Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Carl Sagan and the Stuff of the Cosmos

Carl Sagan died 10 years ago last week - at the age of 62. He was best known as the voice that humanized science, talking about "billions and billions" of stars in the universe to Johnny Carson and the millions of people who watched the Tonight Show. Fortunately, this was at the dawn of videotaping, and you can see some of Sagan's work on YouTube, where he is as mesmerizing about the human place in the universe as ever.

In 1977, when Sagan was young and in his prime and I was even younger, I was appointed Book Editor of an obscure journal named et cetera. As a way of kicking off my tenure - which turned out to be brief (I've always found editing essentially boring) - I wrote to the people I considered the five greatest thinkers of the day. Sagan was one of them. (Should I tell you my other four choices? OK - Marshall McLuhan, Karl Popper, Arthur Koestler, and Noam Chomsky - for his theories of language, not his politics).

I wrote to each of the authors, told them they had made my Top 5 list and why, and asked them to say a few words about their work. To Sagan, I wrote that it was his work as a philosopher and a popularizer, not his work as a hard scientist, that made me admire him - in particular, his view that, because we come from the cosmos, when we look back out at the cosmos with our telescopes, we are but the stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself. I still find that view thrilling, today.

Happily for me, all five cutting edge thinkers responded with a few paragraphs, mainly thanking me for the honor, etc. But Sagan said something more: he said I shouldn't discount his work as a hard scientist, because that's what he was, and his philosophy and his appearances on television were all a part of that.

And that's stuck with me too. Because, whatever else Sagan may have intended by it, to me it said that, hey, going on the Tonight Show and talking with Johnny may be as much a part of a great cosmologist's work as analyzing the light received from the stars. There's no contradiction, in other words, between the pursuit of fame and the pursuit of knowledge.

And it does make sense, doesn't it? Carl Sagan was a star here on Earth, because of what he saw when he looked at the stars above. The stuff of the cosmos looking back at itself.

A few of Sagan's books:

Billions and Billions

The Dragons of Eden

Pale Blue Dot

And my podcast about Carl Sagan:


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