In 1880, a French neurosurgeon and anthropologist named Paul Broca died. His brain was carefully removed and preserved in a bottle which is still housed in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris among countless other brains Broca had collected and studied during his successful anatomical career. Bypassing the irony of Broca’s final repository, Carl Sagan uses this brain as a starting point and thematic symbol for his collection of articles, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science. Having dealt with the evolution of our species in his 1978 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dragons of Eden, Sagan here reveals his appreciation for the inner genius of mankind and its outward manifestation in the exploration and description of our world.
Carl Sagan is a respected astronomer whose work has won numerous scientific awards and has been translated into many languages. He is also becoming respected by the general public for his ability to share his scientific knowledge with the lay person while conveying his enthusiasm for the joys of discovery and creativity. The subtitle of this book clearly defines its pervasive theme. To Sagan, the pursuit of knowledge is exciting and exhilarating in every field, and his goal is to strike a responsive chord in the reader. In five main sections, he discusses intellectual explorations in astronomy, pseudoscience, cosmology, and religion, along with minor excursions into science fiction, psychology, extraterrestrial life, government-policy, and popular beliefs and customs.
Despite the impossibility of fully understanding the entire universe of knowledge, this volume celebrates the attempts of scientists and other creative thinkers to unravel the laws of nature and the universe. This search for knowledge means that each new theory or idea must meet the tests of scientific inquiry before it can be fully accepted. Scientific knowledge develops in stages. The discovery of factual information is an important step, but we also depend upon the synthesis and development of theories to explain the relationships of those facts to one another. The testing and retesting of facts and theories as new discoveries are made is essential to the growth of knowledge. Once a theory is accepted without such testing, growth stops. To demonstrate this tenet, Sagan gives numerous examples of how various missions into space in recent years have confirmed previously developed theories of cosmologists. With some clear, specific evidence, these scientists can now proceed with more assurance than was possible before. This type of proof is as necessary today as it was for Galileo in his struggle to prove the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.
Theories which cannot withstand continual close scrutiny in the light of new discoveries should be dismissed. A major section of Broca’s Brain, “The Paradoxers,” is an exposé of popular and scientific theories which fit into this category, such as the lost continent of Atlantis, UFO’s, dream precognition, and ESP. Continuing his argument and giving an example of how such theories should be tested, Sagan devotes a long chapter to a detailed critique of the theories presented in Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (1950). Velikovsky theorized that celestial catastrophies have been, and still are, the major shaping force in the universe, using various mythologies and scientific theory to support his contention. Sagan’s point is that such controversial work deserves detailed criticism rather than casual dismissal in order to test fully all of the facts and theories presented. Without such painstaking analysis, it is impossible, Sagan argues, to dismiss any argument. All new ideas should be welcomed and examined. Another less ponderous example of Sagan’s method is his refutation of the mathematical method by which a numerologist has proven himself to be God. Throughout these chapters, Sagan’s approach is at once critical of the theories on a...
(The entire section is 1,244 words.)