The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 20. House on Fire*

{* Written with Ann Druyan.}

The Lord [Buddha] replied to the Venerable Sariputra: ‘In some village, city, market town, country district, province, kingdom, or capital there lived a householder, old, advanced in years, decrepit, weak in health and strength, but rich, wealthy, and well-to-do. His house was a large one, both extensive and high, and it was old, having been built a long time ago. It was inhabited by many living beings, some two, three, four, or five hundred. It had one single door only. It was thatched with straw, its terraces had fallen down, its foundations were rotten, its walls, matting-screens, and plaster were in an advanced state of decay. Suddenly a great blaze of fire broke out, and the house started burning on all sides. And that man had many young sons, five, or ten, or twenty, and he himself got out of the house.

‘When that man saw his own house ablaze all around with the great mass of fire, he became afraid and trembled, his mind became agitated, and he thought to himself: “I, it is true, have been competent enough to run out of the door, and to escape from my burning house, quickly and safely, without being touched or scorched by that great mass of fire. But what about my sons, my young boys, my little sons?

There, in this burning house, they play, sport, and amuse themselves with all sorts of games. They do not know that this dwelling is afire, they do not understand it, do not perceive it, pay no attention to it, and so they feel no agitation. Though threatened by this great [fire], though in such close contact with so much ill, they pay no attention to their danger, and make no efforts to get out.” ‘

from The Saddharmapundarika,

in Buddhist Scriptures, Edward Conze, ed.

(Penguin Books, 1959)

One of the reasons it’s so interesting to write for Parade magazine is feedback. With eighty million readers you can really sample the opinion of the citizens of the United States. You can understand how people think, what their anxieties and hopes are, and even perhaps where we have lost our way.

An abbreviated version of the preceding chapter, emphasizing the performance of students and teachers, was published in Parade. I was flooded with mail. Some people denied there was a problem; others said that Americans were losing cutting-edge intelligence and know-how. Some thought there were easy solutions; others, that the problems were too deeply ingrained to fix. Many opinions were a surprise to me.

A tenth-grade teacher in Minnesota handed out copies of the article and asked his students to tell me what they thought. Here’s what some American high school students wrote (spelling, grammar and punctuation as in the original letters):

• Not a Americans are stupid We just rank lower in school big deal.

• Maybe that’s good that we are not as smart as the other countries. So then we can just import all of our products and then we don’t have to spend all of our money on the parts for the goods.

• And if other countries are doing better, what does it matter, their most likely going to come over the U.S. anyway?

• Our society is doing just fine with what discoveries we are making. It’s going slowly, but the cure for cancer is coming right along.

• The U.S. has its own learning system and it may not be as advanced as theirs, but it is just as good. Otherwise I think your article is a very educating one.

• Not one kid in this school likes science. I really didn’t understand the point of the article. I thought that it was very boring. I’m just not into anything like that.

• I am studying to be a lawyer and frankly I do agree with my parents when they say I have an attitude problem toward science.

• It’s true that some American kids don’t try, but we could be smarter than any other country if we wanted to.

• Instead of homework, kids will watch TV. I have to agree that I do it. I have cut it down from about 4 hrs. a day.

• I don’t believe it is the school systems fault, I think the whole country is brought up with not enough emphasis on school. I know my mom would rather be watching me play basketball or soccer, instead of helping me with an assignment. Most of the kids I know could care less about making sure there doing there work right.

• I don’t think American kids are stupid. It just they don’t study hard enough because most of kids work... Lots of people said that Asian people are smarter than American and they are good at everything, but that’s not true. They are not good at sports. They don’t have time to play sports.

• I’m in sports myself, and I feel that the other kids on my team push to you to excel more in that sport than in school.

• If we want to rank first, we could go to school all day and not have any social life.

• I can see why a lot of science teachers would get mad at you for insulting there job.

• Maybe if the teachers could be more exciting, the children will want to learn ... If science is made to be fun, kids will want to learn. To accomplish this, it needs to be started early on, not just taught as facts and figures.

• I really find it hard to believe those facts about the U.S. in science.

• If we are so far behind, how come Michael Gorbachev came to Minnesota and Montana to Control Data to see how we run are computers and thing?

• Around 33 hours for fifth graders! In my opinion thats too much thats almost as many hours as a full job practically. So instead of homework we can be making money.

• When you put down how far behind we are in science and math, why don’t you try tell us this in a little nicer manner?... Have a little pride in your country and its capabilities.

• I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point.

