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Remembering Carl Sagan


Forty years ago, Carl Sagan’s monumental book, “Cosmos,” and its corresponding Public Broadcasting Service T.V. series, brought science to the American people in a way nothing previously ever had. The book was a runaway best-seller, immediately selling more than 500,000 copies and spending 70 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The series was the most widely viewed show ever on public television.

Sagan, an astronomer by trade, made no secret of his disdain for the superstitions and anti-science attitudes of many organized religions. Here’s a typical remark from Cosmos, the book: “For thousands of years humans were oppressed—as some of us still are—by the notion that the universe is a marionette whose strings are pulled by a god or gods, unseen and inscrutable.” He wrote these particular words in a chapter describing the development of science—a system of ascertaining reality through experiment—in the ancient Greeks, and in particular among the peoples of Ionia, “among the islands an inlets of the busy eastern Aegean Sea.” Those pioneering scientists included Anaxagoras, a fifth century B.C. cosmologist who discovered the true cause of eclipses; Thales of Miletus, another fifth-century philosopher and geometer, who introduced scientific reasoning over mythology; Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, who despite some wrong surmisals about such things as the construction of the Sun and Moon, is credited with being the first human to develop a systematized view of the world.

Sagan was a Jew, born and raised in Brooklyn. He was a generation older than mine, but we weren’t all that different. Neither of us was particularly observant of our birth religion; Sagan said his parents had been “Reform Jews,” the most liberal in that religion. He worshipped (if that’s the right word) at the altar of reason and rationality. If a thing could not be proven, then it was wrong to mindlessly believe it. I wonder, on re-reading Cosmos, what Sagan would have thought of modern-day religious conservatives in America. He certainly had no use for them during his professional heyday (roughly, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s), when the Moral Majority and other rightwing religious groupings were quietly arising throughout what we now call Red States and districts. He would have far less use for them today, 25 years after his death. I think he would be appalled and frightened by them, and outspoken in his denunciation. As early as the 1970s, Sagan was writing about climate change and the dangers of carbon emissions from fossil fuels. He recognized that there is a connection, and a disturbing one, between a propensity to believe in the superstitions of religion—virgin births, resurrections from death, burning bushes—and a corresponding skepticism about science and rejection of intellectual authority. Science, to Sagan, was religion, in the sense that it is science that will rescue the human race and lead us into the future—a future Sagan hoped, in his deepest core, would be lived out on planets other than Earth.

I miss Carl Sagan. Those of us who grew up in his time, and who fascinatedly watched Cosmos on T.V., were thrilled by the easy way in which he explained science, and the graphic images—in both the book and the series—that were so beautiful, with their depictions of galaxies and swirling storms on Jupiter, of imaginary life forms on distant planets, of Voyager 1 and 2 photographs of the rings of Saturn or the ice crusts of Europa. Sagan showed us that science could be, not only accurate and real, but poetic and lovely. He didn’t need religion or the apparatus of religious dogma to feel a godly connection to his universe. Scientific reality did that for him.

We “still are oppressed,” as Sagan wrote, by the religious extremists and their false narratives. We may in fact be more oppressed than ever; it’s hard to say. But Sagan remained an optimist all his life. He never gave up believing in the innate common sense of humankind. He understood that there will always be dead-enders whose cognitive ability has been rotted away by untrue beliefs. But he thought such people would remain in the minority, particularly in a developed country like America. Sagan could not have foreseen the rise of Donald J. Trump or the explosion of the anti-intellectual movement we call trumpism. Yet I don’t think he would have been terribly surprised by it; the forebears of know-nothingism have deep roots in American history. I suspect, if Sagan were alive and thriving today, he might even be on some Joe Biden scientific task force, perhaps involved in the current Mars mission, in which the touchdown of the rover Perserverance is just three hours away, as I write these words. What a nice thought that is!

  1. Thanks, Steve, I’m going to put in this the queue, I don’t recall ever seeing the original. Your tone is much more relaxed in 2021 with Biden! That said, keep on writing, but throw in some wine reviews once in a while ; )

  2. There will be some wine reviews forthcoming. If more people would send me wine, I’d be happy to review them!

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