Nov 09 2009

Carl Sagan Day

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
– Carl Sagan

Since I started blogging I have written about Carl Sagan on or about his birthday – November 9th. This year Sagan would have been 75 years old – we definitely lost him far too soon.

Sagan remains an important figure to the skeptical movement for various reasons. He made it popular to popularize science, and simultaneously showed us how it’s done. He condemned pseudoscience without seeming dismissive or judgmental. He emphasized the wonder and awe of science with poetry and power. And he had a way of forcing you to step back and take a broader perspective on the nature of things.

His signature series – Cosmos – was a breakthrough, in my opinion. What separated that series from what was (and unfortunately often still remains) the standard in science documentaries was the way in which Sagan constructed the stories of science as a personal journey. It became our personal journey as we followed Sagan through the Cosmos. Most science documentaries are constructed of talking heads looking off camera, voice overs, and graphics. In Cosmos, Sagan was talking directly to us. He was taking us gently by the hand and leading us on an adventure of discovery.

Sagan also was not just teaching us about science, he was showing us his personal love for science – how it gives us an awesome view of the universe in which we live, and why it’s important. The personal journey metaphor is also perfect. As a species, humanity is on a collective journey of scientific discovery. And we each personally take that journey as well, following in the path of those scientists who have blazed the trail.

Sagan’s book, A Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, remains one of the best entries into the world of skepticism out there – and the book I recommend to those wanting to understand what this whole skepticism thing is about. If you haven’t read it – read it right now. Buy or borrow the book, download it to your Kindle, go to the library – read it.

But don’t stop there – all of Sagan’s science books are excellent reads. If you can find them, a few are available in audio format with Sagan reading.

In the last few years the skeptical movement that Sagan helped inspire has really taken off. We are bigger and more active than ever, riding the wave of social media and really taking our place as the voices of reason in society. I regret that Sagan is not around to see it and participate.

But there’s no question that his legacy continues and he remains an inspiration to those of us who seek to emulate his passion for science, teaching, and reason.

While we have remembered Sagan each year since we lost him – this year is the first Carl Sagan Day. This past weekend at Broward College the first annual Carl Sagan Day was celebrated with a full day of science. Our own Phil Plait was one of the speakers, along with James Randi and astrobiologist David Morrison. I was unable to attend, but it looks like something that should continue in the future.

For me personally, it is safe to say that Sagan was hugely influential in firing my passion for popularizing science, and he remains a role model in how to successfully promote science and reason. He remains a profound example of the ability of one man, through the power of words and ideas alone, to have a positive impact on society and millions of people.

10 responses so far

10 thoughts on “Carl Sagan Day”

  1. MilaNodens says:

    The only problem with Sagan’s quote that I have is that I don’t find delusion satisfying. Promote the scientific method in all aspects of life and Sagan’s legacy will continue. Keep up the good work, Steve!

  2. superdave says:

    Sagan was a science hero. We need a new one, soon.

  3. rafal says:

    I managed to get my hands on audio version of Pale Blue Dot, half of which is read by Carl Sagan. I definitely enjoyed the parts read by him more.
    I usually enjoy audio books more when read by original authors, but this is particularly true in this case.

  4. Chandler says:

    Dr. Novella, You surely are a science hero. Thank you for all the work you do. Diderot, Sagan, Novella!

  5. Maybe I’m just being unnecessarily contrarian but this whole Sagan Day / Sagan fandom thing makes me a bit…. uncomfortable.

    Don’t get me wrong: I really like Sagan (though I think The Demon-Haunted World is a tad overrated). It’s just that venerating anyone to this degree is a bit much. And it risks giving our opponents ammunition: ‘oh look, they worship Sagan’. (Same thing with Darwin, though I think venerating Darwin is more appropriate).

    Anyway, I’m not accusing Steve of being a fanboi, I just think we might be taking the Sagan thing somewhat too far.

  6. Michael – that is a common reaction in the skeptical movement, which is understandably suspicious of arguments from authority and anything resembling veneration.

    However, I think it is innocent and healthy to have intellectual heroes. It is human nature to look to role models and heroes. What’s better than making those heroes scientists and educators.

    Our society is very comfortable with sports heroes, and venerating people because they are pretty and can act. Promoting science rock stars is a good thing.

    I also find that, among skeptics and scientists, the respect and recognition we give to the shining lights of science is appropriately tempered. In fact, we like to point out the flaws in our heroes. It makes them human, keeps them grounded, and reminds us that ultimately it is about the evidence, not the people.

    So much so, that we strangely show our respect to scientists by trying to prove they were wrong. Everyone wants to find the theory that will move beyond Einstein’s relativity. The most avid supporters of Darwin also revel in discovering those things he got wrong.

  7. Steve,

    Yeah, I pretty much agree. It would certainly be a Good Thing if Paris Hilton got less press and Sagan more. And, sure, having intellectual heroes is fine. I guess it’s a matter of aesthetics where one draws the line between honoring a hero and venerating a saint. I get a bit uncomfortable at how skeptics go all mushy over Sagan – I feel it’s too far on the saint end of the spectrum – but I see how others may disagree,

  8. I guess the distinction is in how much Sagan meant to someone’s personal development as a scientist/skeptic. This can therefore go beyond just respecting Sagan as a science popularizer to feeling a personal connection or gratitude for the role he played in their lives.

  9. That’s a very good point. Alas, I found out about Sagan when I was already in grad school (so already an atheist and skeptic) so he had less of an influence over me. If I had been inspired to do science by Sagan, I can see how he would have “meant” more to me…

  10. Pharmawriter says:

    Dr. Novella,

    Thank you for commemorating Dr. Sagan. I saw “Cosmos” when it first came out. Sagan’s approachable, easygoing personality, as well as his talent for storytelling, were an eye-opener and an inspiration for me. I still remember my surprise that you couldn’t exceed the speed of light (in my defence, I was a preteen and had just seen “Star Wars”!) and a demonstration where Sagan stirred together the basic ingredients that make up the human body in a large tank of water to make the point that we are highly complex organisms.

    I spent years thinking I wanted to be a scientist, only later realizing that I’m a groupie rather than a professional. I work as a medical writer now, and I owe my career in part to Sagan, who first showed me how wonderful it was to tell the story of science.

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