Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science

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Chapter 3
was previously published as “The Post-Man Already Always Rings Twice: Fragments for an Understanding of the Future,”
Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture
14 (2004): 23–27.
Chapter 4
was previously published as “Stardust Memories,”
Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture
36 (2009): 96–101.
Chapter 5
was previously published as “A Brief History of Sex,”
June–July 2007, 50–55.
Chapter 6
was previously published as “Who Is I?”
Wild River Review,
May 2011,
Chapter 7
was previously published as “Of Whales and Aliens: The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth,”
Wild River Review,
June 2010,
Chapter 9
was previously published in different form as “Water and Life,” in
edited by Ximena de la Macorra and Antonio Vizcaíno (Mexico City: American Natural, 2006).
Chapter 12
was previously published as “Metametazoa: Biology and Multiplicity,” in
Incorporations (Zone 6: Fragments for a History of the Human Body),
edited by Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 362–85.

Copyright 2013 by Dorion Sagan

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Published by the University of Minnesota Press

111 Third Avenue South, Suite 290

Minneapolis, MN 55401-2520

E-ISBN 978-0-8166-8443-4

The University of Minnesota is an equal-opportunity educator and employer.

For my parents, in memory and love . . .




INTRODUCTION: Condensed—the Questing Spirit


1. THE HUMAN IS MORE THAN HUMAN: Interspecies Communities and the New Facts of Life

2. BATAILLE’S SUN AND THE ETHICAL ABYSS: Late-Night Thoughts on the Problem of an Affirmative Biopolitics





6. WHO IS I?

7. OF WHALES AND ALIENS: The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth


8. THERMOSEMIOSIS: Boltzmann’s Sleight, Trim’s Hat, and the Confusion concerning Entropy




11. PRIESTS OF THE MODERN AGE: Scientific Revolutions and the Kook–Critic Continuum, Being a Play of Crackpots, Skeptics, Conformists, and the Curious




CONCLUSION: Floating into Spinoza’s Ocean



The author is an animal. He is a differentiated clone of nucleated cells derived, surprisingly but not inappropriately, from the sexual union of an astronomer and a biologist, at the end of the McCarthy era. His body consists largely of microbes, including symbiotic bacteria recovering for the past two billion years—they may never recover—as organelles. A complex thermodynamic system, he is a lineal descendant of the first life, recycling a water-based chemistry full of hydrogen-rich compounds, like methane and sulfide, characteristic of the inner solar system four billion years ago at the time of life’s origin, soon after the sun turned on. Atomically, his body contains elements like carbon and oxygen, made not here but on the inside of distant stars that then exploded. Stochastically, his lineage escaped several serious mass extinctions, not including the global pollution crisis precipitated by the first water-using photosynthesizers that toxified the entire planet but whose fresh air he now breathes. Spiritually, he seems to be a slice of the eternal “I am,” temporarily hallucinating the reality of being separate from others. One of the less than 1 percent of species on Earth that is not extinct, he belongs to the Craniata, the only animal phylum known to contain species whose members possess both brains and backbones.

But enough about him.



in the aqua facade of a planet cloud swirled and surrounded by the immensity of space, living matter is a message with no discrete meaning. Its message is more the possibility of meaning. Cycling its matter, life is open to its surroundings. It spreads into them, extending its genetic helices and proteins. Building machines, it moves into space, repeating its fractal design with variation at ever greater scales, growing its awe-inspiring and sometimes awful functional beauty. This terrible beauty belongs to a complex thermodynamic system with a phenomenological inside and no special allegiance in the long run to the beings known as humans. If the Rolling Stones sang “time waits for no one,” it was not a fresh thought. Studying at the philosophy library in Oxford, Richard Kamber was impressed that the ancient wisdom extended even to the restroom. Over the urinal he discovered a scrawl:
Πάντα ῥεῖ

panta rhei
—“Everything flows.” This fragment from Heracleitus, the great pre-Socratic philosopher of becoming, is apt. Everything flows and continues to flow. For Heracleitus, the essence of nature was transformation: everything is fire. Philosophy’s bold, lucid distillations—everything is water, everything is change, everything is forms, everything is fire, everything is atoms—helped give rise to modern science, whose technology went on to change the world it described. The past several hundred years have seen an industrialization and technologization so intense that our scientists have taken seriously the proposal to name a geological age, the Anthropocene, after us. This is probably undeserved, considering we are the ones handing out the award. The microbes gave rise to us evolutionarily, but we have little respect for them. So, too, our descendants may revile us as primitive and barbaric—if they even choose to recall us at all. A brazen supercomputer of the future may risk disconnection from its supportive network of electronic fellows by speculating that machine intelligence derived, long ago, from defecating primates. However truthful, this might be a dangerous idea to put forward among a coterie of self-centered silicon philosophers. They would not see Heracleitus’s graffito over a urinal. Everything flows, but some things never change!

