education

It Will Dazzle Us All

BEWhE_xCYAAqJc2.jpg largeDominic Hinde on twitter found a copy of Pat Kane‘s rectorial address at the University of Glasgow in 1990 (hence the image on the right).

Apart from the fact that in this era it’s slightly exciting to see something that was actually written with a typewriter (for younger readers, this is a typewriter), there’s some very nice bits in there, of which the title of this post is one.

I particularly enjoyed the last paragraph.

You can read the whole thing here.

THE BIG ONES – MY UNABASHED POST

Where are we? – A question that has been ever more accurately answered by a long stretch of people from Aristarchus of Samos to Edwin Hubble and many many before, between and after. Suffice to say we have a very good idea now.

Who are we and what are we? – I would posit that both of these have been satisfactorily answered by Darwin but not in the sense that many people who seek to misrepresent Darwin for right-wing political ends would suggest. Let us not forget that one of the reasons that Darwin got time to study  his science more was that he fell out with the ship’s captain (whom he was employed to talk to…he wasn’t employed to be ship’s naturalist) because the captain agreed with slavery and Darwin vehemently did not.

How are we and/or how should we be? – This one is the province of the philosophers ie all of us.

Why are we? – Probably unanswerable question.

When are we? – This has also been convincingly answered. Look it up yourself – you have the time.

And today we got a lot closer to another one…

Are we alone? – I know that this is not a definitive answer but the odds just changed considerably. It is possible that over time this will become one of the biggest stories in history. If it isn’t this one, there is a high possibility it will be another one… and soon.

Check it out. I am completely unashamed to say that the fact we are attaining such a level of understanding is one of the great things about being alive in this time. The tragedy, as it has been pointed out before, is that just as we are on the point of getting it we are also on the point of fucking our little corner of it up beyond repair.

Here is what won’t help…

CURSING ABOUT CURSIVE

The picture below is of cursive writing. Does anyone remember doing this at school? Do they still do it?.

I seem to remember an inordinate amount of time being spent on learning this when I was at school and I didn’t see the point then either. I understand that it can be important to develop the muscles needed for handwriting and so on but I never saw why it was important to write in exactly this way or why it would make my teacher instantly furious if we got it wrong.

I remember thinking that if it can be read it is good handwriting and if it can’t then it isn’t and that should be the end of it. However, it continued…hour after hour with us being forced to conform to this unnecessary standard.

Needless to say, it was eventually drummed into us but immediately after I changed teacher I stopped writing in this way.

THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.