Highlights from Broca's Brain

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This is a book by Carl Sagan. I think it's a good idea to leave notes for review several years down the track, as there aren't many books that I read more than once, and I would like to be reminded of some of the more fascinating things that I've read about.


  • Quote by Broca: "I would rather be a transformed ape than a degenerate son of Adam."
  • A molecule composed of two atoms rotates about its axis. Quantum mechanics: not all orientations of the molecule are possible. Rotation is quantised. "We would find it startling as well as awkward in sitting-up exercises, to find arms outstretched from the sides or pointed up to the skies permitted but many intermediate positions forbidden." Experiment: observations from the far infrared spectra of molecules.
  • Einstein's quote: "... Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, which——though by no means evident——could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question." This is what, I think, draws people towards mathematics, that it's possible to connect a few obvious things in obvious ways, and show something that was not obvious.
  • Another Einstein's quote: "... I had the good fortune of finding books which were not too particular in their logical rigour, but which made up for this by permitting the main thoughts to stand out clearly and synoptically..."
  • Another: "It is little short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not already completely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry, because what this delicate little plant needs most, apart from initial stimulation, is freedom; without that it is surely destroyed... I believe that one could even deprive a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if one could force it with a whip to eat continuously whether it were hungry or not..."
  • "He argued that it was far better for a physicist to support himself by some other simple and honest labour, and do physics in his spare time. When making a similar remark many years later in America, Einstein mused that he would have liked to be a plumber, and was promptly awarded honorary membership in the plumbers' union." I can relate to this attitude in a sense. On the one hand, not accepting money in exchange for research is something to do with freedom, on the other hand it has something to do with worrying about employment and earning a living, this worry being at odds with motivation from curiosity. Worries like that have a mixed effect, similar to deadlines: they impede studying and pondering things thoroughly, and they stimulate the production of results. The former mode finds the right path through thinking, and takes a long time to get there. The latter finds the right path through trying many different things, and takes even longer overall, but has the superficial advantage of producing a lot of output along the way. This driving force to produce results sometimes may be a good thing. It just feels odd to be paid for reading and thinking for an extended length of time. Personally, I get around this psychological issue by keeping in mind that I live in a capitalist society, where a lot of people "earn" money by doing nothing. There are probably hundreds of people in a coma right now who are earning more money than me, through owning property.
  • "In 1905 Einstein published four research papers, the product of his spare time at the Swiss Patent Office ... The first demonstrated that light has particle, as well as wave properties, and explained the previously baffling photoelectric effect in which electrons are emitted by solids when irradiated by light. The second explored the nature of molecules by explaining the statistical "Brownian motion" of suspended small particles. And the third and fourth introduced the Special Theory of Relativity and for the first time expressed the famous equation, E = mc2, which is so widely quoted and so rarely understood." ... "Einstein's four papers published in 1905 would have been an impressive output for the full-time research work of a physicist over a lifetime; for the spare-time work of a twenty-six-year-old Swiss patent clerk in a single year it is nothing short of astonishing." ... "There had been, with uncanny resemblances, only one previous such year in the history of physics—1666, when Isaac Newton, aged twenty-four, in enforced rural isolation (because of an epidemic of bubonic plague) produced an explanation for the spectral nature of sunlight, invented differential and integral calculus, and devised the universal theory of gravitation."
  • Einstein's quote about the propaganda of religion by authorities, after he perceived that none of them had any quality evidence to support their religious views: "Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment—an attitude which has never again left me, even though later on, because of a better insight into the causal connections, it lost some of its original poignancy." I guess this can be summarised by saying that people come to trust repeated words too easily.
  • Einstein: "To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate made me an authority myself."
  • 'Einstein ... became convinced that World War I was largely the result of the scheming and incompetence of "the ruling classes," a conclusion with which many contemporary historians agree.' ... 'Einstein publicly condemned the war as "an epidemic delusion." Only his Swiss citizenship prevented him from being imprisoned, as indeed happened to his friend the philosopher Bertrand Russell in England at the same time and for the same reason.'
  • "... British expeditions were mustered to Brazil and to the island of Principe off West Africa to observe, during a total eclipse of the Sun, whether the deflection of starlight was in accord with the predictions of general relativity. It was."
  • "In 1948 Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but politely declined."
  • Having left Germany, "He accepted an appointment at the recently founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton ... where he was to remain for the rest of his life. When asked what salary he thought fair, he suggested $3,000. Seeing a look of astonishment pass over the face of the representative of the Institute, he concluded he had proposed too much and mentioned a smaller amount. His salary was set at $16,000..."
  • Einstein: "We have the choice to outlaw nuclear weapons or face general annihilation. ... Nationalism is an infantile disease. ..."