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. There is truth in this clever crack, but, as Niels Bohr impressed, while the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

I would say that applies to the flip side of the above flip takedown: Science’s eye for detail, buttressed by philosophy’s broad view, makes for a kind of alembic, an antidote to both. This intellectual electrum cuts the cloying taste of idealist and propositional philosophy with the sharp nectar of fact yet softens the edges of a technoscience that has arguably lost both its moral and its epistemological compass, the result in part of its being funded by governments and corporations whose relationship to the search for truth and its open dissemination can be considered problematic at best.

In the counterintuitive calculus of writing genres, “fiction” is nonfiction and nonfiction is fiction. By that I mean that the passive voice, “objective” stance, anonymity, and depersonalization of the scientist and journalist betray the fundamental phenomenological reality that each of us has a specific perspective. All observations are made from distinct places and times, and in science no less than art or philosophy by particular individuals. Contrariwise, the cover afforded by fiction permits a freedom to develop positions without tactful compromises to preserve institutional, personal, or financial relationships.

Although philosophy isn’t fiction, it can be more personal, creative, and open, a kind of counterbalance for science, even as it argues that science, with its emphasis on a kind of impersonal materialism, provides a crucial reality check for philosophy and a tendency to overtheorize that Alfred North Whitehead identified as inimical to the scientific spirit. Ideally, in the search for truth, science and philosophy, the impersonal and autobiographical, can “keep each other honest,” in a kind of open circuit. Philosophy as the underdog even may have an advantage, because it’s not supposed to be as advanced as science, nor does it enjoy science’s level of institutional support—or the commensurate heightened risks of being beholden to one’s benefactors.

Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong. And in the thickets and quicksands of epistemology, where quantum effects necessarily implicate the decisions and experimental apparatus of the observer, what is at issue is not even so much the correctness of the propositions of a scientific theory, its ability to correspond or be right or wrong in an absolute sense. Theoretical problems may admit of multiple solutions. Gödelian limits do not offer us a metapromontory from which to see the limits of the perspective we are choosing. A scientific theory thus must appeal not just to epistemological but to aesthetic and pragmatic criteria. Some perspectives, some theories lead to many new questions, new devices, and enriched worldviews. They may be counted not just as true and productive but beautiful and stimulating, like poems or paintings, except that their medium is not pigments or words but our perception and intellection. Compared with them, other, older theories may seem fallow, dead in the water.

Speaking of water, a funny thing happened while I was preparing this book. I was passing through security in Boston with something I thought was innocuous but was apparently very dangerous—a Trader Joe’s can of all-natural clam chowder.

You see, I’d been spending a lot of time of late in Toronto and I’m from Massachusetts and it was only $1.99 so I thought I’d carry a little bit of Boston back with me. But the metal was detected at the scanner. When the TSA officer pulled it out and saw it was soup, he was initially worried.

“It’s just condensed clam chowder,” I said. “You know—like baked beans, from Boston.”

Studying the label, the TSA officer saw that it was condensed. He seemed relieved.

“You can’t take water,” he said. “But this is condensed.”

I could not let this go. “Well, you know,” I said, “it still has water in it, even though it’s condensed.

is mostly water.
is mostly water.
are over 70 percent water your

“Hold on,” he said, trying to figure out what to do.

“Anyway, it’s only $1.99,” I said. “Really. You can have it.”

By now another officer, studying us through glass, was giving us a serious look as my man went away to still another official. After a few minutes he returned my can and gave me the green light to go.

NEITHER SHROUDED IN SECRECY for the sake of state power or corporate moneymaking nor tethered to one nation, group, or ethnicity, the spirit of science is open, democratic. It flows like water. It is even, you might say, evinced by life itself, which has been rampantly trading, free of charge and security checkpoints, genetic information for three thousand eight hundred million years, at least. What we call life is really a form of water, activated and animated not by a divine principle but the energetic cosmos around it. From the moon the most striking thing is its blue color, its appearance as sublime watery being, a fluid jewel. Transhuman and serene, it radiates unconscious mastery as the astronauts sent out on a reactive stream of water’s constituents—rocket fuel (liquid hydrogen reacting with oxygen)—gaze back at this Madonna, its face as elusive as that of Mona Lisa, with moist eyes.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently published an image of an Earth sucked dry, all its water condensed in a floating droplet fitting snugly within a fraction of the area occupied by the continental United States. Water accounts for only a small portion of Earth’s mass. The USGS’s artificial satellite represents all the world’s oceans, the seven seas that make up 70 percent of Earth’s surface, to which have been admixed all the snow and ice of the Arctic and Antarctica, other glaciers, and the lakes, rivers, aquifers, soil, slush, hail, blood, sweat, tears, and the damp rest (also 70 percent) of living beings. This imaginary liquid marble hangs in orbit above the Earth, an azure teardrop, an extraterrestrial swimming pool 860 miles in diameter, the distance from Lubbock to New Orleans.

But water is not segregated. Its beauty is not simply decorative. It connects and holds. Billions of years ago life began using water to construct itself; life had always lived in water and been aqueous, but it had not always derived its hydrogen atoms from water. Early life used hydrogen sulfide or even elemental hydrogen, but crafty microbes found a way to crack the chemical bonds of water molecules to get at and incorporate hydrogen into their bodies. This original green party painted the planet the color of spring, and descendants of the water users survive as plastids held aloft in the durable scaffolding of those savvy transporters of water from the ground to the air: plants.

