Monday, August 15, 2005


"The last scientist who worked in the Library [in Alexandria] was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy—an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time—by then long under Roman rule—was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

"The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. . . ." —Carl Sagan, COSMOS, pp. 335-336

Add this lady to Copernicus and Galileo and hundreds of thousands of other unknowns, intelligent and logical, whose intelligence has always been a threat to the rule of the ignorant and superstitious among us in the Christian church or in any church of any religion in history.


"Superstition [is] cowardice in the face of the Divine," wrote Theophrastus, who lived during the founding of the Library of Alexandria. We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfwaY across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times—a Cosmos of quasars and quarks. snowflakes and fireflies, where there [are] black holes and may be other universes and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor.

"Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Theophrastus was right. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.

"There is no other species on Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must he discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true. Humans everywhere share the same goals when the context is large enough. And the study of the Cosmos provides the largest possible context. Present global culture is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking about for a few thousand years declares itself in possession of eternal truths. But in a world that is changing as fast as ours, this is a prescription for disaster. No nation, no religion, no economic system, no body of knowledge' is likely to have all the answers for our survival. There must be many social systems that would work far better than any now in existence. In the scientific tradition, our task is to find them." —Carl Sagan, COSMOS, pp. 332-333


My wife and I went to see the movie "March of the Penguins" the other night. A beautifully filmed, awesome film which depicts one year in the life of the Emperor Penguins of the South Pole. In the middle of it, of their tale of survival, I thought of our human species and how we don't quite face such natural attacks on us. Then second thought made me realize members of ours species perish constantly in natural and man made disasters. Then I thought how our brains could free us from natural and man-made disasters if we would only think, think, think and cast aside the superstitions of religion and take full responsibility for our human destiny. Because we have evolved brains and foresight, we can do what no other animal has been able to do, defeat nature and natural disasters. I fear we are still a long way away from being that humanly free. It's a race to see whether we destroy ourselves before we reach nirvana. With so many religious amongst us who secretly wish to escape life into imaginary heavens, the race to survive will be nip and tuck. Their self-fulfilling prophecies of doom are humankind's worse nightmare.

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