Tag Archives: Carl Sagan

Juno, the Jupiter Satellite, Looks Back And Snaps A Photo Of The Earth-Moon System

It is the Pale Blue Dot redux. Juno, the Jupiter satellite, looked back at the Earth Moon system and snapped a photo! Here it is!

The photo Juno snapped of the Earth-Moon system. The larger dot is the Earth. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Juno was sent to Jupiter to probe the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which is still a big mystery. It’s been a month into its journey, which is supposed to last for five long years.

NASA has pinned a lot of hopes on this satellite probe. Jupiter is still largely unknown. We covered the Juno story here.

The Pale Blue Dot

The lyrical prose by the late Carl Sagan rushes back to haunt us! In 1991, at Sagan’s request, Voyager turned its camera back to photograph the inner planets. It was beyond Neptune’s orbit and was about to leave the Solar System. It captured one blue pixel, which was the earth. The picture was immortalised as the Pale Blue Dot’. The following paragraph by Carl Sagan is as close prose can come to poetry.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there   on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Sagan taught us how to look at these photos. It’s an exercise in humility!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SETI’s Telescope Array Kept Alive By Donations From Many, Including Actor Jodie Foster

The desire for extra-terrestrial contact is too much to resist. The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, California, suffered a big blow a few months ago, when its main array of radio-telescope the Allen Telescope Array (ATA) was put out of operation due to budget cuts both from the Centre and the State. However, a week ago it was revived and it’s doing what it does best look out for radio signals from outer space.

SETI’s ATA: Fresh hopes

SETI’s ATA was handed a new lease of life by numerous donors, who shelled out large amounts and helped SETI reach its campaign goal of $200,000. It ended up with a collection of $223,000 thanks to 2557 donors. One of the star donors was Jodie Foster, actor in the female lead in the film Contact’. Her donation amount however, is not known.

The Movie

In the movie, Foster played a very passionate and extremely gifted scientist, who goes from pillar-to-post searching for funds when the initial funds for her Radio Telescope expedition suddenly dry up. When she receives periodic signals from an unmistakably alien intelligence source, she suddenly gets the attention of the science community. Contact! Who can possibly forget the frenetic passion enthused by Foster when she hears the first Contact – a periodic metallic ring buzzing on her laptop? Watch it here.

Deciphering the coded message, the science community builds a device, which is tested by Foster. It turns out to be a device, which creates a wormhole. When she relates this experience, no one believes her and even the scientist in her doubts it! Based on the book by the same name written by Carl Sagan, Contact is scientifically accurate both in fact and spirit. (I would personally recommend it!)


Foster, like her character in the movie, says that the ATA is too good to go. The telescopes:

could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies. I support the effort to bring the array out of hibernation.

The ATA was founded based on a grand fund donated by Paul Allen. SETI realises the need to find new and long-term sources of funding.

One momentous discovery can turn it around for SETI. Everyone hopes that the movie-like beep-beep-beep’ can pull it out of the forced slumber.

Neil deGrasse Tyson To Host Sequel To Carl Sagan’s Masterpiece ‘Cosmos’ Series

Some are regarding this as a momentous rebirth and others as horrible blasphemy. Neil deGrasse Tyson, famous for his animated and vociferous explanations of science, especially the various aspects of cosmology, to the general public will be hosting a sequel to the famous ‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage’ series by Carl Sagan.

The great Sagan (left) and Neil deGrasse Tyson (right)

The path-breaking, awe-inspiring 13-part series by the late Carl Sagan, an American astronomer and science populariser, is a benchmark for documentaries made for popularizing science. This represents the pinnacle of Sagan’s tireless effort in teaching science to the public in a palatable form, trying to get the beauty and awe of the subject across rather than the complexity and mathematics of it. And he was damn good at it.

Evergreen Sagan : Remembering the Unforgettable

No matter how good Sagan’s original series was, it is still three decades old. This means that the special effects used in it are infantile compared to today’s effects and, since science has grown as usual, many facts also need to be revised. In fact it is a testament to Sagan’s foresight and understanding of science that, even today, the series will not seem old. Many predictions that Sagan made in the series are active research areas of today.

Among the many unforgettable parts of the series, was the spine-tingling Pale Blue Dot. In 1991, Voyager had turned its camera around and focussed on the inner planets, and, lo and behold, there was Earth, a pale blue pixel of light, suspended in a sunbeam. Carl Sagan’s lyrical presentation of the emotional content of that one pixel of light is immortal.

Then, there was the famous phrase: Billions and Billions, with extra stress on the B’s, a signature of Sagan. This phrase famously never occurs even once in the series and has been taken up by the media due to its sonorous qualities.

