Today marks the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, so I felt compelled to briefly talk about him and the impact he had on me.
I was introduced to Sagan’s passionate desire to share science with the world at a very early age. Whether by television, news programs and articles, scientific papers, or fiction, each time I listened to Carl Sagan, I felt he spoke directly to me, that he sat beside me and talked in ways that brought his skepticism, love of science, and abhorrence of pseudoscience down to my level. Sure, I was young—no more than ten years old as far as I remember—yet he spoke to me in ways that impassioned the budding skeptic and scientist within me. Through his outreach to laymen with the secrets of the cosmos I learned my interests and feelings on those same topics were not so alien after all. Others like me existed around the globe, and if he was any indication, they succeeded and took great pleasure in sharing their critical thinking and ongoing investigations of the natural world.
How often I watched and re-watched the Cosmos series on PBS I cannot fathom or even guess. To say it entranced me would be to understate the seriousness of its impact. And then I found his books, from The Cosmic Connection to The Dragons of Eden to Pale Blue Dot to The Demon-Haunted World and a litany of other works, I consumed with abandon his every word, his every thought, his every desire to bring science closer to those for whom it too often stood at great distance shrouded in great confusion. More importantly, however, he also fueled my growing interest in science as well as my growing incredulity toward mysticism and pseudoscience.
And then came Contact, a book I read in 1985, and I practically squealed with delight at his soft-handed yet firmly atheistic approach to the questions of life here and elsewhere. Rather than declare gods dead and science the new ruler of the cosmos, he posed the philosophical questions everyone had been asking as more and more of the universe unfolded around us. In that way for which he will always be known as a master, Sagan showed us the possibilities without telling us what to think. Instead, he drew a grand landscape with suggestions galore as to what was most probable and what was scientifically sound, and then he told the readers they would have to search within themselves and out in the stars for the rest of the pieces necessary to answer those questions.
All things considered, one of his most profound achievements had less to do with science than with religion. He was an ardent and openly vocal atheist in a time when such people were often relegated to dark rooms and hidden meetings. Unlike so many who hid from the religious zealotry of the time, he stood proudly upon his knowledge and declared no supernatural beings were necessary to answer the really important questions. All one needed to do was look around, investigate, research, and the secrets of life and everything would slowly unfold. Not all at once, mind you, and not always understandably, but they would indeed reveal themselves a piece at a time, and he showed people that it was unnecessary to use smoke and mirrors to find meaning in it all. On the contrary, he proved true happiness and direction easily could be gained from accepting a simple premise: if we’re alone, it’s a terrible waste of space; science is the only way to find true answers about what it all means; and lacking faith in mythology did not mean lacking morality or passion or a zeal for life. His intellect and willingness to share it with others in ways they could understand served to minimize his atheism while simultaneously making it a central point, for people could see how much he wanted to help them learn, how much he loved the mysteries of the cosmos, and how much freedom of thought he enjoyed because he was not bogged down in dogma and archaic beliefs meant to control the minds of men.
So on this day when ten years ago the world lost one of its greatest advocates for science and critical thinking and the slow extraction of humanity from the fog of false gods, look up at the stars, look out into the cosmos, and imagine. Just imagine. Answers await us, and Carl Sagan helped the world come to terms with that. Wonders abound, and Carl Sagan brought them close enough for everyone to see and feel and touch—and be touched. Shamans and soothsayers are unnecessary to explain what is out there, and Carl Sagan ensured the world over could understand that deep truth. The majesty of the heavens have been revealed, and Carl Sagan assisted with pulling back the curtains so we all could see. Humanity stepped out of the scientific dark ages thirty years ago by way of thoughtful and intense education performed at a level most could understand, and Carl Sagan was responsible for igniting those flames. The cosmos no longer represents an enigma familiar only to those with PhDs furtively working in research labs and universities around the globe, and Carl Sagan gets credit for the biggest push to make that reality.
I owe him thanks for decades of my own scientific and skeptical endeavors, and for empowering me to find my footing on a foundation of rational thinking, scientific discovery, and factual understanding as opposed to blind faith. For all that he did for me and for the world, I am forever grateful. As should we all be.
[you can find more on Carl Sagan and today’s anniversary at the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon; I’ve updated the link to point to the new meta-post;
read through the comments on that post for links to the many dispatches being written; likewise, be sure to read Ann Druyan’s Ten Times Around The Sun Without Carl; remember, Ann is Carl’s widow; I will also post the entry from Nick Sagan, his son, as soon as it’s available]
[Update] You can read Nick Sagan’s post here: Memories Of My Dad. If you haven’t already, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read “Ten Times Around the Sun Without Carl” from his widow, Ann Druyan (linked to above). Also, I suggest you go to the blog-a-thon link above for an impressive array of anniversary missives from around the blogosphere. There are so many good ones to point out that I might include some highlights in an open thread tomorrow, but my strongest recommendation is that you read them all.