This past Tuesday would have been Carl Sagan’s 76th birthday. Those of us fortunate to still be alive refer to November 9th as Carl Sagan Day. Skeptics everywhere have been blogging and posting some of their favorite remembrances of Carl ranging from his earliest work as a planetary scientist, to his record setting number of appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Sagan was not simply the greatest spokesman that science has ever had. He was a scientist, a philosopher, a political advocate, a novelist, an artist, a rationalist, a movie-maker, a skeptic, a perpetual observer of the human condition, a family man, a poet, and many other things that could equally describe his career and passions.
As if anyone needed more of a reason to admire the late great Carl Sagan, Carl had a great fondness of history. This comes as no surprise to anyone that has watched his Cosmos series a dozen or more times (such as myself.) However, what does not get mentioned enough (for my taste) in Carl Sagan circles was his fondness and deep appreciation of American history, and specifically, early-American history at the time of the founding of our nation. I also happen to be very passionate about this time in our history, so when I read Carl’s chapters about United States history in his Magnum Opus of skepticism, The Demon Haunted World, the hairs on my arms literally stand on end.
Here are just a few of those lines from Demon Haunted World in the chapter entitled ‘Real Patriots Ask Questions’:
Scientific findings and attitudes were common in those who invented The United States. The supreme authority, outranking any personal opinion, any book, any revelation, was – as the Declaration of Independence puts it – “the laws of nature and of nature’s GOD.” Benjamin Franklin was revered in Europe and America as the founder of the new field of electrical physics. At the Constitutional convention of 1789, John Adams repeatedly appealed to the analogy of mechanical balance in machines; others to William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. Late in life, Adams wrote, “All mankind are chemists from their cradles to their graves … The Material Universe is a chemical experiment.”James Madison used chemical and biological metaphors in The Federalist Papers. The American Revolutionaries were creatures of the European Enlightenment which provides an essential background for understanding the origins and purpose of the United States.”
I think this is one of the most important chapters in that book. I also believe that this chapter, and his other chapters related to history in the book, help define and complete the picture on just how extraordinary Carl Sagan was, not just as a scientist or observer of the universe, but as contextual historian and a master of understanding human beings.
As our celebration of Carl continues to echo this time of year as it does every year, do not forget that among his seemingly endless list of descriptors and adjectives, this man was a proud American and a strong proponent of our democratic republic. As if anyone needed one more reason to admire him.