It is the time of year when people’s focus turns to things religious, symbolic, materialistic, familial, bountiful, and for the most part, celebratory. For me, this week of holiday celebrations carries with it a very special reminder, one that people all over the world should never forget.
On December 20, 1996, the world mourned the loss of one of the all time greatest champions of science and skepticism, Carl Sagan. For those that need a refresher, here is a quick YouTube reminder from that day.
On December 21, 1996, I borrowed the Connecticut Skeptical Society’s copy of Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. If I had any lingering doubts that I was a skeptic, they evaporated over the course of the 10 days I took to carefully read that book. Prior to that, I had only seen bits and pieces of the Cosmos series, and one or two of his appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I had never read Sagan, but only through reading his perfect treatise to skepticism did I realize how gigantic an intellect, scholar, and thinker we had just lost. If my skepticism prior to The Demon Haunted World was a lump of clay, Carl Sagan fired the kiln that solidified it. Here it is today, twelve years ago to that week. Of all of the writings that I have read in my twelve years as a practicing skeptic, there is still no single piece of writing that has had a greater impact on my critical thinking.
Since then, I have come to read much more of Sagan, I have watched Cosmos from beginning to end several times, and I have watched several old interviews online. I regularly visit his website for updates, and this weekend, Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow) links to a very wonderful video just released by NASA promoting their September announcement of The Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowships. NASA has only two other named fellowships in astrophysics. Their names are Einstein and Hubble. As our friend Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy” says in the clip, this fellowship could not be more appropriately named.
And frankly, this is just one layer of the strata that was Carl Sagan. His work in the sciences was beyond remarkable, but his enormous impact was also felt as a teacher, a television personality, a columnist, a lobbyist, a historian, a sports fanatic, a music enthusiast, a celebrity (arguably the most down to earth celebrity in the history of celebrities) – but most importantly, and unfortunately only recognized by a small percentage of the people of the world, Carl was a skeptic. This single quality permeated all of his other qualities, as it permeated everything in his cosmos.
So as we all huddle into our little holiday bubbles this week and next, take a couple of minutes to read a chapter of your favorite Sagan book, or bounce around YouTube and listen to Dr. Sagan once again. If you have a young child, now is as good of a time as any to introduce Carl Sagan to them. I guarantee you will feel better than you did before hand.
Good health and good cheer to everyone!