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A fascinating book on the joys of discovering how the world works, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Cosmos and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
“Magnificent . . . Delightful . . . A masterpiece. A message of tremendous hope for humanity . . . While ever conscious that human folly can terminate man’s march into the future, Sagan nonetheless paints for us a mind-boggling future: intelligent robots, the discovery of extraterrestrial life and its consequences, and above all the challenge and pursuit of the mystery of the universe.”—Chicago Tribune
“Go out and buy this book, because Carl Sagan is not only one of the world’s most respected scientists, he’s a great writer. . . . I can give a book no greater accolade than to say I’m planning on reading it again. And again. And again.”—The Miami Herald
“The brilliant astronomer . . . is persuasive, provocative and readable.”—United Press International
“Closely reasoned, impeccably researched, gently humorous, utterly devastating.”—The Washington Post
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Broca's Brain
“They were apes only yesterday. Give them time.” “Once an ape—always an ape.”… “No, it will be different.… Come back here in an age or so and you shall see.…”
The gods, discussing the Earth, in the motion picture version of H. G. Wells’ The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)
IT WAS A MUSEUM, in a way like any other, this Musée de l’Homme, Museum of Man, situated on a pleasant eminence with, from the restaurant plaza in back, a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower. We were there to talk with Yves Coppens, the able associate director of the museum and a distinguished paleoanthropologist. Coppens had studied the ancestors of mankind, their fossils being found in Olduvai Gorge and Lake Turkana, in Kenya and Tanzania and Ethiopia. Two million years ago there were four-foot-high creatures, whom we call Homo habilis, living in East Africa, shearing and chipping and flaking stone tools, perhaps building simple dwellings, their brains in the course of a spectacular enlargement that would lead one day—to us.
Institutions of this sort have a public and a private side. The public side includes the exhibits in ethnography, say, or cultural anthropology: the costumes of the Mongols, or bark cloths painted by Native Americans, some perhaps prepared especially for sale to voyageurs and enterprising French anthropologists. But in the innards of the place there are other things: people engaged in the construction of exhibits; vast storerooms of items inappropriate, because of subject matter or space, for general exhibition; and areas for research. We were led through a warren of dark, musty rooms, ranging from cubicles to rotundas. Research materials overflowed into the corridors: a reconstruction of a Paleolithic cave floor, showing where the antelope bones had been thrown after eating. Priapic wooden statuary from Melanesia. Delicately painted eating utensils. Grotesque ceremonial masks. Assagai-like throwing spears from Oceania. A tattered poster of a steatopygous woman from Africa. A dank and gloomy storeroom filled to the rafters with gourd woodwinds, skin drums, reed panpipes and innumerable other reminders of the indomitable human urge to make music.
Here and there could be found a few people actually engaged in research, their sallow and deferential demeanors contrasting starkly with the hearty bilingual competence of Coppens. Most of the rooms were evidently used for storage of anthropological items, collected from decades to more than a century ago. You had the sense of a museum of the second order, in which were stored not so much materials that might be of interest as materials that had once been of interest. You could feel the presence of nineteenth-century museum directors engaged, in their frock coats, in goniométrie and craniologie, busily collecting and measuring everything, in the pious hope that mere quantification would lead to understanding.
But there was another area of the museum still more remote, a strange mix of active research and virtually abandoned cabinets and shelves. A reconstructed and articulating skeleton of an orangutan. A vast table covered with human skulls, each neatly indexed. A drawer full of femurs, piled in disarray, like the erasers in some school janitor’s supply closet. A province dedicated to Neanderthal remains, including the first Neanderthal skull, reconstructed by Marcellin Boule, which I held cautiously in my hands. It felt lightweight and delicate, the sutures starkly visible, perhaps the first compelling piece of evidence that there once were creatures rather like us who became extinct, a disquieting hint that our species likewise might not survive forever. A tray filled with the teeth of many hominids, including the great nutcracker molars of Australopithecus robustus, a contemporary of Homo habilis. A collection of Cro-Magnon skull cases, stacked like cordwood, scrubbed white and in good order. These items were reasonable and in a way expected, the necessary shards of evidence for reconstructing something of the history of our ancestors and collateral relatives.
