Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 812

Mars and the Mind of Man: Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in Cosmic Conversation, 1971

“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.”

On November 12, 1971, the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, Caltech Planetary Science professor Bruce Murray summoned a formidable panel of thinkers to discuss the implications of the historic event. Murray himself was to join the great Carl Sagan and science fiction icons Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in a conversation moderated by New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan, who had been assigned to cover Mariner 9’s arrival for the newspaper. What unfolded — easily history’s only redeeming manifestation of the panel format — was a fascinating quilt of perspectives not only on the Mariner 9 mission itself, or even just Mars, but on the relationship between mankind and the cosmos, the importance of space exploration, and the future of our civilization. Two years later, the record of this epic conversation was released in Mars and the Mind of Man (public library), alongside early images of Mars taken by Mariner 9 and a selection of “afterthoughts” by the panelists, looking back on the historic achievement.

Arthur C. Clarke — who, in a 1945 article entitled “Extraterrestrial Relays” had proposed communications satellites long before they became an active government project and who had previously predicted the techno-future in general and even the iPad in particular with astounding accuracy — offers a prediction regarding Mars that is, ultimately, inaccurate but wrapped around it is an insightful and timely meditation on the larger subject at stake:

We are now in a very interesting historic moment with regard to Mars. I’m not going to make any definite predictions because it would be very foolish to go out on a limb, but whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made in the next few days or weeks or months, the frontier of our knowledge is moving inevitably outward.

It has already embraced the Moon. We still have a great deal to learn about the Moon and there will be many surprises even there, I’m sure. But the frontier is moving on and our viewpoint is changing with it. We’re discovering, and this is a big surprise, that the Moon, and I believe Mars, and parts of Mercury, and especially space itself, are essentially benign environments — to our technology, not necessarily to organic life. Certainly benign as compared to the Antarctic or the oceanic abyss, where we have already been. This is an idea which the public still hasn’t got yet, but it’s a fact.

I think the biological frontier may very well move past Mars out to Jupiter, which I think is where the action is. Carl, you’ve gone on the record as saying that Jupiter may be a more hospitable home for life than any other place, including Earth itself. It would be very exciting if this turns out to be true.

I will end by making one prediction. Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of this century.

Following Clarke is Carl Sagan, who does what he does best in discussing the issue of how rigorous we need to be in sterilizing spacecraft that makes contact with other planets — taking a scientific particularity, linking it to the universally human, then circling back to the science having engendered a whole new understanding of its context:

We can be emotionally predisposed as pessimists as well as optimists. Actuarial procedures provide a guide to situations of this sort. How careful you have to be in a given situation and how much premium you have to pay is not only a question of how likely the event in question is but also how important the event is. Suppose, for example, we’re concerned about carrying terrestrial microorganisms to Mars, depositing them there, and having them survive and multiply so that the next generation of space vehicles finds the next generation of microbes. How do we then distinguish Earth’s life from Mars life?

He follows that with one of the most eloquent portions of the entire conversation — an insistence on the value of embracing ignorance, learning to live with ambiguity, and choosing the unknown over answers that might be wrong, alongside a call for balancing skepticism with openness — something he’d articulate formally more than a decade later:

Is it possible that there is life on Mars, Martians? Now, just as there have clearly been excesses in the direction of prematurely concluding that there is life on Mars … there have also been excesses in the other direction, in prematurely concluding there isn’t life on Mars. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguity, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, just give me an answer.’ Well, I think that’s where we are on the question of life on Mars. There is, as far as I can tell, no more reason to conclude that Mars is lifeless than there is to conclude that it is inhabited. There is water, there is carbon dioxide, there is sunlight — these are the prerequisites even for parochial forms of green plant photosynthesis.

He echoes the same sentiment a few minutes later, in an insight that applies to the Mariner 9 mission as much as it applies to all of life:

I think the proper attitude is to keep an open mind and see what the observations uncover.

But by far the most beautiful meditation comes from Ray Bradbury, who transposes his passionate advocacy of writing with joy and excitement onto space exploration as well:

I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.