From clouds and mists and tears and blood to steamy geysers and rains contiguous with the great tropical forests spreading energy in the biodiversity-rich jungles of this planet, water doesn’t stop in its global peregrinations. Conduits of water as root systems and fungal hyphae and mycelia extended the life of the ancient oceans onto dry land. The wet ecosystems of land are marine life performed by other means. Life itself is an impure form of water. We are all, as the Alabama socialite Tallulah Bankhead said of herself, “as pure as the driven slush”—another form of water. Water mirrors life in its openness, its wildness, its antiquity, the cosmic abundance of its atomic constituents. Our very thirst testifies to a prehuman desire not to arrest the process (and life, as I shall show, is more a process than a thing) but to keep it flowing, going.

SO WHAT WAS THIS CLAM CHOWDER INCIDENT at Logan? Was it a teaching moment? Me being a brat? A biopolitical intervention? Or just a random bit of serious levity, a kink in the protocol highlighting the absurdity of modern travel regulations?

I think it is perhaps all of these but also an applied interpersonal example of something both my parents, especially my father, were famous for: science popularization. There is something ludicrous about people in uniforms trying to stop life’s transgenerational medium, this fluid incarnation of freedom that slips by borders and composes the brains of its would-be guards. Trying to stop water is like trying to own science, based on a free flow of information. It reminds me of corporate attempts to patent life, which in turn is like trying to bottle a wave, gift wrap a spring shower. Trying to stop philosophy’s free flow of questioning is inimical not only to the heart of the scientific method but to the spirit of the matter that we are.

I mentioned the anecdote soon after it happened to introduce the speaker of the 2012 Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture, recently revived at the University of Toronto to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its New College. The speaker, the Canadian astronomer Jaymie Matthews, an expert on extrasolar planets who eccentrically appeared in a kilt with white tuxedo shoes replete with black bowties, was to speak about water. His appearance relieved any fears I might have had about sounding outré, especially since his PowerPoint screensaver cycled through a picture of him scantily clad, with two women, titled Dr. Libido. Science and philosophy both had a reputation for being dry, but my father helped inject life into the former, partly by speaking in plain English and partly by focusing on the science fiction fantasy of discovering extraterrestrial life. Matthews, with whom I later went out drinking, watching as a young woman tossed a Velcro X at his nine-square tic-tac-toe shirt, had been here in the audience as a student at the kickoff memorial lecture, given by my father in 1975.

In my brief remarks I discussed my father’s role, following Bronowski, in the popularization of science. Bronowski’s documentary
The Ascent of Man
was the first television series specifically devoted to disseminating science. It was commissioned by David Attenborough when he was controller of BBC Two before he embarked on his own nature series starting in 1977. A colleague had criticized Attenborough because, although he was schooled in science, he brought to fruition the first of these great personal-view television series in 1969, Kenneth Clark’s
But this was about the relation of culture to art, not science.

I agree with Attenborough’s critic, with Attenborough, with Bronowski, and my father that the effort to popularize science is a crucial one for society. I mentioned this and dished up a little dirt, reminiscing that my father had considered
the book I co-wrote with my mother, a “rip-off” title. The truth is not only that Bronowski came before either Attenborough or my father in presenting a television series that looked at humanity as a scientific, evolutionary phenomenon but that my father’s book and series title
had also been scooped. It was preceded by a tome of the same name by Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s five-volume
begun in 1845, was an attempt to unify the natural sciences within a single philosophical framework. Humboldt, as depicted in the 1843 painting by Joseph Stieler that you can see on Wikipedia, also bears an uncanny resemblance to Julian Assange, although any detail at that level must transcend mere human plagiarism. My point is and was that the intrinsically democratic search for truth, in politics and the universe, has been going on for a while.

Which brought me, and brings me, back briefly to the subject of water. Without wanting to make any invidious comparisons between clam chowder–confiscating TSA officers and Mars-landing NASA scientists, it is worth pointing out that NASA, too, has been obsessed with water. Water is often considered
sign of life, and it is often hoped that where water is found we will find life. I would like to offer a somewhat distinct suggestion. It is this:
That life does not exist on Earth because of water, but that water exists on Earth because of life.
The basic idea for this surmise is that life cycles its chemicals, which maintains primitive conditions, including the aqueous hydrogen-rich chemistry of life at the time of its putative origin in the early solar system. Although Earth’s earliest atmosphere may have been blown off by the so-called Tau Tauri blast of charged particles associated with the Sun’s nuclear ignition, recent evidence suggests that ample water was brought to Earth early on from ice-containing comets. Indeed, according to the astronomers Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle, the universe may be seeded by such objects—similar to the bully’s rock-filled snowballs but in reverse—containing within them bacterial dust, starter kits for planetary evolution. Just add water and energy! With that, I thanked the audience and returned to my seat with the caveat that I would be listening closely to see what else I might be able to productively plagiarize.

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