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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:


Emon said...

I'll admit to my ignorance and say I've never heard of Popper and Koestler. I want to know about their work. Any suggestions what book from each author to start with?

Paul Levinson said...

Easy question for me to answer, Emon - because, as fate would have it, someone asked about just those two over on my http://blog.myspace.com/twiceuponarhyme blog the other day...

Arthur Koestler was probably best known as a novelist (Darkness at Noon), but I think his best work was The Sleepwalkers, a history book which argued that many of the greatest scientific discoveries were made by people who had no idea what they were on to. I found this very valuable when looking at the history of technology and media - inventors like Edison, whose first thought about the phonograph was that it could record telephone conversations, and whose first thought about motion pictures, which he also invented, was that they could provide accompaniment for recordings (which he had come to realize were great things with which to record music). Koestler also wrote an excellent book about the creative process - his Act of Creation is well worth reading.

Karl Popper is a great philosopher on more than one account. His Open Society and Its Enemies is a powerful historical probe into philosophic roots of totalitarianism, and his Logic of Scientific Discovery is a classic on scientists progressing by making mistakes - well worth looking into.

I discovered Popper's work near end of my doctoral dissertation - and I went on to put together and publish In Pursuit of Truth: Essays On the Philosophy of Karl Popper on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday in 1982 - my first book publication.

It's interesting that Sagan, McLuhan, and Chomsky are still well-known in our intellectual culture, but apparently not Koestler or Popper. Goes to show - in Koestler's case - that even very successful novels can be flashes in the pan...

Emon said...

Thanks, Paul! I'll check them out.

Halagan said...

Well, I also didn't know Koestler's works. But that Sleepwalkers thing sounds very interesting. And very correct. I mean, I studied History in college, so I know a bit about the subject.

Wasn't Viagra originally intended to be a remedy against heart attacks? Or Post-Its glue the most powerful glue ever?

Paul Levinson said...

happens all the time ... and on the same subject, it was discovered a few years ago that the new drug for treating Parkinson's disease - l-Dopa - had the good effect of increasing the intensity of orgasms...

Tvindy said...

Actually, Sagan never used the phrase "billions and billions", even though it's often attributed to him.

Paul Levinson said...

TVindy - he definitely said "billions," lots of times, so that equals "billions and billions" ...:)