By Horst Sommer
Carl Sagan's greatests achievements have not been given due credit by biographers, writers and the media.
During 62 revolutions around our star, "one of his greatest gifts was the commitment to the truth. Not what's going to make you feel good, less afraid, less small, more central to the workings of the universe - but to what's true." (Ann Druyan: It is my own hope for Carl's memory that my husband be an inspiration to all for the search for truth.)
Our species fear of death and of an uncertain future has given those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, and those in power, a vested interest in discouraging skepticism and scientific investigation. Unlike most `one- dimensional' scientists Carl thrived on controversy and criticism. He spent equal time in debunking pseudo sciences as in astronomy research.
He developed an interest in astronomy, it is said, at the age of 5, but his roots lay with his parents who taught him two models of thought central to scepticism and science - the virtue of questioning, and the joy of wonder.
In the end he faced the fear as Albert Einstein and others before him - "satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world...striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."
The passing of one of the greatest men of this century has prompted many writers to give tributes and publish articles about his achievements.
NEWSWEEK magazine summed up Carl Sagan's work as: "The Cornell astronomer deduced that Venus was hot, and Mars dust-blown, years before spacecraft did. But thanks to his 1980 "Cosmos" series on PBS, he will be forever known as the layman's guide to the universe's "billions and billions" of wonders - including, maybe, extraterrestrial life." Dave Eicher of ASTRONOMY magazine wrote: "Sagan will be remembered as a giant in astronomy for his long record of professional accomplishments, his superb writing, and his outstanding ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways."
The NASA internet page describes Carl's contribution to space exploration: "Astronomer, educator and author, Sagan was perhaps the world's greatest popularizer of science, reaching millions of people through newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts. He is well-known for his work on the PBS series Cosmos, the Emmy- and Peabody- award-winning show that became the most watched series in public-television history."
Many more tributes mention the type of achievements scientists can display in frames on their living room walls. My students and I found little mention of his dedication to showing the truth, to debunking pseudo sciences, to preserving the environment, to bringing the cold war period to an end, to protesting nuclear arms in Nevada, and to his profound humanism.
Carl Sagan's greatest teachers in life had been his parents who taught him the virtue of questioning and the joy of wonder from an early age. Neither his school teachers nor his university professors taught him the most essential things he came to value - a soaring sense of wonder, an evolutionary perspective and an understanding about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed. (Demon-Haunted World pp xiii-xv)
He began to learn a little about how science works in college in the early 1950s (The Baltimore Sun 12/3/95, pp 10-12, 17) He states: "how rigorous the standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something is true; how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human thinking; how our biases can color our interpretation of the evidence; how belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies often turn out to be not just slightly in error but grotesquely wrong. Everything hinges on the matter of evidence. On so important a question as UFOs, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money, attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they're seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren't there."
Two years before Paul Kurtz founded SCICOP Carl wrote one of my favorite articles in "Broca's Brain", a brilliant exposure on pseudo-science. Believing to be the "Second Coming of Jesus Christ", a Mr. Bloom tried to prove the existence of "god" with numerical coincidences, which everyone else would consider meaningless. I had never met a scientists working in several `dimensions', willing to spend valuable research time on serious debunking activities. He became affiliated with SCICOP soon after, enabling him to integrate history, biology, politics and the environment with astronomy and planetary science. SCICOP and the "Voyager" message, I would argue, paved the way for the award-winning "Cosmos" series. He pored through the pages of "The Skeptical Inquirer" with fascination and a burning desire to have the truth come out on top, mixed with a somber reflection about the dullness of the routine, and the unimaginative and stale ideas, chauvinisms, hopes, and fears dressed up as fac ts. In his keynote address to the 1994 CSICOP conference he made scepticism a prerequisite to scientific thinking. "Skeptical questioning, he said, "is the affordable price we pay for having the benefits of so powerful a tool as science"
Although in a lot of scientists the ratio of wonder to skepticism declines in time, Carl kept at it till his 62th revolution around our star, writing in 1995 (The Demon-Haunted World, pp 76/77): "The tenets of skepticism do not require an advanced degree, as most successful used-car buyers demonstrate. The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. All science asks is to employ the same levels of skepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their TV commercials. But the tools of skepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They're hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent practitioner, although skepticism repeatedly sprouts spontaneously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising and religions (New Age a nd Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism."
