On Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan died eleven years ago today.

The world’s been a quieter place without him.

When I was young, I watched COSMOS with my father. I avidly read Sagan’s books, from Broca’s Brain to The Cosmic Connection — and let me tell you, The Cosmic Connection was a fucking bitch to find. I looked forward to the monthly science articles written by Sagan that Parade would run. Carl Sagan was like the Mr. Rogers of science and space exploration. Mr. Rogers welcomed us to his neighborhood, while Carl Sagan welcomed us to the cosmic neighborhood.

I remember when I read Contact the first time. I didn’t like it.

I remember when I bought Comet. I don’t know how many people have read Comet; it seems to be one of Sagan’s lesser-regarded works. I thought Comet was fantastic.

My Star Trek novella, Ring Around the Sky was inspired by a painting in COSMOS. There’s an idea that Sagan writes about in Comet that I’ve been trying to use in a science-fiction story for years — I just haven’t found the right venue.

In many ways Sagan helped me along my path to atheism. COSMOS taught me a lot about history — how could I forget the story of Tycho Brahe? or the way the Aristarchus measured the size of the Earth? — and it taught me a lot about the way the universe was ordered. I was young, and I was impressionable, and Sagan’s message that there’s a rational reason for the universe and the way it is fell on receptive ears. And Sagan’s message was that there were wonders and mysteries in the universe, but none of them required gods to explain. Science held the answers.

I reread Contact when the film came out. I took my sister to see it. The film — well, I loved it. In broad strokes it was the book, but it stripped down so much. And it got to the root of the story. It was nothing short of amazing.

Were Sagan alive today he would be cautioning us, alongside Al Gore, about the dangers of global warming. I’ve no doubt of that — Sagan wrote about environmental issues on occasion, he formulated the theory of Nuclear Winter, and Pale Blue Dot has the message, at its core, that this Earth is what we have, and we’d best not mess it up. I think — no, I know — that we could use Sagan’s calm, friendly demeanor on the problem of global warming.

Eleven years ago today Sagan died. It seems like an odd thing to commemorate. It’s not, really — this is part of the Second Annual Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon. But even so, we can all use the reminder that Sagan’s message about science, reason, and humanity’s place in the cosmos, and Sagan’s work to expand the limits of human knowledge were necessary then and even more necessary today. At times it feels that, despite the vast quantities of information at our fingertips and the shrinking of the world, that humanity is sliding backward, that superstition and xenophobia and fear are taking root and spreading. Sagan, were he here today, would be a voice, and a loud one, decrying that trend in human development.

Carl Sagan — the Mr. Rogers of the Cosmic Neighborhood. Eleven years on, he’s still missed.

One thought on “On Carl Sagan

  1. I picked up The Demon-Haunted World on a lark last year and was just astounded at how prophetic Sagan was when he discussed superstition and unfounded belief taking the place of reason in government.

    When Carl died 11 years ago, no one took his place as science’s national cheerleader. Sure, Al Gore took up the global warming issue but no one really stood up (on a national level) for things like the Hubble or Voyager programs.

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