Immortal lines include In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe’, Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known’, The beauty of a living thing is  not  the atoms that go into it.  But  the way those atoms are  put together‘ and The Universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent’.

The New Show: Big Shoes to Fill

The 13-part sequel series will be made by Seth MacFarlane (yes, that Family Guy writer) in collaboration with Ann Druyan (also Sagan’s widow) and Steven Soter. It will be aired in 2013.

Carl Sagan, in his element, is irreplaceable. Neil deGrasse Tyson will have his work cut out for him, as inevitable comparisons will be drawn between him and Sagan. Replacing Sagan might be impossible, but if there is anyone who can come close to sharing that infectious enthusiasm, while delivering passion-laced explanations of science that sound poetic, it has to be Neil deGrasse Tyson. He has proved his mettle as the host of NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS for the last five years. Watch him in a short video here:

Here’s the bad news: it won’t be aired on Discovery or PBS, but rather on Fox. Fox has a rather poor track record with science shows and shows with dropping ratings, unlike Discovery. Let’s leave you with a musical presentation from the Symphony of Science series, having both Sagan and Tyson (and Feynman!):

For evermore shall those stressed b’s in billions’, a trademark of Sagan, ring in our ears…

[Editorial] Science Vs Pseudo-Science – The Truth and The Lies

It’s the most comforting feeling in the world to know that you’re the object of the greatest affection, the benefactor of all creation terrestrial and beyond and the focal point of a grand plan, one that spans the entire length and breadth of the entire cosmos. How wonderful it is that mumbling a few thoughts with clasped hands may give us what we want! Is it not great that faraway Saturn influences us through its faint light, or that a particular congregation of stars   – a constellation provides a blueprint of one’s future? It’s secondary that Saturn’s influence might be negative; primary to the source of transcendental joy is the fact that a celestial body, far enough so as to appear as little more than a dot on the sky, can bother itself enough to influence our lives. It’s a wonderful feeling or would be, if it were true.

‘Offensive’, yet effective

The lure of the glitter of ego-centric importance is too much to resist too much, it seems, even in the face of multiple and repeated failures of the pseudo-scientific methods. Science is unnerving. Central to it is the pursuit of truth, no matter what that turns out to be. Right now, it seems that the truth doesn’t favor the centrality of humans in the grand scheme of things. There seems to exist no grand scheme of things. In this relentless search, science has rid itself of cherished notions, primary amongst these being the supremacy of man. Yes, science hits people where it hurts the most their ingrained belief of being a part of a grand plan. What more, it snatches away the right to be offended at this if you’re wrong, you’re wrong’ is just too rude!

Yet, science is the only thing known to deliver. If you have cholera, you can pray your heart out or get administered 250 mg of tetracycline three times a day. (Historically, this is the claim to fame of tetracycline a magic drug against cholera mortality). If you wanted to know the occurrence of the next solar eclipse accurate to within a minute, you might request an astrologer to consult his charts or ask a scientist. If you wanted to know how we developed and why there are dinosaur fossils, you may read the Genesis literally, or study Darwinism. It’s proven time and time again that only the latter methods work.

It’s been far too long…

We have seen too much evidence to the contrary to deny this; too many tragedies have unfolded before the eyes of History. Many sick children have died, because their parents chose to pray instead of administering them anti-biotics. (There is still a religion Christian Science which prefers prayers to drugs!) Too long has the social stigma of witchcraft claimed the lives of innocent old women. Far too long have actions been dominated by myths of holy books and morals of the long by-gone stone-age for humans to call themselves civilised. And it has been a really long time for which science has suffered the branding of being heartless and immoral, while a far more corrupt and demented sense of morality –   the one that allows the stoning of disobedient children and cheating wives and hacking to death of apostates has dominated. By increasing longevity, the sure shot index of happiness (afterall, happiness is the monopolistic pleasure of the living), and improving the quality of life, science has done more for morality than anything else. Without better farming methods or HYV seeds, I would like to see how moral people would be, given the Ten Commandments or any holy book of their choice.

Take your pick: Voodoo doll and HYV seeds. (Hint: Correct answer doesn't have needles jabbed all over it!)

Still, science is tough. It often speaks of abstract objects and then connects them to reality. There really is no royal road’ (as Euclid, once, famously told his king) to understanding how a complex (not complicated; complex’ is used in the mathematical sense of complex numbers) quantum-mechanical wave-function reveals truths about our world, which seems too real to ignore. It seems utterly unimaginable that a disease, which is externally manifest in all-too-visible symptoms, may require treatment involving tiny shreds of DNA hidden away in the heart of cells. How rude that science challenges age-old myths and proclaims them wrong!