  • '... the Queen asked Faraday of what use such studies were, to which he is said to have replied, "Madam, of what use is a baby?"'
  • Lenin's aphorism: socialism plus electrification equals communism.
  • About the holes in the ozone layer: "What I find most worrisome about this incident is how accidental was the discovery that the problem existed at all." A research group approached this problem only because they had previously written the appropriate computer programs, for studying the atmosphere of Venus.
  • The Cardiff Giant was a hoax fossilised human being digged up in 1869. After it was revealed to be a statue, P.T. Barnum offered $60,000 for a three-month lease on it. The owners refused, because they were making more. So he had a copy made and exhibited that around the United States. Barnum is said to have observed that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
  • Clever Hans was a horse who could answer mathematical questions correctly, by tapping with his hoof, and yes/no questions by nodding or shaking his head. But only when his owner, Osten, was present, and not when the horse was blindfolded, or when Osten himself wasn't sure of the answer. However, sometimes when Osten was absent, Hans would still get correct answers. Osten allowed these phenomena to be scrutinised and investigated. It was found that Hans had learnt to tell when Osten, or some other observer, was tensing or relaxing, as Hans was answering the question. Movements appearing insignificant to people had become very significant to Hans, who was being rewarded for a correct answer with a sugar cube.
  • Thomas Jefferson said that he would rather believe that two Yankee scientists lied than that stones fell from the heavens. This was before the idea of meteorites was generally accepted.
  • There is a fresh-water fish that is blind, and uses an electric field to sense.
  • Pigeons can sense magnetic fields which are one hundred thousandth the strength of the Earth's.
  • In an East African volcanic ash flow 3.5 million years old there are prints of a knuckle-walking primate corresponding to no animal yet discovered.
  • "Likewise, the temperatures attendant to ejection of the comet from Jupiter, referred to above, would fry Velikovsky's flies."
  • "There are many strange inconsistencies in Worlds in Collision, but on the next-to-last page of the book, a breathtaking departure from the fundamental thesis is casually introduced. We read of a hoary and erroneous analogy between the structures of solar systems and of atoms. Suddenly we are presented with the hypothesis that the supposed errant motions of the planets, rather than being caused by collisions, are instead the result of changes in the quantum energy levels of planets attendant to the absorption of a photon—or perhaps several."
  • In 1949, Max Ehrlich wrote a science-fiction work, in which the Earth experienced a near-collision with another cosmic object. The planet filled the sky and terrorised the inhabitants of the Earth. "Most frightening was the fact that on this passing planet was a natural feature which looked very much like a huge eye." Later, John Wood, in a discussion of the question of why the side of the Moon facing the Earth has large smooth maria, while the other side is almost free of them, proposed that the side of the Moon now facing the Earth was once facing in the direction of the Moon's motion around the Earth. Over time it had swept up a ring of debris, becoming longer in that direction, and, as a result, turned, relative to the Earth. Remarkably, on the side of the Moon that would have faced the Earth before the Moon had turned, there is an enormous collision feature, billions of years old, called Mare Orientale, which looks very much like a giant eye. Ehrlich's book was called The Big Eye.
  • Euler to Diderot: Monsieur, (a + bn)/n = x, donc Dieu existe; répondez! [Sir, (a + bn)/n = x, therefore God exists; reply!]
  • Sagan recommends Heinlein's science fiction.
  • Huygens deduced the presence of hemp on Jupiter: "If Jupiter has four moons, there must be many mariners on that planet. But mariners imply boats; boats imply sails; sails imply ropes; and, I suppose, ropes imply hemp."
  • "What are the sources of the decameter radio emission on Jupiter, each less than 100 kilometres across, fixed on the Jovian surface, which intermittently radiate to space?" ... "Why do the decameter bursts have a very intricate (submillisecond) fine structure? Why are the decameter sources beamed—that is, not emitting in all directions equally?"
  • The chapter The Sun's Family is interesting in its entirety.
  • On the Moon: Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains.
  • On the Moon there is a crater called Hell, named after the Jesuit father Maximilian Hell.
  • 'I wanted to name the third Deimonic crater after René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist whose paintings "Le Château des Pyrénées" and "Le Sens de Réalité" pictured large rocks, suspended in the sky, of an aspect astonishingly like the two Martian moons... The suggestion was, however, voted down as frivolous.'
  • Anton van Leeuwenhoek observing "animalcules" with the first microscope.
  • Mariner 9 and Viking found hundreds of dry riverbeds on Mars, apparently indicating a time in the recent geological history when abundant liquid water flowed. "... the discovery of numerious sinuous channels, replete with tributaries, covering the equatorial and mid-latitudes of Mars." ... "But there is a great problem with the interpretation of the Martian channels as dry riverbeds, or arroyos: liquid water apparently cannot exist on Mars today. The pressures are simply too low. ... concentration of such channels toward the Martian equator ... the only places on the planet where the average daytime temperature is above the freezing point of water. ... At some time in the past, it may have had higher pressures, perhaps somewhat higher temperatures and extensive running water. Such an environment appears to be more hospitable to forms of life based on the familiar terrestrial biochemical principles than the present Martian environment." Perhaps the carbon dioxide that is now frozen at the poles was once making up the denser atmosphere.
  • Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, has an atmospheric density that seems to be not too large, and not too small, good for life, like on Earth. Plus, it seems that there are abundant organic molecules. The atmosphere density is also right for landing using atmospheric braking.
  • Because of various positive and negative feedback cycles, the temperature on a planet would probably stay the same for a long period of time, and then rapidly change to another, very different temperature, and stay at that temperature for a long time. So we should be careful that we don't set off such a transition.
  • Recent difficulties in finding neutrinos, which should be emitted from the interior of the Sun, according to current theories, may suggest that the Sun is in an anomalously dim period.
The unquiet republic of the maze
Of Planets, struggling fierce towards heaven's free
wilderness.

       Percy Bysshe Shelley
       Prometheus Unbound (1820)
  • "The gravitational forces of planets have already been used to give velocities otherwise unobtainable." Pioneer 10 and 11, and Voyager 1 and 2 have been flung out of the solar system as a result of having passed close to Jupiter. They are flying away at about 43,000 miles per hour.
  • The story of Robert Goddard in the cherry tree in 1899.
  • Remark in one of Goddard's notebooks: "God pity a one-dream man."
  • Ludwig Biermann explained observations of accelerating bright knots in the tails of comets while they are in the inner solar system. He deduced solar wind, which was confirmed by Mariner 2.
  • Debate on the nature of the solar wind: hydrodynamical flow out of the Sun, or evaporation from the top of the solar atmosphere? Spacecraft have found the ratio of hydrogen to helium to be precisely the same as in the Sun, which implies the hydrodynamic hypothesis is right.
  • The magnetic axis of Jupiter is displaced about one quarter of the planet's radius from the centre of the planet.
  • There is a boundary between the region dominated by the solar wind, and that dominated by the interstellar plasma. It is around 100 astronomical units from the Earth.
  • "Now, if there were only a local solar system quasar and a backyard black hole—nothing fancy, you understand, just little baby ones—we might with in situ spacecraft measurements check out the greater body of modern astronomical speculation."
  • Human beings in space undergo a serious loss of bone calcium and phosphorus over a few months. I wonder if this is the same phenomenon that makes the tennis arm's bones stronger?
  • "In examining the late-nineteenth-century literature, we are amused at some of the debates on sunspots, and impressed that the Zeeman effect was not considered a laboratory curiosity but something to which astronomers should devote considerable attention. These two threads intertwined, as if prefigured, a few years later in G.E. Hale's discovery of large magnetic field strengths in sunspots."
  • T.H. Huxley: "Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside [the cradle] of Hercules." (1860)
  • Huygens: "But perhaps they'll say, it does not become us to be so curious and inquisitive in these Things which the Supreme Creator seems to have kept for his own Knowledge: For since he has not been pleased to make any farther Discovery or Revelation of them, it seems little better than presumption to make any inquiry into that which he has thought fit to hide. But these Gentlemen must be told, that they take too much upon themselves when they pretend to appoint how far and no farther Men shall go in their Searches, and to set bounds to other Mens Industry; as if they knew the Marks that God has placed to Knowledge; or as if Men were able to pass those Marks."
  • A typical near-death experience, with darkness, then being illuminated from a distance, flooded with light, then seeing there "in silhouette, magnificently lit from behind, a great godlike figure whom he was now effortlessly approaching." This is experienced by Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and skeptics. Similar experiences are induced, cross-culturally, by psychedelic drugs. Dissociative anaesthetics such as the ketamines induce out-of-body experiences. LSD induces a sense of union with the universe, which is similar to elements of Hindu religious belief. LSD can sometimes elicit the accurate recollection of perinatal experiences (i.e. around the time of birth). Oxytocin is a hormone used for "elective labour", inducing uterine contractions. It turns out that oxytocin is chemically related to LSD. The process of childbirth is extremely painful and stressful for the child.
    • Reincarnation. (Connection of death and birth.)
    • Punishment and redemption. Original sin.
    • Expulsion from Eden.
    • Total-immersion baptism and amniotic fluid. Symbolic rebirth.
  • The pain of childbirth is experienced by human mothers much more than in other animals, due to the enormous growth of our brains in the last few million years. "It would seem that our intelligence is the source of our unhappiness in an almost literal way; but it would also imply that our unhappiness is the source of our strength as a species."
  • Voltaire said that if God did not exist, Man would be obliged to invent him.