?

Agh, semantics, right?

This is already too long a piece of writing, so I’ll be quick. What the essay boils down to is an interesting comparison between the universe and a grain of salt. The cumulative number of dendritic connections in the brain is a mere 1% of the number of atoms in a grain of salt- so how can we possibly come to actually “know” that grain of salt, let alone the universe.

The assumption, of course is that in order to know something we need to know ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING about it. This is a whole other area of science, as is quantum indeterminacy, free will and other disciplines Sagan touches on, which is a strength. A well rounded piece of writing needs to draw on different schools of thought.

Even though the piece was written 30 years ago, it is perhaps even more relevant today- with increased data storage capacities and processing speeds of computers. I think I might have even heard Stephen Hawking saying the other night he thought (in light of the advances in computer technology) it was possible for humanity to learn everything there is to know.

Wow, 500 words. So to summarise then -it’s just a great piece of writing and it’s identifiable as one right from the off. There’s no dilly dallying or farting around with allegory or superfluous decorative language. Straight from the word go you are hooked and finish the piece feeling inspired.

10/10, will read again. I recommend. 5 stars.


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3 Responses to Carl Sagan – Can We Know the Universe?

  1. Beki says:

    This reminded me of the stats lecture on Monday – as we know a bit more we realise that all we know is how much we don’t know (and that sort of confused me. I am blonde though). Anyway, nice post 🙂

  2. Loving the layout and theme Rich. Spot on 🙂 Nice piece on Sagan too!

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