Virtual memorial

So, last week the blogosphere had this thing honoring Carl Sagan on the 10th anniversary of his death. I’m bringing up the rear, here, but wanted to throw my two Abe’s worth in.

sagan2One of my fondest memories was watching Cosmos as a preadolescent and feeling for the first time the Sirenic-call from astronomy and physics — a secular passion which dominated the next 20 years of my life. I spent the 80s and 90s immersed in astronomy. I invested in telescopes, subscribed to astronomy magazines, devoured countless nonfiction works from Sagan and his colleagues, led one of the largest and oldest amateur astronomy organizations in the Midwest, volunteered at observatories, lectured at science museums, and majored in astrophysics while at college.

As happens to us all, my priorities changed as I got older and my family grew. Astronomy plays only a little part in my secular life now, as a modest hobby. But whenever I stand under the quiet, velvety expanse on a clear night, armed only with a small telescope and a red flashlight, I hear the sirens calling, and I know that it all started with the seed planted by that PBS series in 1980.

So I respect and appreciate him for that.

On the other hand, I have always had mixed feelings about Sagan. Superficially, you’d think I’d be the biggest fan of the world’s most famous science writer. But I was intrigued, for instance, by how little respect Sagan got from academia. The public’s view of Sagan was one of a man esteemed by his colleagues, leading the field of 20th-century astronomy; in fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Certainly, Sagan did his share of research, and his scientific career was nothing to slouch at, but he wasn’t necessarily known as a leader in his field. Many colleagues were irked that Sagan got his academic appointments based on his fame, not his credentials. Rumors abound of an underground “anti-Carl” attitude at Cornell, where students and faculty quietly fumed at how rare he actually appeared on campus, in between book tours and Tonight Show appearances.

Another troubling thing about Sagan to me was his sometimes contradictory attitudes toward critical thinking, scientific method, and even religion. The Demon Haunted World is one of my favorite non-fiction tomes, and if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. The book is essentially a lecture against the perils of non-critical thinking, and contains lessons for anyone whose life contains the need for effective persuasion (scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, parents, etc.). Included is the famous Baloney Detection Kit, a set of guidelines to which successful critical thinkers should adhere.

Sprinkled throughout the book, Sagan excellently debunks the more famous examples of pseudoscience, like crop circles, magical religious healers, and so forth. But on numerous occasions, Sagan falls prey to the same foibles against which he lectures so strongly; engaging in ad hominem and straw man attacks against any who don’t hold his political or religious views.

The same pitfalls were shown in his book/movie Contact, where all non-scientific characters were presented as antagonists, and as stereotypical caricatures (a blundering priest who emotionally scars a young girl; a new-age religious hippie who quits priesthood “because of the celibacy thing”; a terrorist who kills because, well, because his faith directs him to; a fanatical right-wing religious politico; reactionary warmongers; etc.).

I remain honestly puzzled as to the current ‘fad’ of modern intellectuals who practically attempt to deify Sagan. I think he would have found that deliciously ironic.

To me, Sagan’s most enduring legacy should be his contagious attitude about the wonders of the cosmos, and the diminutive, humble place humans occupy in the universe. Second, as a writer, he should be given props for his talent in expressing the ridiculously complex in ways that laypersons could grasp, like in this scene from Travels in Space and Time, where he cogently explains relativistic time dilation:

Often, he would begin a lecture with a single sentence that would completely hook his audience:

“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the Universe.”

Every time I hear that lecture, I must admit I get goose bumps.

That type of effective persuasion and contagious enthusiasm is becoming rare among science popularizers. Those still “holding the candle” include Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene, two more authors whose works you should devote some spare time to reading.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urge to watch The Edge of Forever again.


2 Responses to “Virtual memorial”

  • Whenever I watch Contact or read stuff from or about Sagan, I always get this idea that he was an incredibly smart, but conflicted man. Many atheists/agnostics/scientists/etc seem so cocksure of themselves and engage in mean-spirited intellectualist attacks and caricatures of relgious people/religions/the scientifically unwashed/etc. Sagan sometimes seems that way, but if you scratch below the surface, it seems that he was always struggling, thinking critically about his own views and not just dismissing strongly held beliefs that conflicted with his own.

    I think to be so sure about oneself as to preclude further self-critique (even in an inner or candid dialog) is just as flawed as the lack of critical thinking one points out in others.

    To sum up a comment that has become much longer than I set out to create: Sagan was a cool guy and I liked him.

  • Thanks, mgroves. Well said. I agree with you about noticing his apparent inner conflicts.

    I remember reading his account of meeting with the Dhali Lhama (sp?), and how much the meeting caused him to think. He really was affected by it.

    I also remember him detailing his inner conflict about animal testing. The treatment he received for his condition would not have been possible without extensive animal testing, and that treatment added at least two decades onto his life. He once said that being so vehemently against animal testing, only to find out that it added 20 years to his life, was something that gave him profound conflict.

    Thanks for your insight. :)

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