Even practitioners of pseudo-science know this. They often garb their speech with elaborate scientific terms (you want an example? Hear Deepak Chopra speak, but not for long for your own good!). It’s a sure-shot method. The public knows that science works and now an apparent stamp of science is proof’. It allows one to be merrily deluded in, what they believe to be, science’, unfettered by the rigors of the game of scientific evidence. Wondrous notions like alien abduction, the City of Atlantis, telepathy, ESP all sound so scientific. Can they be wrong? Aren’t they too good to be wrong? Well, no! Nothing’s too good to be wrong.

Top Ten Greatest Hoaxes in Science: The Top Five (Part 2)

We were taking a look at the ten greatest hoaxes in science history. We saw five of them in Part 1. Let’s continue our journey.

The countdown continues and we give you the five greatest science hoaxes ever perpetrated. Here you go, the Top 5.

#5: Live like the Tasaday, till you’re found out.

Protagonists: Manuel Elizalde Jr., a local Filipino official

Location: Mindanao, a densely forested Filipino island

Time: 1970’s to 1986

In the midst of civilization, lived a group of cavemen, virtually unchanged for a few thousand years.

The Tasaday

The Tasaday, as they called themselves, were discovered by Elizalde in a few caves in Mindanao.

They hardly wore any clothes, making them mostly of leaves and other tree products, stood only five and a half feet tall, did not hunt and survived on berries and whatever they got by gathering. They were extremely non-violent and had no weapons. Their basic tools were made of stone. They spoke in their native tongue.

General Marcos, the then-dictator of the Philippines, declared martial law in the surrounding regions for their protection. Elizalde brought them food, earning him the name of the God of the Tasaday’. He proceeded to make a documentary. He founded PANAMIN US Foundation for this purpose. This would go on, till 1986, when General Marcos was ousted and a free democratic government took its place. The wonder of the Philippines was could now be studied by anthropologists the world over.

A Tasaday girl nibbling nuts

Unfortunately, apart from the aforementioned characteristics, the Tasaday also looked too clean. Their tools appeared chiseled, their tongue too close to that of a modern tribe who lived nearby and, at the dead of the night, a few individuals smoked cigarettes. A Swiss anthropologist named Oswald blew the cover, when one day they discovered the same people a few meters from the caves wearing jeans trousers and T-shirts. Slowly, it was realized that the locals had been forced to put up this show at Elizalde’s behest with him threatening them with physical harm as well as offering them huge sums of money. The hoax was elaborate, the whistle blowing spectacular and the results dramatic. Elizalde fled to Costa Rica taking huge sums of money from PANAMI, but died a pauper in 1997 after squandering all of it.

# 4: Jumping Sea-Liners: The Philadelphia Experiment

Protagonist: Carlos Miguele Allende and Morris Jessop

Location: Philadelphia, Norfolk, Philadelphia

Time: Summer 1943 to present

Everyone loves a good science experiment and a nice controversy to top it off. It works best if somehow Einstein and his unfulfilled dream of a grand unified theory are involved, along with some insanely cool, albeit unrealistic and wrong, physics. The US destroyer USS Eldridge was the center of an alleged experiment conducted by the US Navy, which focused on using the equations of a Unified Field Theory that Einstein had proposed to bend light so much that it could render something invisible. Further, this could alter the very fabric of space and time, causing exotic phenomenon like time travel.

The USS Eldridge

The destroyer vanished for a few seconds Allende reported ten and then reappeared. Some report the ship to be instantly transferred to a dock in Norfolk. The crew was supposedly dizzy, unable to remember anything about the incident. Some of them had simply vanished. A few of the crew, those willing to talk, were apparently brainwashed by the US Navy.

This is now widely recognized as a hoax there was no Project Rainbow’, at least not having the same colours as indicated by the hoaxers. Einstein never completed a Unified Field theory, because he did not know of the huge advances in quantum field theory. The claims contradict basic sciences magnetic fields cannot bend light (that contradicts Maxwell’s equations), space time can be bent by extremely massive objects and nothing close to that mass could exist on Earth.

The Philadelphia experiment has, however, inspired generations of Hollywood film makers and has held thousands, wanting to believe in esoteric physics, in awe.

# 3: A corpse from outer space: Roswell incident.

Protagonists: Ufologists, gullible public and an unsuspecting (non-existent) alien corpse.

Location: Roswell, New Mexico

Time: 1947

Surely, you must have heard of Roswell! It’s the greatest of all UFO stories and Roswell has practically become a synonym for extra-terrestrials. An alien saucer’ had reportedly crash landed in Roswell and alien bodies were recovered. Professional ufologist Stanton Friedmann, who was involved in the recovery of the original crash material, publicized his view that this was indeed an authentic event, giving greater credence to believers. Witness’ testimonies swelled up the number of crash sites to as much as eleven; a group of gypsy aliens had perhaps run out of gas and crash landed.

