Zane Selvans is an admitted Amatuer Earthling, and is happy to share his thoughts and explorations on what it means to be a member of the adolescent human species. He lives in California, is both a scientist and a cyclist and wrote this exceptional essay that in part discuses two things — 1) how he came to appreciate that the death of Carl Sagan and the corresponding dearth of new works by the deceased scientist ultimately means its up to us to move the conversation forward, and 2) how ‘joyful and persistent understanding’ are, in the words of Nietzsche, our, “highest and most proper metaphysical,” purpose. Enjoy.
Before I finished Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age in the Salt Lake City airport Monday, I found a book by Carl Sagan in the bookstore. “The Varieties of Scientific Experience”, based on his Gifford Lectures from 1985 (and published posthumously, in 2006 by Ann Druyan). I read half of it in the airport, and the other half last night. It went fast, because I’d heard it all before. The main piece of new information was that a decade and a half after the fact, Carl Sagan is truly dead to me. I’ve read most of his books, I’ve seen his television series Cosmos several times. I love his ideas; they’ve shaped me throughout my life, but I no longer hope to find anything new in them. So long as there were pieces of his mind that had been recorded, but that I hadn’t yet been exposed to, it was as if he wasn’t quite gone. He was still, from my point of view, a dynamic entity.
More than anything else, I think I wanted to hear from him what purpose he thought we ought to assign ourselves. The closest he ever got, in his published work anyway, was Pale Blue Dot, but even this book is still mostly background and introduction. It assumes at some level that you don’t know about Copernicus, Galileo, Percival Lowell or the Voyager spacecraft, and that you need to be convinced that choosing a purpose is both possible and appropriate. I’m just not interested in that conversation any more. I’ve been convinced for a long time. It seems like a meta-conversation to me at this point — talking about talking about what we should be doing. I’ve had this feeling with Joseph Campbell too. It’s as if despite the fact that at some level they’re both decrying the nihilistic, relativist, post-modern take on the world, they cannot bring themselves to state the purposes which they would like us to aspire to. Perhaps for fear of rejection or ridicule? Or because they know they might be wrong? Or because the business of convincing people of a value judgment or aesthetic choice is so different from what we usually do in science or even academe in general. It is much more like art, or politics.
There’s also I think a sense from Sagan that we need to get everyone on board and working together, and that whatever we decide to do, it, and the decision process, should be egalitarian. This would be preferable, certainly, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. Those goals which are attainable are the ones which can be reached by only a small subset of humanity working together. Lamentably, there will be times when subterfuge and propaganda are the tools of choice. It might even be the case that in the service of our goals, some kind of violence is the lesser of the available evil options. These are painful thoughts, but I think they’re true.
So I’ll risk it. Here’s what I think our purpose is: joyful and persistent understanding. This isn’t a polemic, it’s a value judgment. It’s an aesthetic opinion, and unlike facts, everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
These three values: joy, persistence, and understanding, feed on each other. The more persistently we are joyful, the more total joy there is. The more we understand the universe, the deeper our enjoyment and appreciation of it is. An endless and omniscient but miserable existence is nothing worth aspiring to. The greater our understanding of the universe, the greater our potential for persistence is. The longer we persist, the more we are able to understand. Like most value systems, this is a tautology. That’s okay!
In the service of these values, it is our duty to protect and foster life and intelligence where it exists, and to spread it as widely as possible throughout the Universe, for only those highly ordered systems are vehicles capable of understanding. Our sworn and everlasting enemy is entropy. So far as we can tell, it will one day win, but not yet.
Today, so far as we can tell for sure, humanity is the only vessel for deep intelligence, and the Earth is the only abode of life. Maybe it will sound strange, but I think we have too much understanding at the moment. I think understanding without joy — without compassion and wonder — is a threat to persistence. Love without Truth lies. Truth without Love kills. Destruction is easier than creation. If we do one day approach godliness, transcending our mortality and limited capacities for understanding and manipulation of the Universe, I think we should consider ourselves extraordinarily lucky. I don’t think either success or failure are assured, but it does seem that one is much more likely than the other.
Sophie writes: I wrote this in 2008 with my little brother after we had read “An Index of Possibilities,” a large softcover tome which is not related to Carl in any way other than it is a map of life from cosmos to quantum. I found Carl Sagan shortly afterwards, echoing the sentiments of our thoughts.
To end, I want to suggest that the old adage taken from John Donne’s Mediation XVII, ‘No man is an island’ could be modernised to express the idea that ‘Every man is a planet’, and that every man and woman has his or her own gravitation, orbit, weather system and sun. No man or woman exists as a section apart from the world. All is necessarily connected and responsive, interrelated and communicative. We exchange information to that which surrounds us, and that which we surround. To go further than that, it is not only true that men are planets, but according to me, Sophie Ward, I believe that ‘Every man is a universe’ and that in light of the parallels of man and universe that make up my theory, get ready for it: The multiverse is a man.
To read the whole post, please visit Sophie Ward’s website at Paper Castle Press.
I recently discovered that the back cover of the 2007 Penguin Classics edition of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs has a prominent blurb by Carl Sagan: “Might it really be possible—in fact and not fancy—to venture with John Carter to the Kingdom of Helium on the planet Mars?” Although the cover does not specify the source of the quote, it’s from the “Blues for a Red Planet” chapter from Cosmos; references to his being a fan of the John Carter books since first reading them as a kid appear scattered throughout Sagan’s writings, including an anecdote about obtaining a related vanity plate (due to a limit of 6 letters per plate, he had to settle for “PHOBOS” instead of his first choice, “BARSOOM”). And this hasn’t been the first time that Burroughsians have noticed Sagan; for instance, consider the Burroughs fansite ERBzine’s lengthy tribute to Sagan.
