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Carl Sagan remembered

By George A. Ricker

People who know me well enough to have a valid opinion will tell you that I don’t do hero worship. I have no use for the cult of celebrity that infects our culture. I have written one fan letter in my life. Count ‘em. One.

But on December 20, 2006, we observed the 10th anniversary of the death of Dr. Carl Sagan, and I couldn’t let that date go by without acknowledging what he meant to me and my life. It may seem strange to say that about someone I never met, never really knew at all on a personal level. But there it is. Consider this fan letter number two.

He was only 62 years old when he died of pneumonia at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. He had been battling a bone marrow disease, myelodysplasia, a form of anemia also known as preleukemia syndrome, for some time.

And though his life truly was, in the words of a Neil Diamond song, “…done too soon,” it also was a life filled with accomplishment. He was a noted astronomer and planetary scientist, professor of astronomy at Cornell University, author of hundreds of scientific papers and of numerous best-selling books on science, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, The Dragons of Eden. He was heavily involved in space exploration and consulted on a number of projects with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was an experimenter on several planetary probes. He was the creator and host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning PBS television series, Cosmos, and author of the companion volume, which was, at the time of his death, the best selling science book in the world. He was the recipient of honorary degrees, awards and accolades too numerous to mention in this brief essay. He had many other interests, many other accomplishments. He served in a variety of capacities in numerous organizations.

For most of his adult life, Sagan was engaged in promoting science and scientific literacy. He thought it essential that all human beings have an understanding of, at least, the basics of science and scientific inquiry. He thought it was especially critical for the citizens of a highly sophisticated, technologically advanced society to have that understanding. And he thought it extremely dangerous if they did not.

Speaking before the annual convention of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) in Seattle, Washington, in 1994, Sagan stated, “We have a civilization based on science and technology, and we have cleverly arranged things so that almost nobody understands science and technology. That is as clear a prescription for disaster as you can imagine. It’s a combustible mixture of ignorance and power. And while we might get away with it for a while, that mixture, sooner or later, is going to blow up. The powers of modern technology are so enormous that it is insufficient to say, well those in charge of those powers, I am sure, are doing a good job. This is a democracy, and for us to make sure that the powers of science and technology are used properly and prudently, we ourselves must understand science and technology.”

Like many Americans, I first learned of Sagan when Cosmos began airing on PBS. I was captivated not only by the story being told but also by the exuberance of the man telling it. His love of science was infectious. It sent me off to the libraries and book stores, determined to correct some gaping holes in my own knowledge.

I thought then, and think today, that Cosmos was the finest program ever aired on television. Period. Ken Burns’ television history of the Civil War, also on PBS, may be a close second, but Cosmos was the best, hands down. When the series was released on DVD, I ordered it as soon as I was able. I have probably watched it half a dozen times.

Since then, I have read most of Sagan’s books and read numerous articles by him. I recommend them to you without hesitation. He was an engaging writer and a gifted explainer. That’s not to say he was infallible. Who among us is? But time spent with such a mind is rarely wasted. Of the books he wrote, my personal favorite is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. A primer on science and critical thinking, it was one of the last books he wrote, published the year he died, and may have been his best.

Interestingly, the phrase “bill-yuns and bill-yuns” wasn’t coined by the astronomer—though the words are often associated with him. The late Johnny Carson, who was an amateur astronomer in his own right and frequently had Sagan on as a guest on the Tonight Show, used to do a spoof of the scientist, and it was Carson who came up with the phrase and the exaggerated pronunciation. Sagan did use the phrase in the title of one of his last books, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, where he told the story of its origin. It was published about six months after his death.

For me, as for many others, Sagan didn’t just rekindle a long dormant interest in science. He reminded me of the integration of all knowledge and the need to understand who we are and how we came to this time and place in the life of the cosmos. Sagan didn’t worship science, but he understood its value and saw clearly the dangers of scientific illiteracy in an age like ours.

The last chapter of The Demon-Haunted World, “Real Patriots ask questions,” ends with these words, “Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen—or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.”

I didn’t idolize Carl Sagan, and I certainly don’t worship his memory. What I do feel is a profound sense of gratitude for his tireless advocacy of science and reason and his patience in sharing his love of both with the rest of us. So this is my belated “thank you” for all of that.

The world is a poorer place without him in it, but it is far richer for the legacy he left behind.

* Those who would like to learn more about Dr. Carl Sagan should go to the Carl Sagan Portal at http://www.carlsagan.com/. (See the “Links” page.) Be sure to read the essay “Where Would We Be With Carl” by his widow, Ann Druyan, while you’re there.
© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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