One of the alleged corpses

This is a classic case of folklore: it has multiple narratives, it has exciting new characters and no research was done on the subject. Karl Pflock, one-time supporter of the crashed saucer hypothesis, put it rightly:

Simply shovel everything that seems to support their view into the box marked ‘Evidence’ and say, ‘See? Look at all this stuff. We must be right.’ Never mind the contradictions.


Roswell has spawned TV shows and FX movies for about three generations now. There have been claims of being abducted by aliens, of being beamed up into their ship and then brainwashed. As Carl Sagan put it, aliens don’t know the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

# 2: Cold Fusion Confusion

Protagonists: Martin Fleischmann, one of the world’s top electrochemists at the time and Stanley Pons, an electrochemist

Location: University of Southampton (Fleischmann) and University of Utah (Pons)

Time: 1989

During an electrolysis of heavy water (which is D2O, meaning that hydrogen in water is replaced by deuterium, the heavier isotope of hydrogen) using palladium (Pd) electrodes, Fleischmann and Pons found some anomalous heat produced in the electrolytic cell.

Fleischmann and Pons in their lab

Eliminating all possible sources of such heat generation, they came to the conclusion that nuclear fusion was happening! The only problem was that the energy provided was too low for nuclear fusion to take place. They named the phenomenon’ Cold Fusion. This, if harnessed, would solve the world’s energy crisis, the researchers promised. They sent their paper to Nature for publication, amidst widespread acclaim. The month was March.

The problem came when people tried to reproduce the results. Several labs involving a number of distinguished scientists initially reported some success, but then reported only failure. Renowned institutes like CalTech, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and Stanford University all tried and all failed. By May, cold fusion had been labelled pathological science’. By July and then in November, Nature, which had initially published the cold fusion papers, published papers refuting cold fusion. Nobel Laureate, Julian Schwinger was a notable supporter of cold fusion and sent his papers to Physical Review Letters (PRL) for publication, only to be repeatedly rejected. Insulted, he resigned from the American Physical Society (publishers of PRL).

People still carry on cold fusion experiments, but none have been reported to be conclusively in favour of the phenomenon. Most, however, look at it as the greatest hoax in physics history.

…And the glittering crown of disgrace goes to…

#1: The Piltdown Man

Protagonist: Probably Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist or, maybe, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest

Location: Piltdown, England

Time: December, 1912 to November, 1953

Given the great role that missing links’ play in the build-up of a complete fossil record for Darwin’s theory of evolution, there have always been an active interest in them. This has fuelled an active interest in their fraud as well.

The discovered skull

Charles Dawson, in 1912, discovered a skull, complete with teeth, of Eanthropus dawsoni –which would later come to be known as Piltdown Man’  – in Piltdown, England. Everything was right about it. The skull was that of an ape, but the teeth were that of a human a perfect transitional form to fit into Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Further, it was British, signifying that the ancestral location of modern humans was England, and not Africa. The discovery would spawn more than 500 publications. It kept both camps happy; evolutionists saw it fit perfectly and for someone, like De Chardin, it signified a new attempt at reconciliation of fossil evidence with the biblical story of divine creation.

The charade ended in November, 1953 with a new technology to date fossils called fluorine absorption dating coming to the fore. The technique is a relative dating method, giving the relative ages of two different rocks from the same region. When applied to the Piltdown Man, it conclusively pointed to the fact that the skull and the teeth were of widely different ages. While the teeth were very recent, the skull was a thousand or so years old.

Sketch of the Piltdown Man

A closer inspection confirmed the doubts that a few people had raised the fossil was fabricated with the teeth being attached to an ape-skull, in a rather hasty fashion. Iron salt stains were used to make the teeth appear old. Disgrace!

A series of whodunit followed, with various people being accused; prime accused was, of course, Dawson. Recent studies, however, implicate De Chardin, accused as he is of various other fraud fossil finds. The greatest embarrassment came from the fact that a huge number of evolutionists were fooled for 40 long years. The worst fallout of this hoax, now synonymous with fossil fraud, is that it has become a front for creationists for maligning the theory of evolution.


So there it is – our selection of the top ten hoaxes and frauds in science over the years. The choice and the ranking in the list have been made entirely by the author and any reader is free to disagree. The frauds mentioned were elaborate, ingenious and well documented. However they were found out for what they were frauds.   As a lab technician pointed out: In the end, nature is the checker. Let that be the last word.