I’d be happy to see more Sagan blurbs on other science fiction books; he had a generally favorable view of science fiction in general (with some caveats about scientific errors and the promotion of pseudoscience) and had nice things to say about quite a few science fiction classics in his writings, for instance in the essay “Science Fiction—A Personal View” in Broca’s Brain, or the extended discussion in Pale Blue Dot (which I was quite surprised to see when first reading it) of a 1942 short story by Jack Williamson dealing with antimatter and asteroid colonization, “Collision Orbit” (which was incorporated into the fix-up novel Seetee Ship). (By the way, I’ve always wondered if the character Jane Carter in Williamson’s The Humanoids was a Burroughs reference, with the character’s teleportation abilities being a takeoff on Burroughs’s use of astral projection to get John Carter to Mars.)
This five-minute video in “defense of atheists” has been a hit on YouTube since its debut in mid-2006 (with more than 800,000 views and 80,000 comments, and praise from the likes of James Randi, Michael Shermer, and Penn & Teller), but has gotten extra attention from a mention in the article “God and Man on YouTube” in last week’s New York Times Magazine.
Much of the video (a “video response” to icecorescientist’s Pale Blue Dot video) features slides of famous people who many might not realize are atheists (similar to lists on websites like this one); and sure enough, Carl Sagan is featured:
The star of Contact also appears:
And at the end, this quote is featured:
I wake up reluctantly today, exhausted. It has been a busy few weeks and today will be no exception. Wednesday December 20th will be a day of deadlines, and developments, and manically checking the email, and posting comments, and dinners and more deadlines.
This last week my life has been consumed by Carl Sagan. Falling asleep posts are on my mind, and waking up it is images from the internet. Turtleneck and stars.
Over the past week we have received many excellent submissions that praise Sagan’s contributions–on the (inter)national and personal scale–as a hero, roll model, inspiration, great mind, and communicator.
It is no surprise then, that with Sagan on my mind, I find myself wondering as I grind the morning’s coffee, “Did Carl drink coffee? Does he like bananas?.”
Perhaps Carl was more of a tea man, and oatmeal was his favorite breakfast. Peanut butter and jelly? Did he like pizza? Surely no soda. Beer? Bourbon or Scotch? Mint chocolate chip?
The funny thing about Carl Sagan, and I say this after reading and moderating many testimonials about the man, is that even though he was a public figure, the nation’s face of science, many of the people reacting to the 10th anniversary of his death are reacting in a very personal way. We all feel like we knew the good doctor. So it is strange for me to be chest deep in memories about this man while knowing so little about who he was, and how he lived his day to day.
Perhaps this speaks to his greatest accomplishment. More than being a great scientist and mind, Carl Sagan was a man who had an uncanny ability to connect individuals to great ideas, and as we are seeing now, individuals to individuals. Through this relative understanding of the universe, Carl helped us find a place in which we belong.
Thank you Dr. Sagan, we want to be your friend.
The Planetary Society was not only started by Dr. Sagan, but it is also a great resource of information on him and the World’s largest Space-interest group.
Also, as it is the holiday season, why not make a donation to SETI in commemoration of Dr. Sagan in a loved one’s name? They are always desperate for funding, and it could make a nice gift to the science enthusiast in your circle.
Are you a Space enthusiast with lots of idle disk space you don’t use, and are hard up for cash to make a donation? Well here’s an alternative to a donation that’s just as good if not better: download the BOINC client program and give a portion of your disk to research sciences. There’s a few to choose from and SETI is one of them.
Take a moment and search the Internet for the phrase ‘Pale Blue Dot.’ The vast majority of the returns will feature a grainy image of light beams that highlight a tiny dot.
Invariably these images of sunlight and earth will be accompanied by a Sagan quote — perhaps the most quoted statement by Carl Sagan on the web.
Asterios sent along this presentation hosted on You’re the Man Now Dog. Not only does it feature the aforementioned image and the Sagan quote, but also a tinny piano and satellite bleep.
Click on the image for music and the whole Sagan quote.
This coming December 20th marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of Carl Sagan, and upon reflection the importance of the event is less a memorial to the life of the man himself but to the memorial of what he has come to represent, if only to a few. Sagan was a theorist, a scientist—indeed, an unqualified genius by any measure. But geniuses come in many varieties and have a strong tendency to lose perspective—to be unable to see the forest because the fucking trees are in the way. Sagan’s legacy—what his life represents—is the comforting fact that a man of his brilliance will inevitably ally himself for the causes of peace, knowledge, and earnest exploration.
Most of us are resigned to a life without fame or notable accomplishment, and if we are an exception, our glory is fleeting by comparison. Carl Sagan was one of the few—those who come only every couple of centuries—who look at the world and see something that no one else has ever seen before. These are the few who look at the world and actually see it as it is. While his contemporaries saw only atoms or stars or people, Sagan saw stars occupied by people who were comprised of atoms, and it was that balance that he felt across the cosmos that he endeavored to explain to the rest of the world. That, in essence is his legacy. That is the thing that he saw that we can never hope to see, but through the lens of his life and his work.
The distillation of his logic, as I interpret it, is that we cannot live without each other, we cannot thrive without the other, and that we are mutually dependent on each other, just as the proton is mutually dependent on the electron, and the sun mutually dependent on the planets. The lesson in our time is that there is no human without place and worth, and as a logical conclusion each must be preserved in order to preserve the other—and, most importantly, to preserve the human spirit of exploration and discovery.
Carl Sagan may well be said to have discovered the meaning of life—to live and to see others live on, in order to allow future generations to answer the questions we so longed to answer ourselves.