Science

What I learned from Carl Sagan.

Today marks the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. To recognize the occasion, there is a blogathon in the works. I learned about the blogathon from Phil’s blog, so that’s the first place I checked this morning. As usual, Phil does a beautiful job with the topic at hand, so please go and read what he has to say.

Demon-Haunted World was one of the first really skeptical books I ever read, and still the best. I was already familiar with most of the topics covered, but it was critical to my growth as a critical thinker due to what I learned about how to write a skeptical text for a wide audience. Sagan was a true master of taking an immense and complex universe and breaking it down into understandable bits that anyone could not only grasp, but appreciate on a previously unknown level.

I recommend that you mark the day by reading or rereading the books and articles that this wonderful person left behind. I hope that his legacy continues to inspire people to explore the wonders that exist just beyond our grasp.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

Related Articles

12 Comments

  1. Don't forget Sagan's new book, written from beyond the grave (OK, not really)….

    From the publisher:

    On the 10th anniversary of his death, brilliant astrophysisist and Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan's prescient exploration of the relationship between religion and science and his personal search for God

    Carl Sagan is considered one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. His remarkable ability to explain science in terms easily understandable to the layman in bestselling books such as Cosmos, The Dragons of Eden, and The Demon-Haunted World won him a Pulitzer Prize and placed him firmly next to Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sachs as one of the most important and enduring communicators of science. In December 2006 it will be the tenth anniversary of Sagan's death, and Ann Druyan, his widow and longtime collaborator, will mark the occasion by releasing Sagan's famous "Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology," The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.

    The chance to give the Gifford Lectures is an honor reserved for the most distinguished scientists and philosophers of our civilization. In 1985, on the grand occasion of the centennial of the lectureship, Carl Sagan was invited to give them. He took the opportunity to set down in detail his thoughts on the relationship between religion and science as well as to describe his own personal search to understand the nature of the sacred in the vastness of the cosmos.

    The Varieties of Scientific Experience, edited, updated and with an introduction by Ann Druyan, is a bit like eavesdropping on a delightfully intimate conversation with the late great astronomer and astrophysicist. In his charmingly down-to-earth voice, Sagan easily discusses his views on topics ranging from manic depression and the possibly chemical nature of transcendance to creationism and so-called intelligent design to the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets to the likelihood of nuclear annihilation of our own to a new concept of science as "informed worship." Exhibiting a breadth of intellect nothing short of astounding, he illuminates his explanations with examples from cosmology, physics, philosophy, literature, psychology, cultural anthropology, mythology, theology, and more. Sagan's humorous, wise, and at times stunningly prophetic observations on some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos have the invigorating effect of stimulating the intellect, exciting the imagination, and reawakening us to the grandeur of life in the cosmos.

  2. I picked up The Varieties of Scientific Experience at the Cambridgeside Galleria because I thought it would make a nice Christmas gift. Of course, I read it myself first and loved it. My only complaint is that it is too short. I kept finding places where Sagan raised a topic — say, the ability of chemicals to induce spiritual experiences — and I wanted more! It's easy enough to find stuff written on all these topics, of course, but who could deny the appeal of hearing them discussed in Carl Sagan's voice?

    We could perhaps contact the professional psychics and ask for a channeled audience with Dr. Sagan. After all, these people are professionals, so they should know their job: if anyone can connect us with our teacher's wandering shade, it must be Sylvia Browne.

    No, on further reflection, that would not be money well spent.

    Richard Feynman liked to declare, "What one fool can do, another can." It may be incredibly galling to hear a person of Feynman's intellectual power calling himself a "fool", but this is still an important message. Neither science nor critical thought is the property of a superbrain elite. Sagan did what he loved, and he did it very well, but his was an act which demands others to follow. One finds it hard to name a scientist today who could honestly be called "the next Carl Sagan". For that matter, didn't Carl himself ask, in The Demon-Haunted World, where the ten thousand modern Thomas Jeffersons are living? I suspect that searching for such a fellow — a man or woman who looks dashing in a turtleneck and speaks with the occasional plosive B — blinds us to an important development.

    If our generation had only one new Carl Sagan, we would have every reason to feel bitter disappointment. And perhaps the world has not yet produced that single, superlatively brilliant communicator. We live every day wishing for Mozart — but, aha! In the absence of genius, we mediocrities are learning how to shine. We may not have Mozart, but we are slowly learning that we live amongst a civilization of Salieris.

    Time magazine recently named "you" the person of the year. In a dazzling display of irony, a blogger named William Beutler predicted this two months earlier, even giving us a front cover for his predicted magazine. The Internet, it seems, is finally living up to its potential as a network not of machines, but of citizens.

    In the midst of a Thanksgiving-week blog war over at ScienceBlogs.com, I tossed out the following comment. Of course, nothing I say can stop bloggers from warring, and I'd be a fool to expect otherwise. That's part of the point.

    CITOKATE: criticism is the only known antidote to error.

    Forgive me if I am incapable of seeing this quarrel over attitudes and tactics as a "front" in a "two-front war", something comparable to invading Russia in wintertime while simultaneously driving tanks into France. Perhaps one is right to indulge the puerile fantasies of the reptile brain by applying the congratulatory word warfare to the quest for good science education; maybe this is the moral equivalent of war we need to tell ourselves we're fighting until our civilization needs war no longer.