As an extraordinary teacher Carl was passionate about bringing the big picture to others. After each talk he sat down to take questions from the audience. He believed that there is no such thing as a dumb question. He never showed a lack of patience or answer in a way that would make the questioner feel silly. He used each question to teach something, to see the big picture. He wrote (Pale Blue Dot) "The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot."
Many have been touched by Carl's profound wisdom and ability to answer questions on almost any subject. In his last talk to the Division for Planetary Sciences he called on scientists to give a "tithe" of 10% of their time to explain their research to the public. Through his writings and appearances science efforts and discoveries became the shared accomplishment of us all. What Carl wrote about the Planetary Society's goals best expresses his aspirations and personal philosophy: "to discover and explore new worlds, and to seek our counterparts in the depths of space - these are objectives of mythic proportions...pursuing these endeavors for the benefit of the human species is a mark of our dedication to a hopeful future" If I was asked to describe his achievements in one sentence, I would choose his often quoted piece of excellence in "Cosmos"(p.219): "We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers."
I like to end my presentation with what Carl wanted to share with us from his hospital bed: "I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking...the world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides...Five thousand people prayed for me at an Easter service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest church in Christendom. A Hindu priest described a large prayer vigil for me held on banks of the Ganges. The Imam of North America told me about his prayers for my recovery. Many Christians and Jews wrote me to tell about theirs. While I do not think that, if there is a god, his plan for me will be altered by prayer, I'm more grateful than I can say to those, including so many whom I've never met, who have pulled for me during my illness. Many of them have asked me how it is possible to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn't been a problem. With reservations about feeble souls, I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I, nor would I want to, conceive of an individual that survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear for absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoting striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."
The author would like to thank Ann Druyan and Guillermo Lemarchand, as well as Carl Sagan Society members and students at the University of Queensland, for their valuable comments.
BOOKS BY CARL SAGAN The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973; Broca's Brain: Reflections of the Romance of Science, 1974; Other Worlds, 1975; The Dragons of Eden: Speculations of the Origin of Human Intelligence, 1977; Cosmos, 1980; Contact: A Novel, 19 85; Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994; Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, 1995; Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, 1997
BOOKS CO-AUTHORED WITH MRS. ANN DRUYAN Comet, 1986; Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are, 1992; Carl Sagan's Universe, Y.Terzian and E.Bilson ed. 1997
BOOKS CO-AUTHORED WITH OTHER SCIENTISTS Intelligent Life in the Universe (with I.Shklovskii); Planets (with editors of LIFE), 1966; UFOs: A Scientific Debate (ed. with T.Page), 1972; Mars and the Mind of Man (with R.Bradbury, A.Clarke, B.Murry, W.Sulllivan), 1973; Communication with Extraterr estrial Intelligence (ed.), 1973; Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record (with F.Drake, A.Druyan, T.Ferris, J.Lomberg, L.Salzmann Sagan)); The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War (with P.Ehrlich, D.Kennedy, W.Roberts), 1984; A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race (with R.Turco), 1990
DIGITIZED MAGAZINE ARTICLES SCIENCE: The Early Faint Sun Paradox, Organic Shielding of Ultraviolet-Labile Greenhouse Gases PARADE MAGAZINE: The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, February 1, 1987; Crop Circles and Aliens: What's The Evidence? Now You See Them, Now You Don't!; In the Valley of the Shadow, Dr. Sagan talks about his brushes with death, March 1996; A Love Story (Ann Druyan), June 1 1997
BIOASTRONOMY NEWS: In Defense of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, 1995 ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL: Results from Five Years of SETI Observations September 20, 1993 SKEPTICAL INQUIRER: A celebration of Isaac Asimov, Fall 1992; Wonder and Skepticism, Jan/Feb 1995; Science and superstition, March/April 1996; The darkened cosmos: a tribute to Carl Sagan, March/April 1997 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life, October 1994; The Effect of Asteroid and Comet Impacts on the Early Terrestrial Environment; Cosmic Search: The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; The Solar System; PSYCHOLOGY TODAY: interview Jan/Feb 1996 NOVA: interview (UFOs) 1996
OTHER ARTICLES/AUDIO TAPES (to be found in) ICARUS, THE
REPORT, ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL, SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, PARADE, MERCURY,
UNIVERSITY PUBLICATIONS and numerous newspapers; THE MUSIC OF COSMOS
0 7863-54002-2 8, Distributed by BMG Music, (many of C.Sagan's books
available on video and audio tape) 4 August 1997.