Candles in a Demon-Haunted World. Photo by Prakope.
It is perhaps odd that I should contribute to the Sagan Blogathon being held on the 10th anniversary of his passing. I was aware of Carl Sagan, but he was a celebrity over there as far as I was concerned. We have Patrick Moore, so I never read anything of Sagan’s till after he died, or at least so I thought.
I’m working my way through The Dragons of Eden, and my reaction is something like déjà vu. The reason why Sagan is worth remembering ten years on isn’t simply his books or television appearances. It’s also his influence on others. Reading through Dragons of Eden evokes memories of books which have come much later. It’s not plagiarism, but rather that Sagan managed to express the sense of wonder and appreciation of the unknown which Science is built around. It’s not simply about finding the right answers, but finding if you’re asking the right questions.
He is also very quotable. Here’s one straight off the first page of Dragons:
“The world is very old, and human beings are very young. Significant events in our personal lives are measured in years or less; our lifetimes in decades; our family genealogies in centuries; and all of recorded history in millennia. But we have been preceded by an awesome vista of time, extending for prodigious periods into the past, about which we know little – both because there are no written records and because we have real difficulty in grasping the immensity of the intervals involved.”
What came to mind was PZ Myers’ excellent article The proper reverence due those who have gone before.
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
“All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.”
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
“The well-meaning contention that all ideas have equal merit seems to me little different from the disastrous contention that no ideas have any merit.”
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
“Widespread intellectual and moral docility may be convenient for leaders in the short term, but it is suicidal for nations in the long term. One of the criteria for national leadership should therefore be a talent for understanding, encouraging, and making constructive use of vigorous criticism.”
It’s doubtful that the authors were consciously thinking of Carl Sagan when they wrote what they did. It’s possible some of them haven’t read any of his work. But what Carl Sagan has done is helped widen a niche for popular and intelligent writing. He was passionate about science as a provisional body of knowledge, and about something that was self-correcting. When he made mistakes he acknowledged the process that led other people to find them.
“Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.”
He also helped create some of the language of science. Not in creating words, but new aphorisms and phrases which succinctly summarised his opinion. Often the debt is unacknowledged, a phrase simply accepted as part of our literary toolbox without thinking where it came from. Perhaps this is the closest we can come to immortality, to produce a terribly, terribly abused cliché.