I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’ The only way you start like that is with this kind of thing we are talking about today. We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then. We find, we push the edge of science forward, and I think we romance on beyond that into the universe ever beyond. We’re talking not about Alpha Centauri. We’re talking of light-years. We have sitting here on the stage a person who has made the film* with the greatest metaphor for the coming billion years. That film is going to romance generations to come and will excite the people to do the work so that we can live forever. That’s what it’s all about. So we start with the small romances that turn out to be of no use. We put these tools aside to get another romantic tool. We want to love life, to be excited by the challenge, to life at the top of our enthusiasm. The process enables us to gather more information. Darwin was the kind of romantic who could stand in the middle of a meadow like a statue for eight hours on end and let the bees buzz in and out of his ear. A fantastic statue standing there in the middle of nature, and all the foxes wandering by and wondering what the hell he was doing there, and they sort of looked at each other and examined the wisdom in each other’s eyes. But this is a romantic man — when you think of any scientist in history, he was a romancer of reality.

Arthur C. Clarke follows up with a crucial point about science and whimsy — something Richard Feynman would articulate in uncannily similar phrasing exactly a decade later in his famous words from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

There are some not-very-bright and/or badly educated people who complain, with apparent sincerity, that scientific research destroys the wonders and magic of nature. One can imagine the indignant reaction of such poets as Tennyson or Shelley to this nonsense, and surely it is better to know the truth than to dabble in delusions, however charming they may be. Almost invariably, the truth turns out to be far more strange and wonderful than the wildest fantasy. The great J. B. S. Haldane put it very well when he said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine.’

Reflecting upon the unprecedented amount of imaging data that Mariner 9 promised to provide, Sagan captures the strange tension of exploration and ignorance, all the timelier as NASA’s Curiosity has pushed us to make sense of a new precipice of knowledge today:

Now we have moved from a data-poor, theory-rich situation to one that is data-rich, theory-poor.

In the “Afterthoughts” section, Sagan makes a case Neil deGrasse Tyson has passionately echoed four decades later:

[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war.

I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?

Alas, we’re making the transition to “automated” space exploration, but we haven’t made — nor do we seem to intend to make anytime soon — the transition away from automated aerospace killing. (Sagan would no doubt have been appalled by this infographic portrait of human priorities as well.)

Mars and the Mind of Man is a cultural treasure — though long out of print, you might be able to score a used copy with some digging around, or look for it at your local library.

* Arthur C. Clarke had co-written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.”


Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion

“Color itself is a degree of darkness.”

Color is an essential part of how we experience the world, both biologically and culturally. One of the earliest formal explorations of color theory came from an unlikely source — the German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1810 published Theory of Colors (public library; public domain), his treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colors. Though the work was dismissed by a large portion of the scientific community, it remained of intense interest to a cohort of prominent philosophers and physicists, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.

Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color… Color itself is a degree of darkness.

But perhaps his most fascinating theories explore the psychological impact of different colors on mood and emotion — ideas derived by the poet’s intuition, which are part entertaining accounts bordering on superstition, part prescient insights corroborated by hard science some two centuries later, and part purely delightful manifestations of the beauty of language.

Color wheel designed by Goethe in 1809


This is the color nearest the light. It appears on the slightest mitigation of light, whether by semi-transparent mediums or faint reflection from white surfaces. In prismatic experiments it extends itself alone and widely in the light space, and while the two poles remain separated from each other, before it mixes with blue to produce green it is to be seen in its utmost purity and beauty. How the chemical yellow develops itself in and upon the white, has been circumstantially described in its proper place.

In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.

State is agreeable and gladdening, and in its utmost power is serene and noble, it is, on the other hand, extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied, or in some degree tends to the minus side. Thus, the color of sulphur, which inclines to green, has a something unpleasant in it.

When a yellow color is communicated to dull and coarse surfaces, such as common cloth, felt, or the like, on which it does not appear with full energy, the disagreeable effect alluded to is apparent. By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the color of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion. To this impression the yellow hats of bankrupts and the yellow circles on the mantles of Jews, may have owed their origin.


