Monday, April 10, 2006

Billions of Errors

Recent astronomical data have again demonstrated that few scientists have simultaneously achieved such widespread acclaim while consistently being wrong as the late Carl Sagan.

In the area of popular science, I don’t know much that he wrote or said that was correct.

I wonder if the same is true for Dawkins? Unlike Sagan’s work, I am not competent to judge Dawkins. I do know that on matters of culture, Dakwins is as much a fool as Sagan—perhaps more so—but I simply couldn’t say how good or bad his biology is. Sagan is a different story. What Sagan had to say concerning Astronomy is largely nonsensical.

Dawkins, like Sagan before him, uses his outrageousness as a cash cow. One ramification of their chosen cottage industry is constant pressure to prepare even more outlandish statements for the next cycle of talk shows and interviews. In that sense their behavior is easily understood: they are selling themselves, and as such they must unceasingly upgrade their product.

One of the more erroneous teachings of the late Cornell showman was that the earth was in a particularly unimpressive location in the galaxy—a galactic backwater if you will. Another related Sagan error: look for signals of life coming from (or broadcast signals of our existence toward) regions with a high density of stars, which in fact is exactly the wrong place to look—given the hostile environment they represent: life-extinguishing radiation and catastrophic gravitational perturbations.

Sagan was wrong, wrong, wrong. The earth is in a privileged location (not just for life as we know it, but for any kind of complex life imaginable), as discussed quite convincingly by Gonzalez and Richards in the Privileged Planet.

A recent result published in the journal Science demonstrates that Sagan was even more wrong. Among other findings, the research reveals that the density of stars in the Milky Way’s good address, the spiral arms, is much higher compared to with the Galaxy’s ghetto (the region between the arms, where we live) than previously thought. (Y. Xu et al., Science 311 (2006): 54-57.)

This means two things: The probability of a random star being in a habitable region of the Milky Way is less than we thought, and the inhabitability of the region containing the majority of the stars is even more severe than we imagined.

Which only emphasizes the obvious: There's no place I'd rather be than Sagan's backwater.

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