"Superstition is cowardice in the face of the divine" wrote, Theophrastus, who lived during the founding of the Library of Alexandria.
We inherit a universe where atoms are made in the centres of Stars, where each second a thousand suns are born, where life is sparked by sunlight and lightening in the airs, and waters of youthful planets, where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the Explosion of a Star halfway across the Milky Way. Where a thing as beautiful as a Galaxy is formed a hundred billion times, a Cosmos of Quasars and Quarks, snowflakes and fireflies. Where there may be Black Holes and other Universes, and Extraterrestrial Civilizations, whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudo-science, how important it is for us to pursue and understand Science that characteristically human endeavour.
Every aspect of Nature reveals a deeper mystery and touches our sense of wonder, and awe. Theophrastus was right! Those afraid of the Universe as it really is, those who pretend to non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings, will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the World. But, those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.
There are no others species on Earth that does Science. It is so far entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex, for one simple reason, it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But, it is by far the best tool we have, self correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything.
It has two rules :
First, there are no Sacred Truths. All assumptions must be critically examined, and arguments from authority are worthless.
Second, whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded and revised.
We must understand the Cosmos as it is, and not confuse it with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false. The unexpected is sometimes true. Humans everywhere share the same goals, when the context is large enough. And the study of the Cosmos provides the largest possible context. Present global culture is a kind of an arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage, following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking about for a few thousand years, declares itself in possession of Eternal Truths. But, in a world that is changing as fast as ours, this is a prescription for disaster. No nation, no religion, no economic system, no body of knowledge is likely to have all the answers for our survival. There must be many social systems that would work far better, than any now in existence. In the scientific tradition our task is to find them.
By Carl Sagan, The Pulitzer Prize Winner and a Professor of Astronomy, and Space Sciences at Cornell University USA.
HER NAME WAS HYPATIA
Alexandria was the greatest city the Western World had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbours were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians, exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word Cosmopolitan realized its true meaning, citizen. Not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos, and to be a citizen of the Cosmos.
Here clearly, were the seeds of the Modern World. What prevented them from taking root and flourishing? Why instead did the West slumber, through a thousand years of darkness, until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscover the work done in Alexandria? I cannot give you a simple answer. But, I do know this, there is no record in the entire history of the Library that any of its illustrious scientists, and scholars, ever seriously challenged the political, economic, and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the Stars was questioned, the justice of slavery was not! Science and learning in general, were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had, not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the library. New findings were not explained or popularised. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition and the amusement of Kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free the people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, and to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When at long last the mob came to burn the library down, there was nobody to stop them.
The last scientist, who worked in the library, was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and the head of the ‘Neoplatonic School of Philosophy’, an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual, in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370 at a time when women had few options and were treated as property. Hypatia moved freely and un-self consciously through the traditional male dominions. By all accounts, she was a great beauty. She had many suitors, but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia’s time, by then long under Roman rule, was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped Classical Civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence, and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicentre of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria despised her, because of her close friendship with the Roman Governor, and because she was a symbol of learning, and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with Paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish until in the year 415, on her way to work, she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes and armed with Abalone Shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a Saint.
In addition, good account nearly the same can be found in the book ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). I have also gone into this more fully by selecting a few texts of Gibbon, which are appropriate to the questions raised and can be used for some learning.