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Carl Sagan: Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, one of the most successful and best-loved popularizers of science, Carl Sagan, died as a result of complications from myelodysplasia. As I first saw on the Bad Astronomy Blog, there will be a Memorial Blogathon across teh intrawubs today in honor of what Dr. Sagan meant to so many people. As a fan of science popularization and skepticism, I felt I should write my own reflections and cast them out into the tubes of the internet via my small, disregarded (even by its own author) blog.

I can't say that Carl Sagan had a huge impact on my childhood. I knew of him, but as animal shows were the primary type of science program to which I was exposed (which, incidentally, is certainly one of the many reasons I'm such a fan of biology/zoology), Dr. Sagan's magnum opus about life, the universe, and everything, Cosmos , mostly escaped attention in my house.

As a tween/teen, however, I began to encounter Carl Sagan's name with greater frequency. This was largely a result of my interest in the 'UFO phenomenon.' I can recall being frustrated at Sagan, in my own immature way, for accepting the possibility and, indeed, likelihood that life exists elsewhere in the universe, but NOT accepting the notion which so plainly followed in my mind: that UFOs were alien spacecraft and the government was hiding their existence. I was probably too young to accept reasoned arguments as to why this was not the case, or perhaps I just wanted too badly to believe in something extraordinary.

Either way, I was at least pleased that Dr. Sagan agreed with and promoted 'listening' for signs of life via radio telescopes, and supported the variousSETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programs. Despite the fact that I now doubt the likelihood of alien visitations here on Earth, I still think that answering the question of whether or not we are alone is of great importance and I am glad, as I'm sure Carl Sagan would be, that SETI is still going strong.

Carl Sagan died when I was a mere fourteen years old and at a point in my life when I had, in many ways, lost interest in science. I can recall hearing about it, and reacting with the sort of shocked, sad feeling that I always get when hearing about the death of a noted person. I wish I could say that the loss was a more personal one to me, but it was not.

It began to become somewhat more personal the following year, with the release of the film Contact, based on his novel by the same name. I can recall being unable to see it in theatres, but upon renting it I found it both challenging and thought-provoking. I still consider it a remarkable movie, and feel more than a small twinge of sadness when I see the words "For Carl" at the film's conclusion.

There would be little point in pretending that I am as familiar with Carl Sagan's work as many of the other bloggers writing about him today. I am not. And it was only this past year that I read his excellent The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Already, I am certain that it is one of the books to have most influenced my way of thinking. Sagan sets out such a clear and pragmatic approach to critical thought and skeptical inquiry that it is hard not to appreciate his logic. His enthusiasm for science, not only as a method of problem solving, but also as a means for promoting exploration and wonder, shines through on every page. This book came to me at just the right time, lighting a fire under the barrel of skeptical gunpowder that had slowly been building in my mind for the better part of the last ten years, and helping blow away the few tattered husks of credulity that my natural cynicism and incessant questioning had failed to clear.

There are few, very few, people who can communicate within their subject area more clearly and evocatively than Carl Sagan. Few science writers would claim that Hawking's A Brief History of Time is an easy or readily comprehendible read to the 'lay-person,' despite its status as a work of popularization. However, few such writers would hesitate at all to recommend any of Sagan's books. Such was his gift with words.

Today, there are probably more popular science books being written than ever. Richard Dawkins, despite his recent foray into a more theological (or anti-theological, as it were) area, is one of the better science popularizers currently working. He has many excellent contemporaries, however, and the volume and significance of their work is not to be underestimated. At the same time, I think that most of them would admit the same lamentable regret that we bloggers are admitting today: That Carl Sagan left too soon, and that his almost unique combination of contagious enthusiasm and eloquence is sorely missed on all fronts.

So today, we remember Carl Sagan, and hope to continue his legacy by lighting candles in the darkness of this world, still too full and accepting of pseudoscience, superstition, and faulty logic. Can our combined candles ever serve to outshine our absent sun? It is doubtful. However, we may be able to bring our light to the dark corners and shaded areas that yet remain unlit. Even the removal of just one more shadow from our world would be an aim worth pursuing.


Sounds like an interesting guy...