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Cosmic Apprentice

Dispatches from the Edges of Science

Dorion Sagan

Publication Year: 2013

In the pursuit of knowledge, Dorion Sagan argues in this dazzlingly eclectic, rigorously crafted, and deliciously witty collection of essays, scientific authoritarianism and philosophical obscurantism are equally formidable obstacles to discovery. As science has become more specialized and more costly, its questing spirit has been constrained by dogma. And philosophy, perhaps the discipline best placed to question orthodoxy, has retreated behind dense theoretical language and arcane topics of learning.

Guided by a capacious, democratic view of science inspired by the examples set by his late parents—Carl Sagan, who popularized the study of the cosmos, and Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary biologist who repeatedly clashed with the scientific establishment—Sagan draws on classical and contemporary philosophy to intervene provocatively in often-charged debates on thermodynamics, linear and nonlinear time, purpose, ethics, the links between language and psychedelic drugs, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the occupation of the human body by microbial others. Informed by a countercultural sensibility, a deep engagement with speculative thought, and a hardheaded scientific skepticism, he advances controversial positions on such seemingly sacrosanct subjects as evolution and entropy. At the same time, he creatively considers a wide range of thinkers, from Socrates to Bataille and Descartes to von Uexküll, to reflect on sex, biopolitics, and the free will of Kermit the Frog.

Refreshingly nonconformist and polemically incisive, Cosmic Apprentice challenges readers to reject both dogma and cliché and instead recover the intellectual spirit of adventure that should—and can once again—animate both science and philosophy.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Condensed - The Questing Spirit

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pp. 1-14

Recognizing itself in the aqua facade of a planet cloud swirled and surrounded by the immensity of space, living matter is a message with no discrete meaning. Its message is more the possibility of meaning. Cycling its matter, life is open to its surroundings. It spreads into them, extending...

Part I: From "Protozoan" To Posthuman

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pp. 15-27

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Chapter 1: The Human Is More Than Human: Interspecies Communities and the New Facts of Life

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pp. 17-32

“This universe,” says the physicist Richard Feynman, “just goes on, with its edge as unknown as the bottom of the bottomless sea . . . just as mysterious, just as awe-inspiring, and just as incomplete as the poetic pictures that came before. But see that the imagination of nature is far, far...

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Chapter 2: Bataille's Sun And The Ethical Abyss: Late-Night Thoughts on the Problem of an Affirmative Biopolitics

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pp. 33-40

Today is the first day of the rest of your strife. In thinking about ethics we come up against some of the most difficult problems. One person’s righteous indignation is another’s reactionary oppression. The citizen’s free speech can be the government’s hate speech. The model’s...

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Chapter 3: The Post-Man Already Always Rings Twice

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pp. 41-49

The first ringing is literal and refers to what comes after humans in evolution. The first ringing announcement that the posthuman has arrived has to do with speciation, guesswork, machines; with loose predictions that fall off a cliff of accuracy as we extrapolate physically nonextrapolatable...

Part II: Stardust Memories

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pp. 51-63

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Chapter 4: Stardust Memories

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pp. 53-59

Quantitatively, dust refers to solid particles with diameters of less than 500 micrometers. A micrometer, also known as a micron, is a millionth of a meter, or 0.000039 of an inch. The eye of a needle is 750 microns wide, enough to get some camel dust through. The diameter of the period...

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Chapter 5: A Quick History Of Sex

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pp. 60-68

In his Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, Lord Chesterfield, the eighteenth-century British statesman and man of letters, offered the following concise account of sex: “The expense is damnable, the pleasure momentary and the position ludicrous.”...

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Chapter 6: Who Is I?

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pp. 69-77

You see, after I described some of my political views, mentioning the strange question of the status of the Federal Reserve as a private corporation, as well as some of the scientific anomalies surrounding the events of 9/11, I was told that my views pretty much matched those of members...

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Chapter 7: Of Whales And Aliens: The Search for Intelligent Life on Earth

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pp. 78-83

Half my little life ago, under the influence of P. cubensis—aka psychedelic mushrooms—I, and two of my reprobate friends, found ourselves among a sea of tourists in Quincy Market. After overhearing a mini Sopranos-style imbiber declaiming loudly upon the niceties of female...

Part III: Gaia Sings The Blues

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pp. 85-97

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Chapter 8: Thermosemiosis: Boltzmann's Sleight, Trim's Hat, and the Confusion concerning Entropy

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pp. 87-110

Thermodynamics started off bright enough, practical and blond, saving the world from its limits. But then, overcome by shadows, its shiny children got dirt in their fingernails, soot in their hair; the world darkened with a foreboding of smokestacks. To the injury of overpopulation...

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Chapter 9: Life Gave Earth The Blues

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pp. 111-119

Nature is not just red in tooth and claw but green with symbiotic chloroplasts, yellow with chrysophyte algae, and flamingo-pink with ingested carotenoids. It is an amazing psychedelic display of spiraling foraminifera, radiating radiolaria, and diatomaceous earth-making diatoms....

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Chapter 10: Mousetrap

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pp. 120-130

I believe the writer Kurt Vonnegut touched on the heart of this question. Before a full house of mostly women at Smith College, he first drew a chart that graphed stories. On the X axis he drew time, on the Y happiness. By making a line, he showed, he could map any human...

Part IV: Closing The Open Circuit

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pp. 131-143

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Chapter 11: Priests Of The Modern Age: Scientific Revolutions and the Kook-Critic Continuum, Being a Play of Crackpots, Skeptics, Conformists, and the Curious

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pp. 133-163

“Scientists are the priests of the modern age, and they must be watched very closely,” wrote Samuel Butler at the end of the nineteenth century. Butler had converted to an evolutionary view after he read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Since Butler had freed himself, with great difficulty...

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Chapter 12: Metametazoa

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pp. 164-184

Like a gray geode cracked open to reveal coruscating crystals of amethyst, the history of science sometimes surprises. Empedocles imagined an ancient world of organs mating and merging with one another to create bizarre half-hewn beasts, the most favorable matches surviving....

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Chapter 13: Kermitronics

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pp. 185-198

Like the mime in a circus who pretends, from the dirty floor, to balance the high-wire walker, or the clown who, twirling her fingers with a gleeful simper, seems to send the acrobats falling head over heels in their aerial somersaults, before reaching through thin air to catch a helping...

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Chapter 14: On Doyle On Drugs

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pp. 199-223

I grew up in Timothy Leary’s old neighborhood. Newton Center in the mid-1970s was past the glory days of Orange Sunshine, but a few kids knew about it. We did all right though, with our Blotter, Microdot, and Windowpane, which catapulted me, one fine afternoon, after a whole hit...

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Conclusion: Floating Into Spinoza's Ocean

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pp. 225-238

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, considered the single most important author to understand the fundaments of modern ecology, emphasized that a scientific theory’s primary value was not its usefulness but its ability to produce a form of enlightenment, similar to a great work of art.1 And...

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pp. 239-240

Many thanks to Tori Alexander, Nora Bateson, Wendell Berry, Dianne Bilyak, Dan Born, Eric Brado, Martin Brasier, Joanna Bybee, Joseph Cami, Carlos de Castro Carranza, Michael J. Chapman, Bruno Clarke, Paul Cobley, Trey Conner, Cristoph Cox, Kathryn Denning, Jacques Derrida, Rich...


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pp. 241-263


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pp. 265-293

About the Author

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pp. 294-305

E-ISBN-13: 9780816684373
E-ISBN-10: 0816684375
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816681358

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2013