Joel Achenbach has blog-a-thon post in his Washington Post blog today. Check it out, it also links to a post he did on Sagan earlier this year. Here’s what he posted today – his Style Section excerpt from December ’96.
Carl Sagan warmed the universe.
His cosmos was not cold and dark and impenetrable. He believed the universe was surely filled with life, intelligent life, innumerable civilizations unseen. In his younger, dreamier days, he thought advanced extraterrestrials might know how to cruise the galaxies in ramjets — spaceships with massive openings that scoop up hydrogen atoms from interstellar dust clouds and use them for fuel. In Sagan’s crowded cosmos, even empty space wasn’t empty.
He told The Washington Post earlier this year: “Organic matter, the stuff of life, is absolutely everywhere. Comets are made one-quarter of organic matter. Many worlds in the outer solar system are coated with dark organic matter. On Titan, organic matter is falling from the skies like manna from Heaven. The cold diffuse interstellar gas is loaded with organic matter. There doesn’t seem to be an impediment about the stuff of life.”
The world needed Sagan, who died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 62. We have needed Sagan ever since Copernicus removed us from the center of the universe. It is a perplexing fact of human life that we live on a rock that orbits an ordinary star on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy in a universe that is indescribably large. Sagan knew how to describe it, to convey our humble position without demeaning us. With Sagan we felt in the right place.
Sagan said, “Everybody starts out as a scientist.” Every child has the scientist’s sense of wonder and awe. Too often we beat it out of the kid. “The job of a science popularizer,” Sagan said, “is to penetrate through the teachings that tell people they’re too stupid to understand science.”
From the New York Times obituary, by William Dicke, first published on December 21st, 1996:
A persistent theme in his work was one practically guaranteed to capture public interest: the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe. He became an expert on the subject at a time when it was considered highly speculative, and prodded other scientists to consider it seriously. Civilized life must be common in the universe, he said, because stars are so abundant and the Sun is a fairly typical star.
Dr. Sagan (pronounced SAY-gun) was probably best known as the host of ”Cosmos,” a 13-part series on public television in 1980 that explored everything from the world of the atom to the vastness of the universe, and showed him looking awestruck as he contemplated the heavens. With an audience of 400 million people in 60 countries, it was considered the most widely viewed short-term public television series in history until it was eclipsed in 1990 by a series on the Civil War.
He received critical acclaim as well as substantial financial awards for the series, which made him an international celebrity. The book he wrote to accompany it, also called ”Cosmos,” was on the best-seller list for more than a year, and a company he formed, Carl Sagan Productions, promoted such things as ”The Music of the Cosmos” with RCA Records.
Dr. Sagan was also familiar to television viewers from 26 appearances in the 1970′s and 80′s on ”The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, who was known to don a black wig and perform a Sagan impersonation. He and other comics delighted in parodying Dr. Sagan’s references to ”billions and billions” of stars in the universe.
In an interview in 1977, Dr. Sagan said he turned down several hundred requests to give lectures every year but always tried to accept invitations to appear on ”The Tonight Show.”
”The show has an audience of 10 million people,” he said. ”That’s an awful lot of people, and those aren’t people who subscribe to Scientific American.”
Defending his activities in popularizing science, Dr. Sagan said in another interview: ”There are at least two reasons why scientists have an obligation to explain what science is all about. One is naked self-interest. Much of the funding for science comes from the public, and the public has a right to know how their money is being spent. If we scientists increase the public excitement about science, there is a good chance of having more public supporters. The other is that it’s tremendously exciting to communicate your own excitement to others.”
While his leap from the scientific ivory tower into the television studio may have irritated some of his colleagues, there can be no doubt that Dr. Sagan was a serious and productive scientist.
Fortunately, two interviews from the last two years of Sagan’s life are available to watch on Video.Google.
Or, if you prefer, you can check out the audio from these interviews on the Sounds of Sagan, on the sidebar.
In annual tradition, the Editors at Scientific American publish an article at the end of each year summarizing that year’s scientific developments.
‘The Year in Science’ published on December 20, 1997 starts off with the death of Carl Sagan but quickly moves to focus on his impact on science.
The year 1997 began on a somber note, just days after the death of astronomer Carl Sagan. In many ways, though, the year’s events went on to celebrate Sagan’s life. There were steady advancements in a variety of disciplines. But perhaps the most stellar happenings of the year took place in Sagan’s own specialties, namely astronomy, cosmology and space science.
As if in tribute to Sagan, Comet Hale-Bopp blazed across the early summer skies, its fiery tail observed by the most sophisticated observatories and millions of amateurs–armed with telescopes, binoculars or the naked eye. 1997 also marked the 40th anniversary of the Space Age, which began officially when a startled world awakened to beeping signals from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik I on October 4, 1957. In the years that followed, Sagan was a pivotal in the conception and planning of unmanned space probes, many of which are still returning important data.
Two spacecraft inspired by Sagan, Voyager I and Voyager II, which were launched August 20 and September 5, 1977, arrived at halfway points in their 40 year missions. Both reached the very fringes of the solar system in 1997, and headed into interstellar space. In their first decade, these vessels returned important images and data from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Since 1989, both have patroled the outer solar system. And in February 1998, Voyager 1 will pass the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, making it the most distant human-made object in the universe.
All of these spacecraft are equipped should they chance upon intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. Pioneer 10 carries Sagan’s famous plaque, which bears human greetings. And both Voyagers contain a gold record describing the location of Earth and human civilization. (Perhaps DVD compact discs, which only came to market last year, would now be more appropriate.)
To read more about Sagan’s impact on sciene in ’97, check out the Scientific American article.
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.