Deeper in the room were more macabre and more disturbing collections. Two shrunken heads reposing on a cabinet, sneering and grimacing, their leathery lips curled back to reveal rows of sharp, tiny teeth. Jar upon jar of human embryos and fetuses, pale white, bathed in a murky greenish fluid, each jar competently labeled. Most specimens were normal, but occasionally an anomaly could be glimpsed, a disconcerting teratology—Siamese twins joined at the sternum, say, or a fetus with two heads, the four eyes tightly shut.
There was more. An array of large cylindrical bottles containing, to my astonishment, perfectly preserved human heads. A red-mustachioed man, perhaps in his early twenties, originating, so the label said, from Nouvelle Calédonie. Perhaps he was a sailor who had jumped ship in the tropics only to be captured and executed, his head involuntarily drafted in the cause of science. Except he was not being studied; he was only being neglected, among the other severed heads. A sweet-faced and delicate little girl of perhaps four years, her pink coral earrings and necklace still perfectly preserved. Three infant heads, sharing the same bottle, perhaps as an economy measure. Men and women and children of both sexes and many races, decapitated, their heads shipped to France only to moulder—perhaps after some brief initial study—in the Musée de l’Homme. What, I wondered, must the loading of the crates of bottled heads have been like? Did the ship’s officers speculate over coffee about what was down in the hold? Were the sailors heedless because the heads were, by and large, not those of white Europeans like themselves? Did they joke about their cargo to demonstrate some emotional distance from the little twinge of horror they privately permitted themselves to feel? When the collections arrived in Paris, were the scientists brisk and businesslike, giving orders to the draymen on the disposition of severed heads? Were they impatient to unseal the bottles and embrace the contents with calipers? Did the man responsible for this collection, whoever he might be, view it with unalloyed pride and zest?
And then in a still more remote corner of this wing of the museum was revealed a collection of gray, convoluted objects, stored in formalin to retard spoilage—shelf upon shelf of human brains. There must have been someone whose job it was to perform routine craniotomies on the cadavers of notables and extract their brains for the benefit of science. Here was the cerebrum of a European intellectual who had achieved momentary renown before fading into the obscurity of this dusty shelf. Here a brain of a convicted murderer. Doubtless the savants of earlier days had hoped there might be some anomaly, some telltale sign in the brain anatomy or cranial configuration of murderers. Perhaps they had hoped that murder was a matter of heredity and not society. Phrenology was a graceless nineteenth-century aberration. I could hear my friend Ann Druyan saying, “The people we starve and torture have an unsociable tendency to steal and murder. We think it’s because their brows overhang.” But the brains of murderers and savants—the remains of Albert Einstein’s brain are floating wanly in a bottle in Wichita—are indistinguishable. It is, very probably, society and not heredity that makes criminals.
While scanning the collection amid such ruminations, my eye was caught by a label on one of the many low cylindrical bottles. I took the container from the shelf and examined it more closely. The label read P. Broca. In my hands was Broca’s brain.
Carl Sagan served as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo spacecraft expeditions, for which he received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and (twice) for Distinguished Public Service.
His Emmy- and Peabody–winning television series, Cosmos, became the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. The accompanying book, also called Cosmos, is one of the bestselling science books ever published in the English language. Dr. Sagan received the Pulitzer Prize, the Oersted Medal, and many other awards—including twenty honorary degrees from American colleges and universities—for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment. In their posthumous award to Dr. Sagan of their highest honor, the National Science Foundation declared that his “research transformed planetary science . . . his gifts to mankind were infinite.” Dr. Sagan died on December 20, 1996.