Compress 20 Hours into 5 Minutes: What I Learned from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World

One of my passions in life is reading and learning.  And recently I was thinking about all of the different books that I have read.  I picked up a few books in my library and tried to remember what exactly I had learned from them.  And you know what?  I could honestly not remember!  And that bothered me.

I know I am a busy person.  And I know every single person reading this has time constraints.  Sometimes our busyness prevents us from taking time to read and learn.  Even though “sharpening the saw” is extremely important (and one of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits), we just do not have the time in our schedules.  So what is the solution?

How You Can Compress 20 Hours into 5 Minutes

Well, one solution is to have someone summarize at least one principle from a book and then have that principle published in a format that is digestible to you.  This blog post and the video below is my attempt to help solve this problem for a group of people.

Many years ago, I read Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World.  The book aims to explain how science can be used to provide clarity to our thinking.  The best chapter, by far, is the chapter titled The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.  I learned a great deal from the book, but I thought I would summarize just one principle from that chapter that nearly anyone could apply from the book.  I have used the principle countless times in the past 20 years.  The video below explains what I learned.  Check it out now!  (and please leave a comment if you enjoyed the video)

As a reference, here is the story that I explained in the video (for reference, the story will not make much sense unless you watch the video):

My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist in Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers:

So-and-so is a great general, he was told.

What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.

I guess it’s a general who’s one many consecutive battles.

How many?

After some back-and-forth they settled on five.

What fraction of American generals are great?

After some more back-and-forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 –which is about 3 percent.  You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles – purely by chance.  Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles . . . ?


I really hope you let me know if you enjoy this type of content.  I will do more if I receive enough great feedback.  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

(Some day I will explain how an injury forced me to read at least 2 to 3 hours every single day for multiple years.  But that day is not today.  Sorry!)