All in all, these students don’t think there’s much of a problem; and if there is, not much can be done about it. Many also complained that the lectures, classroom discussions and homework were ‘boring’. Especially for an MTV generation beset by attention deficit disorders in various degrees of severity, it is boring. But spending three or four grades practising once again the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions would bore anyone, and the tragedy is that, say, elementary probability theory is within reach of these students. Likewise for the forms of plants and animals presented without evolution; history presented as wars, dates and kings without the role of obedience to authority, greed, incompetence and ignorance; English without new words entering the language and old words disappearing; and chemistry without where the elements come from. The means of awakening these students are at hand and ignored. Since most school children emerge with only a tiny fraction of what they’ve been taught permanently engraved in their long-term memories, isn’t it essential to infect them with consumer-tested topics that aren’t boring... and a zest for learning?

Most adults who wrote thought there’s a substantial problem. I received letters from parents about inquisitive children willing to work hard, passionate about science but with no adequate community or school resources to satisfy their interests. Other letters told of parents who knew nothing about science sacrificing their own comfort so their children could have science books, microscopes, telescopes, computers or chemistry sets; of parents teaching their children that hard work will get them out of poverty; of a grandmother bringing tea to a student up late at night still doing homework; of peer pressure not to do well in school because ‘it makes the other kids look bad’.

Here’s a sampling - not an opinion poll, but representative commentary - of other responses by parents:

• Do parents understand that you can’t be a full human being if you’re ignorant? Are there books at home? How about a magnifying glass? Encyclopedia? Do they encourage children to learn?

• Parents have to teach patience and perseverance. The most important gift they can give their children is the ethos of hard work, but they can’t just talk about it. The kids who learn to work hard are the ones who see their parents work hard and never give up.

• My child is fascinated by science, but she doesn’t get any in school or on TV.

• My child is identified as gifted, but the school has no program for science enrichment. The guidance counselor told me to send her to a private school, but we can’t afford a private school.

• There’s enormous peer pressure; shy children don’t want to ‘stand out’ by doing well in science. When my daughter reached 13 and 14, her life-long interest in science seemed to disappear.

Parents also had much to say about teachers, and some of the comments by teachers echoed the parents. For example, people complained that teachers are trained how to teach but not what to teach: that a large number of physics and chemistry teachers have no degree in physics or chemistry and are ‘uncomfortable and incompetent’ in teaching science; that teachers themselves have too much science and maths anxiety; that they resist being asked questions, or they answer, ‘It’s in the book. Look it up.’ Some complained that the biology teacher was a ‘Creationist’; some complained that he wasn’t. Among other comments by or about teachers:

• We are breeding a collection of half-wits.

• It’s easier to memorize than to think. Kids have to be taught to think.

• The teachers and curricula are ‘dumbing down’ to the lowest common denominator.

• Why is the basketball coach teaching chemistry?

• Teachers are required to spend much too much time on discipline and on ‘social curricula’. There’s no incentive to use our own judgment. The ‘brass’ are always looking over our shoulders.

• Abandon tenure in schools and colleges. Get rid of the deadwood. Leave hiring and firing to principals, deans, and superintendents.

• My joy in teaching was repeatedly thwarted by militaristic-type principals.

• Teachers should be rewarded on the basis of performance -especially student performance on standardized, nationwide tests, and improvements in student performance on such tests from one year to the next.

• Teachers are stifling our children’s minds by telling them they’re not ‘smart’ enough - for example, for a career in physics. Why not give the students a chance to take the course? • My son was promoted even though he’s reading two grade levels behind the rest of his class. The reason given was social, not educational. He’ll never catch up unless he’s left back.

• Science should be required in all school (and especially high school) curricula. It should be carefully coordinated with the math courses the students are taking at the same time. • • Most homework is ‘busy work’ rather than something that makes you think.

• I think Diane Ravitch [New Republic, 6 March 1989] tells it like it is: ‘As a female student at Hunter High School in New York City recently explained, “I make straight As, but I never talk about it ... It’s cool to do really badly. If you are interested in school and you show it, you’re a nerd”... The popular culture - through television, movies, magazines, and videos - incessantly drums in the message to young women that it is better to be popular, sexy, and “cool” than to be intelligent, accomplished, and outspoken...’In 1986 researchers found a similar anti-academic ethos among both high school and female students in Washington, D.C. They noted that able students faced strong peer pressure not to succeed in school. If they did well in their studies, they might be accused of ‘acting white’.

• Schools could easily give much more recognition and rewards to kids who are outstanding in science and math. Why don’t they? Why not special jackets with school letters? Announcements in assembly and the school newspaper and the local press? Local industry and social organizations to give special awards? This costs very little and could overcome peer pressure not to excel.

