Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight (bram) wrote,
Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight

Carl Sagan, in memoriam

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan, the great science popularizer. Bloggers around the world are posting entries in honor of Sagan today. Nick Sagan, son of Carl Sagan, makes an announcement in his blog. Official organizer Joel Schlosberg announces day of blog posts.

Above, Carl Sagan on the set of Cosmos.

As an astronomer (at times) of a certain age, you could guess that I was influenced by Carl Sagan, and you'd be right.

At ages 7-9 or so, I was into science fiction, but mostly the kind of science fiction that gave a "sense of wonder" that was also common in Sagan's books and in his TV series Cosmos. I was into 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters. I was also interested in extremes, the way little kids are: I read closely the Guinness Book of World Records, I was fascinated by the tallest buildings (thinking for a while to grow up to be an architect) or the fastest cars, or, when I found rockets went faster than cars, I was interested in rockets. Then I kept becoming intrigued that the encyclopedia entries on rockets linked to "astronomy", whatever that was. I finally looked up "astronomy", and found an inspiring image of the Ring Nebula (M 57) after a trip to the Hayden Planetarium with my parents.

I think my parents first pointed me toward Carl Sagan books when I was 9 or 10: I must have read The Cosmic Connection, and then at 10 or 11, Dragons of Eden (a fascinating but very speculative take on human evolution). Sagan was already (1976 or so) something of a science celebrity for his books and for his leadership of NASA press conferences and (I think) talk show appearances (he famously went on Johnny Carson a lot).

Me in 6th grade:

So by 6th grade, Carl Sagan had become a hero of mine, along with Thomas Henry Huxley and Isaac Asimov. I remember reading his long, dense book, in collaboration with I.S. Schlovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe in the 6th grade, and feeling very smart and distinguished for reading such a book.

I must have read Broca's Brain in college, and then A Candle in the Dark as a postdoc. The latter I greatly enjoyed, and with a different kind of vision after starting an actual career as a scientist. I think I eventually donated my copy to a prison book project, thinking that in prison libraries there might be a lot of pseudoscience and that the book could be what its title claims it to be: a road to clear thinking for someone in trouble.

I also read a biography of Sagan a few years ago. I also read Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors after reading the biography: Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, who he wrote the book with, thought it was a good one.

So while I enjoyed Cosmos when it appeared, I think it was Sagan's books that had influenced me more. By the time of Cosmos I was already heading to the science track.

A couple of years ago I taught astronomy at Bowling Green in Ohio and they had all the episodes of Cosmos on videotape, and the equipment to project onto the planetarium dome! I probably showed about 4 or 5 episodes to my class.

It was great! I think Sagan became the students' second favorite scientific personality after Tycho Brahe. And even there, that reminds me of the great dramatization of Brahe and Kepler in Cosmos. Cosmos really hooks you emotionally and visually. It tells its stories dramatically, it's culturally relevant and artistically done, it's frequently amusing, goofy and wry at the same time. I remember him writing out all the digits of a google or illustrating Velokovsky's nutty idea of Venus popping out of Jupiter...

All told I think Sagan's biggest achievement in science popularization was to impart that sense of wonder through science fact.

The Cosmic Calendar, the speculations on the vastness of the Universe, about extraterrestrial intelligence, all that made one feel that science was opening one's eyes to a wider world than you'd have without it.

Addendum: Yesterday was J's birthday. An old pseudogirlfriend of mine. Once, years ago, when I was in grad school, I sent her a "singing telegram" for her birthday. I requested that the messenger dress in a turtleneck shirt (Sagan's style) and give a message about "billions and billions" of birthday wishes from me... I'm not sure if the agency was that familiar with Sagan or whether they faithfully mimicked him...
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December 21 2006, 08:07:20 UTC 10 years ago

I didn't "go for" Cosmos, probably because I was already a cynical teenager and thought all that soft-focus american stuff was beneath me. However I did get a big kick out of Sagan's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (in 1977, according to Wikipedia). I also heard him talk about Nuclear Winter at Cambridge. I don't know how well nuclear winter bears up as a theory today - probably the end of the Cold War has diminished interest in it - but I can't say I ever understood the excitement about it. I already had just about grasped that global thermonuclear war would be a bad thing, so the prospect that the barren radioactive wasteland which would follow would also be frozen solid didn't seem that significant.