On Reflecting on the Wisdom of Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan died twelve years ago today.

Last year, I participated in Joel Schlosberg‘s second Carl Sagan blog-a-thon. The idea was simple — bloggers the world over would write a few words about Sagan and his importance on their life and the world we inhabit.

Last year, I wrote about my discovery of Sagan’s work, how Sagan helped me along my path toward atheism, how Sagan was “the Mr. Rogers of the Cosmic Neighborhood.”

I picked up a few weeks ago a book of Sagan’s I’d not heard of, The Varieties of Scientific Experience. It’s a collection of lectures he delivered in Scotland nearly twenty-five years ago. I find in reading them today it’s like rediscovering the Sagan I was inspired by in watching COSMOS or in reading books like Comet or The Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors.

I’m drawn to two passages, and let me quote them. From the final chapter, “The Search”:

It seems to me also clear that historians of a thousand years from now, if there are any, will look back on our time as being absolutely critical, a turning point, a branch point in human history. Because if we survive, then this time will be remembered as the time when we could have destroyed ourselves and came to our senses and did not. It will also be the time in which the planet was bound up. And it will also be remembered as the time when, slowly, tentatively, haltingly, we first sent our robot emissaries and them ourselves to neighboring worlds.

Then, from “Crimes Against Creation,” the preceding chapter:

I believe it is lucky for us that this is the time when pictures of the Earth from space are fairly routinely available. We look at them on the evening weather reports and hardly pause to think what an extraordinary item that is. Our planet, the Earth, home, where we come from, seen from space. And when you look at it from space, I think is is immediately clear that it is a fragile, tiny world exquisitely sensitive to the depredations of its inhabitants. It’s impossible, I think, not to look at that planet and think that what we are doing is foolish. We are spending a million million dollars every year, worldwide, on armaments. A million million dollars. A visitor from somewhere else — the legendary intelligent extraterrestrial — dipping down to the Earth and inquiring what we are about and finding such prodigies of human inventiveness and such enormous fractions of our wealth devoted not just to the means of war but to the means of massive global destruction — such a being would surely deduce that our prospects are not very good and perhaps go on to some other, more promising world.

When you look at the Earth from space, it is striking. There are no national boundaries visible. There have been put there, like the equator and the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, but humans. The planet is real. The life on it is real, and the political separations that have placed the planet in danger are of human manufacture. They have not been handed down from Mount Sinai. All the beings on this little world are mutually dependent. It’s like living in a lifeboat. We breathe the air that Russians have breathed, and Zambians and Tasmanians and people all over the planet. Whatever the causes that divide us, as I said before, is is clear that the Earth will be here a thousand or a million years from now. The question, the key question, the central question — in a certain sense the only questions — is, will we?

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