• Headstart is the single most effective... program for improving children’s understanding of science and everything else.

There were also many passionate, highly controversial opinions expressed which, at the very least, give a sense of how deeply people feel about the subject. Here’s a smattering:

• All the smart kids are looking for the fast buck these days, so they become lawyers, not scientists.

• I don’t want you to improve education. Then there’d be nobody to drive the cabs.

• The problem in science education is that God isn’t sufficiently honored.

• The fundamentalist teaching that science is ‘humanism’ and is to be mistrusted is the reason nobody understands science. Religions are afraid of the sceptical thinking at the heart of science. Students are brainwashed not to accept scientific thinking long before they get to college.

• Science has discredited itself. It works for politicians. It makes weapons, it lies about marijuana ‘hazards’, it ignores about the dangers of agent orange, etc.

• The public schools don’t work. Abandon them. Let’s have private schools only.

• We have let the advocates of permissiveness, fuzzy thinking and rampant socialism destroy what was once a great educational system.

• The school system has enough money. The problem is that the white males, usually coaches, who run the schools would never (and I mean never) hire an intellectual... They care more about the football team than the curriculum and hire only submediocre, flag-waving, God-loving automatons to teach. What kind of students can emerge from schools that oppress, punish and neglect logical thinking?

• Release schools from the stranglehold of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], NBA [National Education Association], and others engaged in the breakdown of the discipline and competence in the schools.

• I’m afraid you have no understanding of the country in which you live. The people are incredibly ignorant and fearful. They will not tolerate listening to any [new] idea... Don’t you get it? The system survives only because it has an ignorant Godfearing population. There’s a reason lots of [educated people] are unemployed.

• I’m sometimes required to explain technological issues to Congressional staffers. Believe me, there’s a problem in science education in this country.

There is no single solution to the problem of illiteracy in science -or maths, history, English, geography, and many of the other skills which our society needs more of. The responsibilities are broadly shared - parents, the voting public, local school boards, the media, teachers, administrators, federal, state and logical governments, plus, of course, the students themselves. At every level teachers complain that the problem lies in earlier grades. And first-grade teachers can with justice despair of teaching children with learning deficits because of malnutrition, or no books in the home, or a culture of violence in which the leisure to think is unavailable.

I know very well from my own experience how much a child can benefit from parents who have a little learning and are able to pass it on. Even small improvements in the education, communication skills and passion for learning in one generation might work much larger improvements in the next. I think of this every time I hear a complaint that school and collegiate ‘standards’ are falling, or that a Bachelor’s degree doesn’t ‘mean’ what it once did.

Dorothy Rich, an innovative teacher from Yonkers, New York, believes that far more important than specific academic subjects is the honing of key skills which she lists as: ‘confidence, perseverance, caring, teamwork, common sense and problem-solving.’ To which I’d add sceptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder.

At the same time, children with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programmes for the ‘gifted’ are sometimes decried as ‘elitism’. Why aren’t intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double-standard at work here, nationwide.

The problems in public education in science and other subjects run so deep that it’s easy to despair and conclude that they can never be fixed. And yet, there are institutions hidden away in big cities and small towns that provide reason for hope, places that strike the spark, awaken slumbering curiosities and ignite the scientist that lives in all of us:

• The enormous metallic iron meteorite in front of you is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. Gingerly you reach out to touch it. It feels smooth and cold. The thought occurs to you that this is a piece of another world. How did it get to Earth? What happened in space to make it so beat up?

• The display shows maps of eighteenth-century London, and the spread of a horrifying cholera epidemic. People in one house got it from people in neighbouring houses. By running the wave of infection back, you can see where it started. It’s like being a detective. And when you pinpoint the origin you find it’s a place with open sewers. It occurs to you that there’s a life and death reason why modern cities have adequate sanitation. You think of all those cities and towns and villages in the world that don’t. You get to thinking maybe there’s a simpler, cheaper way to do it ...

• You’re crawling through a long, utterly black tunnel. There are sudden turns, ups and downs. You go through a forest of feathery things, beady things, big solid round things. You imagine what it must be like to be blind. You think about how little we rely on our sense of touch. In the dark and the quiet, you’re alone with your thoughts. Somehow the experience is exhilarating...

• You examine a detailed reconstruction of a procession of priests climbing up one of the great ziggurats of Sumer, or a gorgeously painted tomb in the Valley of the Kings in ancient Egypt, or a house in ancient Rome, or a full-scale turn-of-the-century street in small town America. You think of all those civilizations, so different from yours, how if you’d been born into them you would have thought them completely natural, how you’d consider our society - if you had somehow been told of it - as weird...

