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Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.
— Carl Sagan, Cosmos

A few days ago, the free online video service Hulu made Carl Sagan’s 1980 science series Cosmos available among their releases (also available through Google Video).

This is the most recent release, containing Sagan’s 1990 updates as well as recent intro comments from his wife, writer Ann Druyan.

In 1980, the landmark series Cosmos premiered on public television. Since then, it is estimated that more than a billion people around the planet have seen it. Cosmos chronicles the evolution of the planet and efforts to find our place in the universe. Each of the 13 episodes focuses on a specific aspect of the nature of life, consciousness, the universe and time. Topics include the origin of life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere), the nature of consciousness, and the birth and death of stars. When it first aired, the series catapulted creator and host Carl Sagan to the status of pop culture icon and opened countless minds to the power of science and the possibility of life on other worlds.

Carl Sagan was an astronomer and a writer who did enormous work to popularize science. He died of pneumonia contracted during his fight against myelodysplasia (a form of anemia) in 1996 and I was very sad when we lost him.

This weekend my husband and I watched a few episodes of Cosmos, dreading how old news it might seem after three decades, but the series has aged reasonably gracefully. I wish certain sections were presented in a different order, but I believe it continues to be an excellent introduction to the intricate interconnectedness of humanity’s scientific quest, and the beauty of the universe.

I was 15 when the series was first aired. Sagan’s memorable “Billions and Billions” — with an emphasis on the Bs he reportedly added so there would be no confusion with “millions” — and his beatific gazing at starscapes, the Vangelis soundtrack, and the voyages of the “spaceship of imagination” were among the high points of an otherwise dreary year in high school. The handful of astronomy nerds I hung out with — Nathalie, Christian, Alain, Marc — talked animatedly about the episodes the next day, straining our then-limited knowledge of English. The next Christmas, mom gave me a copy of the book based on the series (there is a bit of irony in this) and later on I used the contents in many a class paper.

Hulu is co-owned by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Providence Equity Partners, and operated independently. Cosmos was first broadcast on PBS.

Links of interest:

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I finished The Seven Daughters of Eve, which I was discussing in my previous post. The last third is largely taken up by the fictitious accounts of the seven foremothers of most Europeans. The point is not so much to try to guess who they actually were (you can’t) but to illustrate both the state of their region, technology and way of life at the approximate time they lived, and the gradual changes in conditions and human adaptation during the period between the oldest foremother, nicknamed “Ursula” (40,000 years ago) to the most recent, “Jasmine” (10,000 years ago).

While Dr. Sykes’ fiction is not as proficiently written as his factual accounts, I still found it interesting. I have read amateur reviews of the book on Amazon by some readers who hated the fiction as well as the final discussion pointing out that the concept of race is not a biological one, but I enjoyed the whole book. I felt that he supported his arguments well throughout the book and gave them in interesting and even entertaining fashion.

\"The Assault on Reason\"I’m now reading Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, a discussion of the social and political climate (no pun intended) which has made reason unwelcome and almost irrelevant in recent years. The strange anti-science, anti-intellectual bias of a fraction of the American public is something that has long fascinated and frightened me.

It’s not new in itself; I remember reading an essay from Isaac Asimov dating from the early Sixties, bemoaning just this sort of attitude and linking it to the lack of science education and low regard for people who choose to make a career in science and technology. While nerds have had their day of fame thanks to the success of the Bill Gates and Paul Allens of the 80s and 90s, the Internet and tech bubble of the 90s produced much more interest in financial speculation, get-rich-quick schemes, and the image of the uneducated maverick hacker than in bolstering science education.

Then we get to the recent reenactments of the Scopes Trial. I find the anti-science bias particularly jarring from the country that put a man on the Moon and has arguably benefited most from the progress of science and technology. All this to say, the topic of Al Gore’s book immediately attracted my attention. I’m only in the first few chapters yet, but I find his tone and passion swaying (naturally, I know I’m part of the choir).

The Times offers an excerpt of the first chapter of the book. While the book does not focus on the role of science in forming the public debate, its topic is germane to my pet peeve.

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\"The Seven Daughters of Eve\"During my return trip from Denver on Tuesday, I picked up this book by Dr. Bryan Sykes. It’s about his work on using DNA, and particularly mitochondrial DNA, to track the progress of human evolution and migrations.

Mitochondria are small organelles found inside our cells that help them generate chemical energy. These organelles have their own DNA, and are believe to have started as separate cells which invaded larger cells and formed a symbiotic relationship. Mitochondrial DNA is entirely inherited from the mother; it is different from the DNA the nucleus of our cells which is inherited from both parents. As a result, when we look at your mitochondrial DNA, we’re looking at your foremothers’ DNA, all the way down the ages, with occasional mutations appearing about once per 20,000 years.

Throughout the book, Dr. Sykes explains in perfectly intelligible terms and often amusing style his work on various issues, from the spread of mankind through the Pacific Islands (East to West, or West to East?) to the question of whether farmers replaced hunters through migration through Europe, or simply popularized their newfangled technology.

I’m about two-thirds of the way into the book and so far it’s excellent; I’m really enjoying this. It goes nicely with our Stephen Jay Gould collection, and I highly recommend it.

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