Friday, December 22, 2006

After Ten Years, A Tribute to Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 20, marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of astronomer/exobiologist, science populizer, skeptic, author, and humanist Carl Sagan, at a mere 62 years of age. For many of us who were inspired by Carl, this date marks a year in which we miss him more than ever. He was a scientist with the soul of a poet, a wise balancer of the essential traits of skepticism and wonder, and an advocate for the planet and life on it--including, and especially, humans. He was voted 99th in the Discovery Channel’s presentation of the 100 Greatest Americans--a position I believe is a profound underestimation (while Carl was very humble, and probably wouldn’t have even liked the idea of such ranking, he would be a lot higher on my list). So, around this time, I thought I’d make my contribution to the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-A-Thon and write on some of the reasons I miss the great Carl, and some of the ways I believe his legacy and memory matter so much now.

Carl Sagan was, maybe above all, a humanist. Science was not, to him, something that was cold, sterile, and soulless (which it seems to be for many people, some of whom, sadly, are scientists). In the most eloquent expressions, he made the point that science is something that is profoundly human, something that should engender a sense of wonder about life, about the world, about the universe, about everything.

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” (Pale Blue Dot)
“To penetrate into the heart of the thing—even a little thing, a blade of grass, as Walt Whitman said—is to experience a kind of exhilaration that, it may be, only human beings of all the beings on this planet can feel. We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.” (“Can We Know the Universe?”)

Carl Sagan helped an entire generation to learn to think thoughts, when they look up at the stars, that they might never have considered to think. He said things like:

“We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands. The loom of time and space works the most astonishing transformations of matter.” (Cosmos)

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
He pointed toward the development of a new religion (one, I believe, which is yet to emerge, but will), not a religion of blind faith and superstition, but a religion of natural wonder inspired by science--a religion with earth as its cathedral, the cosmos as its hymnal, humanity as its congregation, and every awe-inspiring and profound truth of the universe as its sermon.

Said he,

"In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.'" (Pale Blue Dot)
"A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions."
“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” (Pale Blue Dot)
He wasn’t, however, belligerent towards religion in the same way that some among the modern “brights” movement are--disdaining arguments from authority, he pointed people towards the joy of discovery of truth for themselves, and he expressed respect and admiration for such spiritual leaders as the 14th Dalai Llama, Tenzin Gyatso (who said that, if science were ever to disprove a tenet of Buddhism, “then Buddhism would have to change.”) In fact, Carl often made the distinction between religion and spirituality, noting that some skeptics might not make the distinction enough--“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” A lack of faith in supernatural entities, for him, was to be more than made up for with the faith that, as he said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

To many people, the name Carl Sagan first brings to mind his reputation as a skeptic. But for Carl, skepticism wasn’t a crotchety, habitual nay-saying, but simply the need for an imaginative and wondering mind to utilize investigation and empirical scrutiny--it was merely the position of his well-known statement that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He knew that skeptics have to balance skeptical scrutiny with great openness to new ideas:

“If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.” (“The Burden of Skepticism”)
That balance between openness and critical examination is something that current skeptics, I think, need to remember.

Thinking about skepticism, it’s ironic that a certain movement that strives at the behest of certain corporate interests to deny the effects of those interests on our climate and environment have adopted a reputation as environmental/global warming “skeptics”--considering that one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated skeptics was a passionate environmental advocate.

"Those who are skeptical about carbon dioxide greenhouse warning might profitably note the massive greenhouse effect on Venus. No one proposes that Venus's greenhouse effect derives from imprudent Venusians who burned too much coal, drove fuel-inefficient autos, and cut down their forests. My point is different. The climatological history of our planetary neighbor, an otherwise Earthlike planet on which the surface became hot enough to melt tin or lead, is worth considering — especially by those who say that the increasing greenhouse effect on Earth will be self-correcting, that we don't really have to worry about it, or (you can see this in the publications of some groups that call themselves conservative) that the greenhouse effect is a 'hoax'". (Pale Blue Dot)
Considering the recent efforts of certain organizations to make the case that short-term economic development is more important than serious environmental problems (see the Competitive Enterprise Institute's especially ridiculous adds countering An Inconvenient Truth) it seems opportune that we should consider Carl's simple, powerful appeal: "Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something."

Carl was, of course, known for his determined stance of questioning authority of any form and in any sphere--and encouraging the same in everyone. “Arguments from authority,” he said, “simply do not count; too many authorities have been mistaken too often.” This applied particularly, he said, to citizenship, American or otherwise. As he stated compellingly in Demon-Haunted World,

"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." (Demon-Haunted World, "Real Patriots Ask Questions")

It is a challenge that is both timeless and, in all truth, especially timely.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important roles that Carl Sagan took on was that of a sober voice of warning, particularly on the need for people to be educated about science and the dangers that are inherent in our modern utilization of it. “Our species,” he opined, “needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.
More explicitly, he pointed out:

"We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster." (Demon-Haunted World)
Drawing on his perspective as an astronomer, one with a sense of the delicate position that human life inhabits on this wondrous and fragile planet that we call home, he penned a poetic appeal to end one of his books:

"Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and, I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." (Pale Blue Dot)
Carl Sagan was a beautiful soul, of the kind that we sorely need more in our day. Since his passing, I don’t believe any public figure has stood up to even approximately fill his shoes. Hopefully, though, many of us smaller, private individuals that have been inspired by him are doing our best to carry on his profoundly, compassionately, and daringly humanistic legacy.


More Quotes From Carl Sagan:

"The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure of this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits." (Cosmos)
"Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home." (Pale Blue Dot)

"The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides." (Billions and Billions)

"For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers."

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true."

"In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."

"There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That's perfectly all right; they're the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny."

"There is a place with four suns in the sky — red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth — and made of diamond....The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming part of it."


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