• You squeeze the eyedropper, and a drop of pond water drips out on to the microscope stage. You look at the projected image. The drop is full of life, strange beings swimming, crawling, tumbling; high dramas of pursuit and escape, triumph and tragedy. This is a world populated by beings far more exotic than in any science-fiction movie...

• Seated in the theatre, you find yourself inside the head of an eleven-year-old boy. You look out through his eyes. You encounter his typical daily crises: bullies, authoritarian adults, crushes on girls. You hear the voice inside his head. You witness his neurological and hormonal responses to his social environment. And you get to wonder how you work on the inside...

• Following the simple instructions, you type in the commands. What will the Earth look like if we continue to burn coal, oil and gas, and double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? How much hotter will it be? How much polar ice will melt? How much higher will the oceans be? Why are we pouring so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? What if we put five times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Also, how could anybody know what the future^climate will be like? It gets you thinking...

In my childhood, I was taken to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I was transfixed by the dioramas -lifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; okapi in the bright African veldt; a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, in a shaded forest glade; an American grizzly bear standing on his hind legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye. These were three-dimensional freeze-frames captured by some genie of the lamp. Did the grizzly move just then? Did the gorilla blink? Might the genie return, lift the spell and permit this gorgeous array of living things to go on with their lives as, jaws agape, I watch?

Kids have an irresistible urge to touch. Back in those days, the most commonly heard two words in museums were ‘don’t touch’. Decades ago there was almost nothing ‘hands-on’ in museums of science or natural history, not even a simulated tidal pool in which you could pick up a crab and inspect it. The closest thing to an interactive exhibit that I knew were the scales in the Hayden Planetarium, one for each planet. Weighing a mere forty pounds on Earth, there was something reassuring in the thought that if only you lived on Jupiter, you would weigh a hundred pounds. But sadly, on the Moon you would weigh only seven pounds; on the Moon it seemed you would hardly be there at all.

Today, children are encouraged to touch, to poke, to run through a branched contingency tree of questions and answers via computer, or to make funny noises and see what the sound waves look like. Even kids who don’t get everything out of the exhibit, or who don’t even get the point of the exhibit, usually extract something valuable. You go to these museums and you’re struck by the wide-eyed looks of wonder, by kids racing from exhibit to exhibit, by the triumphant smiles of discovery. They’re wildly popular. Almost as many of us go to them each year as attend professional baseball, basketball and football games combined.

These exhibits do not replace instruction in school or at home, but they awaken and excite. A great science museum inspires a child to read a book, or take a course, or return to the museum again to engage in a process of discovery - and, most important, to learn the method of scientific thinking.

Another glorious feature of many modern scientific museums is a movie theatre showing IMAX or OMNIMAX films. In some cases the screen is ten storeys tall and wraps around you. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the most popular museum on Earth, has premiered in its Langley Theater some of the best of these films. To Fly brings a catch to my throat even after five or six viewings. I’ve seen religious leaders of many denominations witness Blue Planet and be converted on the spot to the need to protect the Earth’s environment.

Not every exhibit and science museum is exemplary. A few still are commercials for firms that have contributed money to promote their products - how an automobile engine works or the ‘cleanliness’ of one fossil fuel as compared to another. Too many museums that claim to be about science are really about technology and medicine. Too many biology exhibits are still afraid to mention the key idea of modern biology: evolution. Beings ‘develop’ or ‘emerge’, but never evolve. The absence of humans from the deep fossil record is underplayed. We are shown nothing of the anatomical and DNA near-identity between humans and chimps or gorillas. Nothing is displayed on complex organic molecules in space and on other worlds, nor about experiments showing the stuff of life forming in enormous numbers in the known atmospheres of other worlds and the presumptive atmosphere of the early Earth. A notable exception: the Natural History Museum of The Smithsonian Institution once had an unforgettable exhibit on evolution. It began with two cockroaches in a modern kitchen with open cereal boxes and other food. Left alone for a few weeks, the place was crowded with cockroaches, buckets of them everywhere, competing for the little food now available, and the long-term hereditary advantage that a slightly better adapted cockroach might have over its competitors became crystal clear. Also, too, many planetaria are still devoted to picking out constellations rather than travelling to other worlds, and depicting the evolution of galaxies, stars and planets; they also have an insect-like projector always visible which robs the sky of its reality.

