A Candle Goes Out.

Carl Sagan, Astronomer, Author, Skeptic and Teacher died December 20th, 1996 of pneumonia. He was 62 years old. In his life Carl Sagan has published research on the atmosphere of Venus, the dust storms of Mars, nuclear winter and extraterrestrial intelligence. He has also written a dozen popular books and countless articles on science which have been read by millions.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Carl Sagan speak in 1994 at the State University of New York at Albany. This was just before the publication of Pale Blue Dot, and Dr. Sagan’s talk included a short reading from that book. The passage was about the only voyager photograph of Earth. In this photograph, taken at Sagan’s insistence, the earth was a single pixel—a pale blue dot.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Carl Sagan saw the big picture.

More importantly, Carl Sagan was passionate about bringing the big picture to others. He was above all else a teacher, and I think an extraordinary one. After his talk, he sat down and took questions from the audience for nearly an hour. People lined up at the microphone to ask him about life on other planets, UFOs, the nature of science, and his views on religion. I sat there in awe.

Carl Sagan looked perfectly at ease, in his natural environment, while answering those questions. And what questions they were! Many of them would have left me, and I suspect most skeptics, exasperated. Just after an insightful question about the future of planetary exploration, would be a question about the government cover up of UFOs. After one concerned questioner asked what she can do about the environment, another asked about the growing synergy of science and religion. If one questioner wanted to know if there was life on mars, another wanted to know why scientists were so close minded.

In The Demon Haunted World, his last book, Carl Sagan said there is no such thing as a dumb question. He really believed this. Never did he show a lack of patience. Never once did he answer in a way that would make the questioner feel silly. He used each question to teach something. He might say that he didn’t know the answer, “but, let me tell you a related story” and proceed to use the question as a jumping point for something better. The questioner never seemed unsatisfied.

My favorite story that night started with “When I was talking with the Dali Lama, I asked the same question I ask all great religious leaders.” He then discussed the nature of religious beliefs that might conflict with science, and the nature of those that do not. (This story is in The Demon Haunted World.) When I’m 62, I only hope I could have have lived the kind of life were I could, with a strait face, begin a story “When I was talking with the Dali Lama….”

We skeptics lost a friend when Carl Sagan died. But more, we lost a teacher.

-Mike Sofka

This article is taken from The Why-Files 3(1). A shorter version was published in the March/April, 1997 Skeptical Inquirer.