    But this schism — to use a theological turn of phrase — between Dawkinsites and Millerians — let's make it sound really like dogmatism! — is not a war. It's keeping each other honest. We are in the business of being our brothers' keepers.

    When anybody claims that the existence of morality in humans, say, is evidence for Almighty Jove, PZ Myers is there to call them out. If Myers or Dawkins ever sounds callous or forgetful of the human frailties which lead our fellow humans to seek solace in belief, well, Brayton will lead a host of bloggers to point out the sin and let it stand in the historical record.

    "If men were angels," said James Madison, "no government would be necessary." We have learned at some cost that no single human should be trusted to rule (an Enlightenment discovery summarized perfectly by Douglas Adams, bless his memory). Instead of asking "Who should rule the state?", as they did in the ages of kings, we ask what combination of agencies can minimize the evil of those seeking power — what groupings of individuals can allow for reasonably efficient action while still preventing the rise of factions? Democratic government is an exercise in emergent properties: we seek to create a corpus more honest than its component cells can be.

    The same holds true for science. Frauds, hoaxes and ordinary human sloppiness are weeded out through perpetual cross-criticism. Drives of ego and vanity — "What will you do to win the Nobel Prize?", asks the admissions interviewer — are harnessed to benefit the scientific community and the species at large. The body has more wisdom and integrity than its component cells can display.

    If science behaves in this way, it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise about science education. Don't tell me that this is a war. It's error correction. We are witnessing the price of vitality. These are not battles among men; they are the growing pains of a community. Think about it: if we scientists and humanists and skeptics were in truly dire straits, if the creationist cannons were outside our walls and all were almost lost, could we even take the time to argue? Nobel laureates who might quarrel volubly at scientific conferences formed a legion of Roman solidarity when Edwards v. Aguillard reached the Supreme Court.

    Skepticism is a new thing! Thinkers have voiced ideas like ours all the way back to Democritus of Abdera and before, but how old is the notion of skepticism as a movement, with its own conferences, heroes and history? It is an interesting age when defenders of science, even those who are professional scientists themselves, are more famous for their educational work than any science they have done! (We know Einstein as a physicist but Sagan as a popularizer, with Dawkins and Gould perhaps somewhere in the middle.) Because we haven't done this for very long, we are still figuring out how. We are learning from mistakes like the astronomers' response to Velikovsky, and thanks to the Internet, we are slowly teaching ourselves the art of "flexible response", replying to threats without making pseudoscience seem more credible by dignifying it with excessive attention.

    We are learning! This process takes integrity and a willingness to swallow bitter medicine, neither of which are ever in copious supply, but nor are they completely absent. The Enlightenment is not a nation of clones. We're all going to take our lumps ere we shuffle off this mortal coil, but at least we can take them like members of a civilization.

    If scientists were angels, we would have no need for peer review, and if bloggers were angels, we would have no need for comments.

    If we were angels, we would have no need for each other.

    Who will be "the next Carl Sagan"? Perhaps our media-driven culture needs a face for science, every now and then, but we have to realize that a single protagonist is not the whole story. Who follows in Sagan's footsteps today? Why, it's Rebecca, Evelyn and the rest of the Skepchicks. It's Phil Plait and PZ Myers. It is all the citizens of our age who struggle to inform themselves, sharing what wisdom they can find with all the artistry they can muster. We do all we can, and then we do it again.

    Carl, our teacher whom we mourn and honor today, once asked us all, "Who speaks for Earth?" His answer, we speak for Earth, stands as both a prophecy of our modern times and the path to realizing our future.

  3. Blake,

    Your writing is profoundly eloquent! I'm going to go ahead and nominate you as one of the next "Carl Sagans" of the world. And before you get all humble on us, I bet there are others here who would second the nomination.

  4. Blake Stacey:

    Well said! Great post for the Blogathon. A condensed version would make a great 'letter to the editor,' for the Globe or any other newspaper, as a way of pointing out how they dropped the ball on the ten-year mark of Carl Sagan's death.

  5. I should add that I've also updated my own blog as part of the blogathon. I don't think I've got as deft a touch as Blake Stacey, but I did what I could to contribute to this web tribute honoring one of the most important Skepdudes ever.

  6. Hey Blake,

    Where in good-ol' Somerville do you live? I spent 6 years there during grad school. We lived in the neighborhood of Davis Square. A whole house of physics grad students. More fun than it probably sounds, I know. Wicked awesome parties, though. I believe there are videotapes from those days that ensure I could never be elected to public office.

    I was quite serious about the quality of your prose. I wish I had your gift with words. Fortunately, my wife is an excellent editor of my writing. Anything I have to write for public consumption goes through her high quality filter. I don't know how much Carl used Ann as an editor, but she clearly has the gift as well. They must have had some awesome dinner time conversations!

  7. We're about midway between Lechmere and Union Square (excuse me, "Squ-ay-ah"). At the moment, we've got about three thousand square feet we're trying to turn into something less like a pile of construction materials and more like a home. Expect it to be done sometime mid-January. . . .

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close