On this date, in 1996, the skeptical and scientific communities lost a giant, perhaps the most publicly well-known astronomer of the twentieth century, the late Carl Edward Sagan, who pioneered making an understanding of science accessible to the public like few before him, and who in doing so worked to promote a positive view of how the world works and what it means to millions in his groundbreaking series Cosmos.
But he was more than just a scientist, more than merely a skeptic.
He wrote on and involved himself in a number of things, and though not a saint, is rightly considered among the greats of history for his vision and accomplishments during his life, achievements that easily equal those of the other most productive researchers and science-writers of his time.
He’s gone now, and maybe we need a hundred more like him with the recent attacks on science by elements in our country’s political structure, but this post is an attempt at a tribute to him, with a selection of quotes, in as much complete context as possible, on a range of subjects:
About the nuclear arms race, on ABC News Viewpoint – “The Day After” (1983):
Imagine, a room, awash in gasoline. And there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches. The other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger. Well, that’s the kind of situation we are actually in. The amount of weapons that are available to the United States and the Soviet Union are so bloated, so grossly in excess of what’s needed to dissuade the other that if it weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable.
“Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1992) (co-written with Dr. Ann Druyan):
Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals — have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.
“In the Valley of the Shadow” PARADE magazine (10 March 1996):
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
Interview with Charlie Rose (1996):
Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?
It’s fourteen years now since your passing, Dr. Sagan, and you are still missed. No matter where you are, whether in the arms of eternal oblivion, perhaps some version of an afterlife, or even an existence of a sort unimagined and unimaginable by any, your work and achievements live on in those who continue in your absence. Rest easy, we’ve got your back covered.