(Editor’s note: Some may think that this week’s big post and book review are redundant, because they both cover the same famed scientist. Faithful followers of this site will however recall that we’ve done the same for such similar greats in the past, most recently Robert Burnham Jr. We’d like to think that the book review out this Friday covers the life and accomplishments as told in the biography of the man, while this piece relates Carl’s influences, both universal and personal. Let Carl Sagan week at Astroguyz begin!)
Some of my greatest heroes are scientists. Frequently maligned by the public and the media, few before or since have been able to convey the awe and wonder in science as Carl Sagan. A planetary scientist by trade, he might also be properly remembered as the first true exo-biologist. Like so many others, I was first introduced to the true modus operandi of science not in school, but by his ground-breaking series Cosmos. Its still worth digging up, and free for viewing on Hulu.com! Over the years, I’ve heard the same sentiment echoed over and over again by countless scientists; Carl got me into science. I first learned what the idea of evolution by natural selection was from Cosmos; how easy it all seemed! In a time that the world was posed on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, Carl showed us another way; a future in a universe that could be just the beginning for mankind, if only we chose it to be so.
I rediscovered that wonder along with astronomy once again as an adult with probably his most crucial work…The Demon Haunted World. This should be required reading in high school science. Far from boring us with a know-it-all attitude, Carl made science fascinating and fun. He made heroes out of scientists, bravely battling the elements of ignorance and superstition in a quest for truth and justice. His only journey into science fiction, in the form of the movie Contact, reflects this by putting Ellie Arroway in the role of the scientist-heroine amidst corrupt politicians and military officials.
But it was his ability to feed the public’s true hunger for science that he’ll be forever known for. I believe his greatest mark against pseudo- and anti-science was the challenge for them to do what science itself frequently does; namely self-correction and peer review. Carl showed us that we should rightly distrust anyone with the absolute truth, and no one is tougher on science than other scientists. How many faith healers and mediums can claim that?
But beyond this, Carl had true vision. Thank Carl for the plaques and record aboard the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft as well as the “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth. Why didn’t we attach a further symbol aboard New Horizons, which will also depart the solar system? Carl’s vision made those missions memorable in the public eye, and spoke to our saga as a species. Did you know that Carl was even pivotal in ensuring the first Viking lander on Mars had a camera? Some things might be 101 to a five year old, but then tend to pass right by an engineer. But more on that in our Friday review…
A very sad read is Carl’s own account of his last days. Retold in Billions & Billions, (a catch phrase that he resolutely swears he never said) Carl faced down what was to ultimately prove to be a fatal diagnosis of myelodysplasia with a fearless resolve all of us could hope to muster when staring down such a fate. He went far too soon; its hard not to think about Carl every time a rover lands on Mars, or a new image comes back from Cassini. What would he have thought? What insights would he have? Luckily, he equipped us with the tools to doing nothing short of know the universe before he left us. If first contact with an alien species happens in our life time, it will be an auspicious but sad day, for our best candidate representative will no longer be with us. We miss you, Carl!