As no color can be considered as stationary, so we can very easily augment yellow into reddish by condensing or darkening it. The color increases in energy, and appears in red-yellow more powerful and splendid.

All that we have said of yellow is applicable here, in a higher degree. The red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness, since it represents the hue of the intenser glow of fire.


As pure yellow passes very easily to red-yellow, so the deepening of this last to yellow-red is not to be arrested. The agreeable, cheerful sensation which red-yellow excites increases to an intolerably powerful impression in bright yellow-red.

The active side is here in its highest energy, and it is not to be wondered at that impetuous, robust, uneducated men, should be especially pleased with this color. Among savage nations the inclination for it has been universally remarkedy and when children, left to themselves, begin to use tints, they never spare vermilion and minium.

In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface, the color seems actually to penetrate the organ. It produces an extreme excitement, and still acts thus when somewhat darkened. A yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day.

The colors on the minus side are blue, red-blue, and blue-red. They produce a restless, susceptible, anxious impression.


As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.

Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

When blue partakes in some degree of the plus side, the effect is not disagreeable. Sea-green is rather a pleasing color.


We found yellow very soon tending to the intense state, and we observe the same progression in blue.

Blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb, rather than enliven.

As augmentation itself is not to be arrested, so we feel an inclination to follow the progress of the color, not, however, as in the case of the red-yellow, to see it still increase in the active sense, but to find a point to rest in.

In a very attenuated state, this color is known to us under the name of lilac; but even in this degree it has a something lively without gladness.


This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it may be safely assumed, that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbons, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner.

As the higher dignitaries of the church have appropriated this unquiet color to themselves, we may venture to say that it unceasingly aspires to the cardinal’s red through the restless degrees of a still impatient progression.


Whoever is acquainted with the prismatic origin of red will not think it paradoxical if we assert that this color partly actu, partly potentia, includes all the other colors.

We have remarked a constant progress or augmentation in yellow and blue, and seen what impressions were produced by the various states; hence it may naturally be inferred that now, in the junction of the deepened extremes a feeling of satisfaction must succeed ; and thus, in physical phenomena, this highest of all appearances of color arises from the junction of two contrasted extremes which have gradually prepared themselves for a union.

As a pigment, on the other hand, it presents itself to us already formed, and is most perfect as a hue in cochineal ; a substance which, however, by chemical action may be made to tend to the plus or the minus side, and may be considered to have attained the central point in the best carmine.

The effect of this color is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint; and thus the dignity of age and the amiableness of youth may adorn itself with degrees of the same hue.

History relates many instances of the jealousy of sovereigns with regard to the quality of red. Surrounding accompaniments of this color have always a grave and magnificent effect. The red glass exhibits a bright landscape in so dreadful a hue as to inspire sentiments of awe.


If yellow and blue, which we consider as the most fundamental and simple colors, are united as they first appear, in the first state of their action, the color which we call green is the result.

The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this color. If the two elementary colors are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple color. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence for rooms to live in constantly, the green color is most generally selected.

Though hardly a work of science, Theory of Colors stands as an absorbing account of the philosophy and artistic experience of color, bridging the intuitive and the visceral in a way that, more than two hundred years later, continues to intrigue.


Book Spine Poetry: Your Turn

A few months ago, I undertook a little experiment in book spine poetry, inspired by artist Nina Katchadourian and her Sorted Books project from a while back — and it seemed to strike a chord. Here are just a few of the book spine poems friends and readers have sent in since.

From Ruth Ann Harnisch:

I live in the future & here’s how it works:
Smart people
Simply imperfect
You are not so smart
I’d rather be in charge

The books:

From Kim Manley Ort:

A brief history of everything:
Shadow light
Ecological intelligence
As you think
Power vs. force

The books:

From Lonni Tanner:

Who do you love
My sister’s hand in mine
Family matters
Set this house in order
Salvage the bones

The books:

Catch up on previous book spine poems: The Spark of Love, The Future, Get Smarter, This Is New York, Music, A Working Theory of Love, and The Meaning of Life.

Ready to give it a try yourself? LibraryThing is running a competition, to be judged by Nina Katchadourian herself.


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated