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I plugged your blog over on the Achenblog (I hope you're not offended).

Great post, Jennifer. You nailed it. Sagan always said, "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out." Part of the reason he was so much fun to listen to, and read, is that he was excited -- thrilled by the all ideas in play, the possibilities of the universe, the fact that nature has so many surprises and eccentricities (like your time dilation example). I can't believe he's been gone 10 years!

"His debunking was thoughtful, thorough, carefully worded, and he offered the wonders of real science in place of the silly pseudostuff. People responded accordingly."

There is nothing to stop us skeptics from following Sagan's approach, of course --- nothing except laziness and the addictive drug known as indignation. It just feels so **good** to be part of the Elect, the righteous souls saved by skepticism, while the rest of the world struggles through the mud. Spit upon the preterite, the proletariat. What fools they are, those peasant simians, to sink themselves in superstition. . . .

It is a disgusting pattern of behavior, and one which we will have to stop. At least we can see this self-righteousness within our psyche; with luck, we can take measures to counteract it.

My own thoughts on this anniversary day:

Very nice, as usual!

I give lots of talks at skeptic group meetings, and it's important to rally the troops. We know we're preaching to the choir, but the choir needs pep talks too!

But it's when the skepticism reaches someone to to whom the idea is totally alien... that's when I rejoice. I just love it when the scales fall from their eyes.

You know, I was afraid folks would think I was referring to Phil and Bad Astronomy, and almost included a disclaimer to that effect. But it ruined the flow of my prose. :) Seriously, Phil debunks with humor and likeability, and he's never mean-spirited. I'm a big fan of Bad Astronomy. :)

Thanks for a thoughtful post! I now marvel at my good fortune at being raised in an agnostic household, and having a professional scientist for a father, who taught me how to think critically. As a result, I learned to try to ask the right questions. I'm still learning.

I know what you mean about the fundamentalist household- my oldest sister went fundamentalist Christian about 25 years ago. I love her as my sister, but I can't stand to visit her household. The moment the word "Jesus" enters into the conversation, a new episode of the Twilight Zone unfolds, and I begin to ponder the possibility of us having some of the same DNA.

Carl Sagan gave me the courage to face alien abductions. For you see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.

Let me elaborate on that:

Junior year for us physics majors is deliberately designed to be a brutal experience. To use flamboyantly gender-biased language, the professors want a chance “to separate the boys from the men” (you can substitute “sheep from the wolves” if you prefer). Key ingredient in the witches’ brew is Junior Lab, a class which the course catalog says will require eighteen hours of work per week. Well, if you’re a slacker, perhaps: I never knew anybody who did a decent job doing less than twenty. And you’re expected to be taking three other classes at the same time, including your first real encounter with quantum mechanics — a nice, intuitive subject which gives you time to relax and contemplate — and if you believe that, I’ve got a very attractive deal on a bridge in Brooklyn. . . .

Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation. I was a lightweight, usually tumbling into bed between two and four A.M. when others could go all night long. However, I would wake up around six, when the sun started hitting my bedroom window, and damnably, I would have the hardest time falling asleep again.

So I would curl up there in bed, not able to be awake, not able to sleep. And then, pretty dependably — when I was truly zonked with exhaustion but somehow unable to doze off — I would feel a wave of numbness, followed by a strange paralysis. With my eyes closed, I would see my room, but with the sizes and proportions all distorted. If the experience lasted long enough, I would sense myself rising into the air and sometimes even flying through abstract tunnels of light.

“This is so freakin’ cool!” I would exclaim. Curiosity and enthusiasm quickly overcame me, since I recognized the exact phenomenon which Carl Sagan had implicated in alien abductions of today and demonic visitations of yesteryear. After a few such experiences, I discovered I could give myself a good shake and break the sleep-paralysis. Sometimes, after I did that, I could relax into my little hypnogogic trance again.

I expect lots of people have had similar experiences, half-awake and seeing odd things. (I mean, I tripped out in a dentist’s chair at age eight after inhaling too much nitrous while they fixed my sugar-rotted baby teeth. Weird things can happen to the brain, even in daily life!) Junior year at MIT gave me the chance to explore the phenomenon, to test it with a little repeatability.

As Carl wrote, “And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and hoaxing, don’t we have before us a matter of supreme importance — touching on our limitations, the ease with which we can be misled and manipulated, the fashioning of our beliefs, and perhaps even the origin of our religions? There is genuine scientific paydirt in UFOs and alien abductions — but it is, I think, of a distinctly homegrown and terrestrial character.”

Wow -- 10 years -- hard to believe it has been that long. As someone who dragged the whole family to watch Cosmos, I can honestly say Carl Sagan had a huge effect on me growing up. His sense of wonder, of sheer joy at the glory of the universe, was infectious, and helped instill in me a hunger for knowledge that has served me well all my life. He is, indeed, missed.

Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation.

Yikes. It's so sad that those two are often linked. They don't need to be, and ideally they shouldn't be. (Cognitive psychologists have shown us that nobody is as productive as they could be when sleep deprived. And, too much sleep deprivation can lead to other quality-of-life-decreasing and productivity-suppressing things like depression.)

It happens sometimes, but it'd be better if we planned ahead more often and did things like getting proposals done early enough so that we don't have to lose sleep over them.... It's too bad when one of the rites of passage in becoming a Physicist require (according to your tale) living with sleep deprivation.


Hi Jennifer,
science everyday reveals things that were or seemed 'physically' impossible to the generation before. Just because skeptics do not believe or cannot 'see' something in their 'closed' minds - does not mean it is not possible

Quantum-dot onions
With a controllable number of confined electrons, quantum dots are similar to artificial atoms. An electron spin (which can point either up or down) isolated in a semiconducting quantum dot is a tantalizing candidate for storing one bit of information, or qubit. But to perform any useful operation, the quantum dot must be coupled to another one, at the very least. Jesse Berezovsky and co-workers bypass the need for wires by growing an onion-like quantum dot structure: the core is separated from a shell layer by a barrier layer. Using optical means, the core and shell states can be individually manipulated, meaning that the localized spin states can be initialized and read out at will. Scaling up the approach will be the next major challenge.

On the other hand hollywood, tele-vision and the internet are full of things we can see - but are illusions. Obviously films may not have convinced you that werewolves are real. But they exist, they exist in the movies, in the movie scrypts, and in the pages of books. But because they 'exist' does not make them real, true or fact.
Equally we know that because something cannot be seen or as yet measured, does not mean it does not exist

So here's wishing you season greetings
and a merry time through these festive days!

I'm my astronomy club's librarian. Last year, a club member bought a copy of the updated Cosmos series on DVD, and donated it to the club. It's been checked out essentially continuously since. That is to say, it's making the rounds.

I got to watch it. Apparently, i got to see it the first time, when it was on TV. No VCRs then, so i must have scheduled the time to watch each episode.

One thing that struck me is that i still structure my view of the Universe within the Cosmos framework. Another thing that struck me is how 25 years later, essentially nothing has been contradicted by new data, and very little has become obsolete. An astounding accomplishment. Cosmos is still a great watch. Go ahead, order a copy. Organize a weekly Cosmos party.

You never saw Cosmos?
Well, it did have rather a lot of dreck (the "spaceship of the imagination")but...

At the end of Episode 3, discussing Johannes Kepler, he says (approximately):

"He loved the hard truth more than his own cherished notions -- and THAT ias the essence of Science!"

Cold Shivers!

" of the last people to interview Sagan while he was still alive."
You had me there for a minute. I was waiting for you to tell us someone managed to get an interview after his death. After reading the rest of the post I think maybe some of your early upbringing slipped through.

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.