Book review: Cosmic Apprentice

I really, really tried to like this book…

About half of the chapters in this book were previously published as magazine articles, etc. Despite this, Sagan was able to (kind of) integrate them in a series of connected thoughts. And it reads just like that, as a series of loosely connected thoughts in rapid succession one after the other, very much like the ones one would experience while daydreaming. In all truthfulness this writing style (technique?) became kind of irritating after a while, but I kept reading the book nonetheless because it was really hard to put it down.

My three favorite chapters were Chapter one, “The human is more than human”, Chapter 7, “Of whales and aliens” and Chapter 12, “Metametazoa” (except for the “Gaia” section). It is to be noted that Chapters 7 and 12 were two of the previously published ones, and it shows that there was some editorial work done on them or at the very least were seen by a second pair of eyes. They were a pleasure to read and very entertaining too! These 3 chapters were not the only good things that the book has; there are many, really many nuggets of truly interesting and cool facts (and even cool, warranted and well-thought speculation) in virtually every chapter. The thing is that you really have to work to find them.

My very favorite sentence of the book was from Chapter 13, “Kermitronics” at the bottom of page 197. I will let you find it for yourself; it will make you stop reading and reflect on what you just read.

Now the no-so-good things…

Personally, there were two aspects of the book that were particularly irritating. As other (Amazon) reviewers have noted, throughout the book he fires names here and there that only people that have studied philosophy would recognize (or maybe I am really ignorant; this is certainly a possibility). Anyway, this was really distracting and really hurt the flow of the book.

The second thing was that in (many) places his writing was so convoluted and over crafted (made-up words for example and really hard to understand sentences) that in essence it reads like “…look at me, I can write!” The irony is that he does not need to do that; I think that he CAN write and beautifully too. I may be mistaken, but at face value it reads like a writer that feels that he has something to prove; I do not think this is the case. This writing style is even more ironic when you see it in the light of his own comments scattered in the book praising the practice of being able of explaining scientific concepts in plain language, which I wholeheartedly agree with, yet one regularly finds in the book gems like:

Biosemioticians are interested in pursuing the rich tapestry of signification systems in living organisms without foregoing, as might be said in Continental philosophy, a reality beyond and independent of such systems.” (page 107)

O_o … truly, really, I have no idea what dos this sentence mean…

Also, there were several inconsistencies or plain mistakes, some more grave than others, including a few that could have been easily corrected before printing just by having a biologist look at them (I will first quote the phrase/sentence by indicating the page number followed by my observation preceeded by “**”):

Page 13: “Although I have just criticized Harris and Richard Dawkins…”
**He did mention Harris, but not Dawkins, prior to this sentence. Perhaps this was taken from other published work.

Page 90 (when talking about amino acids, the building blocks of proteins): “Melt them together (to make them move more rapidly), and amino acids form new huge compounds…”
**I have no idea what he means by “melting” in this context, but speaking as someone formally trained in science, it does not make much sense to me. If I am shown to be mistaken about it, I will gladly apologize and learn from it. (NOTE – Feb, 15, 2014: Mr. Sagan was kind enough to contact me through Amazon and gave me the source of the statement. I stand corrected).

Page 91: “ATP-adenosine triphosphate, structurally a cousin to DNA…”
**This is a rather bothersome misrepresentation. ATP is a bioenergetic molecule that is a precursor of one of four types of nucleotides that form DNA molecules, and this is the only way in which DNA and ATP they are directly related. Briefly DNA is a macromolecule which generally encodes genetic information, ATP in itself is incapable of that; Sagan knows that. Also, in the same paragraph, he states that a typical human makes and breaks down about 9 ounces of ATP per day. The correct figure for the turnover rate of ATP is about 2300 ounces (roughly 65 kg) per day (I know, hard to believe but it seems to be true)… Again, if I am wrong, I will acknowledge it. (NOTE: I double-checked; not wrong…).

Pages 123-124: “It is indeed an amusing astrobiological irony that through a smorgasbord of sphincters comes in the aggregate such gas that it provides, within our atmosphere one-fifth oxygen, with which such gases should react, a kind of chemical signature indicating the presence of intelligent life on Earth.”
**This suggests life, not intelligent life (and please do not give me the tired phrase about intelligent life not being found on earth…).

In another Amazon review of mine of an unrelated Sagan’s book I stated that I have read him before and that I enjoy his writings. Sadly, by reading “The Cosmic Apprentice”, I reluctantly realized that the books of his that I have enjoyed before are only those in which he is a coauthor or editor, not the ones where he is a single author; I am sorry, but there was no other way of saying it. That said, I still think that he is a gifted writer and that he can contribute to educate the general public about science, if he truly desires to do so. I will give it another try to his writings in his next book. However, just in case, I will read his next book by borrowing it from a library before buying it.

Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science
Dorion Sagan
Univ Of Minnesota Press 2013

Picture Credit: Minnesota University Press

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6 Comments

  1. “It is indeed an amusing astrobiological irony that through a smorgasbord of sphincters comes in the aggregate such gas that it provides, within our atmosphere one-fifth oxygen, with which such gases should react, a kind of chemical signature indicating the presence of intelligent life on Earth.” THAT is a terrible sentence!

    Is he talking about methane? Is he suggesting that methane in an atmosphere that’s largely saturated with oxygen indicates life because there’s no reaction between the methane and oxygen? As methane and oxygen only react when methane is burnt!

    As you point out, methane doesn’t indicate intelligent life at all. All methane indicates is methane, as it can be produced via non-organic means.

    Given that oxygen is so reactive, the presence of oxygen in an atmosphere indicates that all the oxygen sinks are full (lots of rusted iron, etc), and suggests that there’s oxygen production occurring as part of a carbon cycle (being freed from CO2), but even then that’s us reading our own carbon cycle onto other planets that may have entirely different mechanisms at play.

    PS. the Despicable Me minion in me chuckled at the “smorgasbord of sphincters”

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