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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Billions and Billions of Kudos for Dr. Carl Sagan

Yesterday would have been Carl Sagan's 77th birthday. My first exposure to Sagan came, as it did for so many others, through his PBS television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The show mesmerized me from its opening seconds, with its majestic opening music and journey through the stars to Sagan himself, defining the universe thusly: "The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be..."

In thirteen hour-long episodes, Sagan explained our current scientific understanding of the cosmos, covering astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and how all these elements impact human history and culture. I devoured both the series and Sagan's companion book, Cosmos, ravenously. Sagan wrote and educated with sublime beauty and passion, inviting viewers and readers to explore the wonders of the cosmos in a manner that was inviting, warm, logical, scientific, even reverent, but never condescending or opaque. I bought the Cosmos DVD set back when it was an expensive limited-edition set available only online, and I have no regrets about paying a premium for the show. Important works deserve our support.

After Cosmos I scooped up The Dragons of Eden and Broca's Brain and eagerly awaited each of Sagan's books in the years to come. My favourite, alongside Cosmos, remains The Demon-Haunted World, one of the best books ever written on the importance of critical thought.

Back in the 90s I wrote book reviews for Singapore's The Peak magazine. Here's an excerpt from one of those reviews, covering Sagan's last book, Billions and Billions. The review's final line remains a pretty good summary of my feelings for Dr. Sagan and his work.

...Finally, on a somewhat somber note, we come to the late Dr. Carl Sagan's final work, Billions and Billions.  The book's subtitle is sadly prophetic - "Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium".  Dr. Sagan, whose contributions to the space program and to science education in general are almost incalculable, died last year of a rare blood disease. Billions and Billions is a worthy capstone to a brilliant career.

As in his previous books, Sagan attempts to lift the dark clouds of superstition and ignorance that continue to hinder humanity's progress towards achieving greatness as a species. Sagan takes a level-headed, rational view towards contentious subjects like abortion, the environment, and nuclear arms proliferation in this book without preaching or seeming arrogant. Especially interesting is the chapter detailing his efforts to unite scientists and religious leaders under one popular front devoted to expressing concern over the damage that we are doing to our precious environment.  That such diverse and often conflicting groups can be united to advance a common cause is reason for hope in what often seems a hopeless world.  The entire book is laced with cautious optimism, even in its closing pages, as Sagan describes his battle with the blood disorder that eventually killed him. For this, the gift of hope, rather than mourning his passing, we should celebrate the fact that such individuals exist all around us, fighting the tyranny of despair and giving us reasons to hope, to dream, to live.  This was Sagan's legacy.  

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