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Carl Sagan Day

The first message my computer calendar system presented to me this morning was that it’s Carl Sagan Day. Sagan was a scientist who popularised science, especially through his TV series “Cosmos”. Today is the 76th anniversary if his birth and it has been celebrated for the grand total of two years now, and mainly by science geeks. So yes, Sagan Day isn’t exactly the most famous day on the calendar for most people but he has near legendary status amongst people with an interest in science.

I can remember watching the Cosmos series myself, many years ago, and how it affected me because of its great balance of hard science and near poetic commentary by Sagan. He really did have a great way of making science accessible while emphasising the grandeur and mystery of the universe.

Sagan had some very perceptive an clever quotes and I would like to mention a few of them here, and offer my commentary on them, of course!

Perhaps this one captures his sense of wonder best: “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Yes, that one sums up the way all science enthusiasts really think. We find discoveries about the origin of the universe far more satisfying than petty gossip about the latest movie star, or the financial state of a company which makes soft drinks, or who won the latest game of rugby (well maybe that one does deserve some respect!) or most of the other nonsense the majority of people think is news. In a years time the origin of the universe will still be a source of wonder, but who will really care about the others?

Some Sagan quotes put human activities in a realistic perspective. For example: “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” Yes, as far as the universe is concerned the existence of humanity is irrelevant, contrary to the opinions of many religious people.

And there’s this: “Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” Again this is contrary to many religious views but as time goes by we seem to become less significant. First we found our star was just one in a vast galaxy, then that the galaxy was just one in a vast universe, now it looks like our entire universe might just be one in a vast (maybe infinite) multiverse.

But he recognised (as do all true skeptics and science devotees) that the truth was the only thing that really matters, not matter how much nicer fantasy is. This quote expresses that well: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” Judging by how many people deny evolution, global warming, and other inconvenient truths, many people prefer the fantasy.

As well as being a lover of science Sagan was a real skeptic (one of the reasons we do admire him so much). Here’s a few quotes which show that aspect well: “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” But he recognised that simple adherence to facts and well recognised processes wasn’t enough: “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

Like many of us Sagan was concerned about the ignorance of many people towards the things that actually matter. He said: “Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works” and “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Maybe he had seen the results of surveys showing extreme ignorance of the most basic scientific ideas. But he also encountered it himself: “I can find in my undergraduate classes, bright students who do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the Sun is a star.” But that might be because science education is so poor (especially in the US) that it’s almost worse than nothing: “I am often amazed at how much more capability and enthusiasm for science there is among elementary school youngsters than among college students.”

Sagan died 14 years ago and there has been some debate about whether there is anyone who could replace him today. There are a few scientists starting to achieve cult status around the world and many of them have a similar attitude encompassing both wonder and skepticism (Richard Dawkins would be an obvious example) but I don’t think any of them would really claim to be in Sagan’s league, especially because he was a populariser of science when that wasn’t considered a worthwhile activity by many of his colleagues. Also the seeming lack of resolve to produce science programs today makes another “Cosmos” seem unlikely.

That’s unfortunate, because as Sagan said: “When you make the finding yourself – even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light – you’ll never forget it.”

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