Perhaps the grandest museum exhibit can’t be seen. It has no home: George Awad is one of the leading architectural model makers in America, specializing in skyscrapers. He is also a dedicated student of astronomy who has made a spectacular model of the Universe. Starting with a prosaic scene on Earth, and following a scheme proposed by the designers Charles and Ray Eames, he goes progressively by factors of ten to show us the whole Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way and the Universe. Every astronomical body is meticulously detailed. You can lose yourself in them. It’s one of the best tools I know of to explain the scale and nature of the Universe to children. Isaac Asimov described it as ‘the most imaginative representation of the universe that I have ever seen, or could have conceived of. I could have wandered through it for hours, seeing something new at every turn that I hadn’t observed before.’ Versions of it ought to be available throughout the country - for stirring the imagination, for inspiration and for teaching. But instead, Mr Awad cannot give this exhibit to any major science museum in the country. No one is willing to devote to it the floor space needed. As I write, it still sits forlornly, crated in storage.

The population of my town, Ithaca, New York, doubles to a grand total of about 50,000 when Cornell University and Ithaca College are in session. Ethnically diverse, surrounded by farmland, it has suffered, like so much of the northeast, the decline of its nineteenth-century manufacturing base. Half the children at Bev-erly J. Martin elementary school, which our daughter attended, live below the poverty line. Those are the kids that two volunteer science teachers, Debbie Levin and lima Levine, worried about most. It didn’t seem right that for some, the children of Cornell faculty, say, even the sky wasn’t the limit. For others there was no access to the liberating power of science education. Starting in the 1960s, they made regular trips to the school, dragging their portable library cart, laden with household chemicals and other familiar items to convey something of the magic of science. They dreamed of creating a place for kids to go, where they could get a personal, hands-on feel for science.

In 1983 Levin and Levine placed a small ad in our local paper inviting the community to discuss the idea. Fifty people showed up. From that group came the first board of directors of the Sciencenter. Within a year they secured exhibition space in the first floor of an unrented office building. When the owner found a paying tenant, the tadpoles and litmus paper were packed up again and carted off to a vacant shop.

Moves to other empty shops followed until an Ithacan named Bob Leathers, an architect world-renowned for designing innovative community-built playgrounds, drew up and donated the plans for a permanent Sciencenter. Gifts from local firms provided enough money to purchase an abandoned lot from the city and then hire an executive director, Charles Trautmann, a Cornell civil engineer. He and Leathers travelled to the annual meeting of the National Association of Homebuilders in Atlanta. Trautmann relates how they told the story ‘of a community eager to take responsibility for the education of its youth and secured donations of many key items such as windows, skylights and lumber’.

Before they could start building, some of the old pumphouse on the site had to be torn down. Members of a Cornell fraternity were enlisted. With hardhats and sledge-hammers, they demolished the place joyfully. ‘This is the kind of thing,’ they said, ‘we usually get into trouble for doing.’ In two days, they carted away 200 tons of rubble.

What followed were images straight out of an America that many of us fear has vanished. In the tradition of pioneer barnrais-ing, members of the community - bricklayers, doctors, carpenters, university professors, plumbers, farmers, the very young and the very old - all rolled up their sleeves to build the Sciencenter.

‘The continuous seven-days-a-week schedule was maintained,’ says Trautmann, ‘so that anyone would be able to help anytime. Everyone was given a job. Experienced volunteers built stairs, laid carpet and tile, and trimmed windows. Others painted, nailed and carried supplies.’ Some 2,200 townspeople donated more than 40,000 hours. Roughly ten per cent of the construction work was performed by people convicted of minor offences; they preferred to do something for the community than to sit idle in jail. Ten months later, Ithaca had the only community-built science museum in the world.

Among the seventy-five interactive exhibits emphasizing both the processes and principles of science are: the Magicam, a microscope that visitors can use to view on a colour monitor and then photograph any object at 40 times magnification; the world’s only public connection to the satellite-based National Lightning

Detection Network; a 6 x 9 ft walk-in camera; a fossil pit seeded with local shale where visitors hunt for fossils from 380 million years ago and keep their finds; an eight-foot-long boa constrictor named ‘Spot’; and a dazzling array of other experiments, computers and activities.

Levin and Levine can still be found there, full-time volunteers teaching the citizens and scientists of the future. The DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund supports and extends their dream of reaching kids who would ordinarily be denied their scientific birthright. Through the Fund’s nationwide Youth-ALIVE programme, Ithaca teenagers receive intensive mentoring to develop their science, conflict resolution and employment skills.

Levin and Levine thought science should belong to everyone. Their community agreed and made a commitment to realize that dream. In the Sciencenter’s first year, 55,000 people came from all fifty states and sixty countries. Not bad for a small town. It makes you wonder what else we could do if we worked together for a better future for our kids.