On this day in 1996 we lost Carl Sagan. Dr. Sagan was one of those rare scientists who could explain difficult scientific concepts to non-scientists in a compelling and understandable way without dumbing it down and without a trace of condescension. There haven’t been many others (Stephen Jay Gould and Rachel Carson are the only two who come to mind) but Sagan was in a class by himself. Perhaps it was his sense of self-promotion and marketing that turned his name into a brand the enabled him to reach and teach the masses. This earned him some backlash and derision from his fellow scientists but at least some of it was due to resentment over his fame and fortune. In the end, however, while Sagan was promoting himself, he was also successful in promoting an appreciation and and understanding of the scientific method and ethics that is now his legacy.
An astronomer and astrophysicist by trade, Sagan’s books, written over the course of his lifetime, covered the whole spectrum of human knowledge and achievement. In addition to astronomy, his books delved into biology, evolution, psychology, theology, philosophy, politics, and public policy. Never willing to absolutely declare himself an atheist, he nevertheless was the world’s most famous agnostic. He was always respectful of religion, but fervently believed in rational argument based on provable facts and argued that the worlds of science and religion should neither encroach on one another nor negate one another. He was, in the truest and noblest sense, a humanist.
His books and in his groundbreaking series Cosmos, were always based on not only his own research, but also the research of scientists throughout history. This was part of his lesson in how science works: hypotheses tested by observations over time, advancing and refining human knowledge and understanding. No matter how far he travelled across in his video presentations and essays, he always brought us back to the personal, the human element of the story. He argued for rationality and skepticism to displace fear and superstition. He remained unconvinced of any divine being controlling human history and humanity’s future (“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”) but found a beautiful and comforting harmony in natural laws that drive the universe.
The exploration of space is primarily the work of engineers and scientists. As a member of that group, Sagan understood that their work and their discoveries needed to be shared and have meaning to all of us and he used his prominence help us feel that we were also participating. When the first unmanned probes that would permanently leave our solar system to wander through space, he successfully argued that they should contain a greeting and information about the people who sent it. The odds of any extra-terrestrial intelligence discovering one of these plucky little spaceships hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of years in the future are too astronomical to calculate, but it was his way of capturing our imaginations and helping us to feel like we were participating in the adventure.
In 1990 when one of those spaceships, Voyager 1, was leaving the solar system, Sagan suggested to NASA that they turn the ship around for one last photograph of the earth. NASA supplied the photograph. Sagan provided the poetry, answering a question he had asked many years earlier, “Who speaks for earth?”
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