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The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan (Book Review)

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

I was given this book by a senior teacher in the science department of a school I taught in for a time.

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One of my earliest memories is an image of my dad holding me by my waist and placing me in front of his brand-spanking-new Personal Computer with Windows 1995 – or was it ‘97 – installed free of charge. And he put in a CD he had bought from the Early Learning Centre (aka ELC – I wonder if those shops are still open) with fun educational games on it. I vaguely remember a game involving mathematics and I definitely remember a super fun space adventure game that involved typing certain word combinations to progress to the next level – a way to trick kids into learning how to type. (These days just stick them in front of TikTok or Snapchat for two minutes and they’ll have hacked into the local hospital records or Amazon database before you’ve figured out how to get this blasted screen to turn on.) I remember a photograph – or was it a video – in which I was stood in front of the computer in my diapers playing one of these games. I don’t know how many of these recollections come from my memory and how many I have filled in from the photograph. Memory is a funny thing that way.

A few years later, I remember charging home from school with the latest Scholastic book catalogue, and sitting down with my dad and going through every page, reading each and every book description together. Growing up, my dad seldom gave me money for sweets or toys or any of the other perennial temptations of children of my generation, but if it was ever for books, he would lay down every last penny he had. I think this is where my love for reading began, and since then I’ve never stopped.

I remember starting off with Asterix & Obelix and Captain Underpants, and progressing to Alex Rider and Young Bond books. I remember running home from school in expectation of the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book that my mum had bought for me, hot off the press. Good times. Growing up, I struggled a lot with friendship and never really felt that I fit in, but in these books I found a kind of home and sense of belonging that made me not mind it so much.

As I progressed through my secondary school years, and puberty did what puberty does, my dad and I toned down the Doctor Who a bit and started to watch science documentaries together, most memorably Brian Cox’s Human Universe series and the other ones like it. They planted a seed of wonder in me that took many years of university education to root out.

I had coasted throughout most of my secondary years – doing the least work I could do to attract the least attention and slip past my teachers’ and parents’ notice. But then adolescence reared its ugly head and the time came for me to choose my A-levels. I had never been good at making decisions and the thought of narrowing down my eleven GCSE subjects to only four A-levels put me in a firm state of analysis paralysis. Maths was a no-brainer, and I knew German would be a breeze, and in the end I chose chemistry because my friend was doing it and physics because an older boy I admired had studied it. It’s funny how we put so much pressure on young people to rationalise their decisions when most of the time it is peer pressure that gets them going and sets them on their way.

I moved to a new school for my A-levels and immediately felt myself treading water. Where before I could coast through unnoticed, I now had teachers on my back, telling me I was “underachieving” and “falling behind the rest of the class”. Never in maths – that was always my strong suit – but noticeably in physics I was getting into a lot of trouble for my dilettantism. Then two forces came together that pushed me forward and set me on my way. One was my rather eccentric Welsh physics teacher, who had a ponytail down behind his knees (I may be exaggerating) and would walk through the corridors wielding a wooden Katana terrorising Year 7s (I’m not exaggerating). He noticed that I was disengaged in lessons and he encouraged me to ask questions – “it won’t make you look stupid”, he told me.

The other force was a strange American man with an odd drawling accent who went by the name of Carl Sagan. I somehow stumbled upon his Cosmos documentary series on the internet and quickly devoured the whole thing in a few sittings. And in a flash I discovered the joy of science: the “wonder” that Sagan talks about in this book.

After a roundabout few gap years after my A-levels, I finally got around to starting uni, and discovered that my rose-tinted view of physics was far from the everyday reality of collecting and processing data points and academic journals and conferences and all the other paraphernalia of academia. I learnt about rigour and discipline. I learnt about scepticism. And by the end of my three years, the childlike wonder had been nearly totally weeded out and I was left with rules, methods, practices and systems.

Then I found myself once again in a physics classroom, this time in Oxford, and was offered this book by a senior teacher, and a couple months later I got around to reading it, and I was taught that science is the “marriage of wonder and skepticism” and I think I am a little closer to finding my mojo as a dilettante physicist. Hopefully I’ll be able to pass over something of value to some people sometime soon.

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