A couple of months ago I was browsing through Half Price Books in Lexington, Ky and came across an almost complete library of Carl Sagan’s writing in hardcover. I had read several of his books in high school but had long since lost the copies that I had owned, so I decided to buy the store clean. Within a couple of weeks I noticed that the Science Channel was sporadically re-broadcasting the old Cosmos television show and had my TIVO start trolling for it. But I didn’t realize until this morning that today would have been his 75th birthday if he were still alive.
Carl Sagan remains to this day perhaps the greatest popularizer of science in my lifetime. Since his death there are others who have attempted to fill his shoes- Neil Degrasse Tyson comes immediately to mind, along with Bill Nye, and even the Mythbusters, although personally I think Timothy Ferris comes closest to his style and range of subject material- but no one has really come close. In addition to explaining science he was widely known for his views on history, politics, religion, superstition, skepticism, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the human condition. His was a popular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (of all places) and even debated William F. Buckley after the original showing of Nick Mayer’s movie about nuclear war, THE DAY AFTER. (Famously saying that the nuclear arms race was like two men standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches and the other with five.)
His books included:
Dragons of Eden- an exploration of the evolution of human intelligence that explained the triune brain architecture, dividing the brain into R-Complex, Limbic, and Cortical levels and explaining how each controlled different sets of behaviors and expanded on the lower levels.
The Demon Haunted World- an examination of the evidence for the paranormal, including everything from UFOs to ghosts, and a plea for using the same tools of logic and reason to evaluate all claims whether they seem natural or supernatural.
Broca’s Brain- about his love affair with science. A book that opens with a rather macabre anecdote about his trip to the Musee de L’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris where, while exploring a room filled with jars containing human heads, he chanced upon the preserved brain of Paul Broca- the foremost expert on the anatomy of the brain in the 19th century.
But perhaps Sagan’s crowning achievement was the television series Cosmos. Produced for PBS in 1980 and capitalizing on the popularity of STAR WARS, Cosmos put Sagan on the bridge of an imaginary spaceship by which he could explore the wonders of the universe. But it was no dreary travelogue of roadside attractions throughout the galaxy. Sagan used it as a platform for everything he found interesting, from history to philosophy. In the first episode he recounted the story of Eratosthenes calculating the circumference of the earth over two hundred years before the birth of Christ by measuring the shadows of two sticks, one in Alexandria and the other in Syene; conducted a tour of the universe through the solar system, galaxy, neighboring galaxy M31, and the local group; discussed pulsars and light years; visited a fictional inhabited planet in the Orion Nebula; flew down the Valles Marinaris on Mars; toured the ancient library at Alexandria during its height; and condensed the history of the universe down into the space of one year.
And that was the first episode.
The second episode told the story of life on Earth, explaining evolution through the example of Heike Crabs, which seem to have the faces of Samurai on their shells, and touched on biochemistry and biology. Episode five told the story of Mars, including both Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Episode nine explained atomic physics with an apple pie and went on to talk about wormholes in space and remind us that we are “made of starstuff”.
And that’s one of the things that set the series apart from most science documentaries. If you are used to the standard History or Discovery channel docs then you are in for an awakening. This is not an hour of your life spent watching two teams of scientists using PET scanners to unlock the mystery of whether or not early Etruscan wine mugs were designed to be right or left handed. This is a 13 hour exploration of the universe as we understand it and man’s place in it as we might conceive it to be. And it’s written with poetry, perspective, and passion. Under Sagan’s probing eye we see even the most mundane things in a new light. He called libraries “communal repositories of memory”. And on the subject of books he said:
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree, with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you are inside the mind of another person. Maybe somebody dead for thousands of years, across the millennia, an author speaking clearly and silently inside your head, only to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions. Binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Cosmos episode 11, The Persistence of Memory
And in the last episode he contemplated the final destiny of our species. In the late seventies the great threat of annihilation was a full-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. But even here, Sagan’s thoughtfulness went beyond that possibility to examine the underlying danger.
I saw east Africa and thought a few million years ago we humans took our first steps there. Our brains grew and changed. The old parts began to be guided by the new parts. And this made us human, with compassion and foresight and reason. But instead we listened to that reptilian voice within us counseling fear, territoriality, aggression. We accepted the products of science but we rejected its methods.
Cosmos- Who Speaks for Earth?
It’s hard to put it more succinctly and beautifully. Today we might not fear an attack from the former Soviet Union, but the forces of ignorance and superstition are even more active now than they were then. Trying to destroy our society by turning their backs on the science that allowed it to become great, turning the technology that science gave us against it and us.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Sagan.
Cosmos is available from hulu.com for free and on Netflix streaming if you are a member. Sagan’s books are in your local library and available from Amazon.