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Carl Sagan "blog-a-thon"

Joel Schlosberg is organizing a special memorial to commemorate Carl Sagan’s life and accomplishments on the tenth anniversary of his death. Sagan’s son Nick wrote:

I hope you'll join in and take some time on that day to share your thoughts, memories, opinions and feelings about my dad. And if you could help spread the word, it would mean a lot to me.

Bearing in mind that my comments may be very similar to innumerable others, I would like to reflect on the legacy of Carl Sagan.

For a quick overview of his life, the Wikipedia page on Carl Sagan is a great starting point. It covers everything from Stanford to SETI to the Planetary Society. For more detail one need simply read his numerous essays and books, or watch his delightful PBS series Cosmos. Cosmos is what cemented Sagan’s reputation as a popularizer of science for lay people, a skill at which he had no peers. The series is filled with the joys of speculating, of investigating, of learning and of sharing knowledge that are perhaps humanity’s most precious qualities. The rapture Dr Sagan expressed over the Library at Alexandria was a contagion to which I eagerly succumbed, and which cemented my lifelong affection for libraries. Although I did not choose to earn my living in a scientific field, Sagan helped to inspire in me a broad curiosity and a respect for rationality that has served me well. Sagan wrote rhapsodically in the preface to The Demon-Haunted World about the benefits of a liberal education:

At the University of Chicago I was also lucky enough to go through a general education program devised by Robert M. Hutchins, where science was presented as an integral part of the gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge. It was considered unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski, and Freud—among many others.

Even Sagan’s forays into speculative fiction were grounded in this love of continual learning. His novel Contact, the source for the celebrated movie starring Jodie Foster, was both enjoyable and thought-provoking. The film’s opening three-minute sequence is about the most arresting visual experience I’ve ever had, for which I must ultimately credit Sagan. The most memorable passage in the book—which did not make it to the screen—was a sequence on the last page involving pi. I sat there for several minutes after reading it, lost in contemplating the idea of a mathematical constant being used in such a fashion. If a mind could get goosebumps, mine had them at that moment.

Similar inspirational anecdotes are expressed by George Ricker in “Carl Sagan Remembered:”

Like many Americans, I first learned of Sagan when Cosmos began airing on PBS. I was captivated not only by the story being told but also by the exuberance of the man telling it. His love of science was infectious. It sent me off to the libraries and book stores, determined to correct some gaping holes in my own knowledge.

[…]

For me, as for many others, Sagan didn’t just rekindle a long dormant interest in science. He reminded me of the integration of all knowledge and the need to understand who we are and how we came to this time and place in the life of the cosmos. Sagan didn’t worship science, but he understood its value and saw clearly the dangers of scientific illiteracy in an age like ours.

Sagan’s collaborator (and third wife) Ann Druyan wondered aloud in “Where Would We Be With Carl” at the Carl Sagan Portal about his potential effect on us over the past decade had he survived his final illness:

We have traveled ten times around the Sun since Carl's death, and our little world is much changed. With his dazzling mind and vast knowledge, what would he have thought of the direction we, as a civilization, have taken in the years since? How might he have campaigned against the forces of darkness and brutality? How many minds might he have opened? During the last ten years, I have longed for the personal Carl of our love, family, and work together, but I have also keenly missed the man who was a global voice for science, exploration, reason, and democracy. Carl's ecological niche has remained tragically untenanted for all this time-and in my opinion, the consequences have been profound.

Her thoughts on saying goodbye to Sagan (which I blogged about here) are so breathtakingly beautiful that they deserve repetition:

Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous… […] I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.

RIP, Dr Sagan. Your legacy is a remarkable one, and you are missed by many people who never met you.

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