August 23, 2010

Carl Sagan

As a boy, I first came to know of Carl Sagan through his novel Contact. This introduced me to pi and number theory and reading this book--in which I learned the word "numinous" was tantamount to a religious experience. His entreaty was to see a deeper order in the world, to imagine that such mysteries exist, contained not in an ancient book or magical incantation but in the complex and uncharted depths of nature. Carl Sagan was a writer, cosmologist, astronomer and peace activist. He was all of those things and something more.

Apart from the scientific discoveries he made (mostly in relation to the planet Venus and the moon Europa, as far as I am aware) it was his power to inspire that has left the world with the great lasting benefit. He inspired generations of students to think and examine their beliefs. He imbued many, myself included, with a deeper appreciation for science, mathematics, and nature, while cutting away the deadwood of superstition. His book The Demon Haunted World tears down superstitions by exposing them to the light of reason, and he does it with ease.

Tonight I would like to share with you twelve aphorisms and quotations by the late Carl Sagan. Each one captures some of the essence of his body of work--fiercely dedicated to science as a way of knowing and the expansion of the boundaries of human knowledge.

1 ---- ---- ----
Evidence that contradicts the ruling belief system is held to extraordinary standards, while evidence that entrenches it is uncritically accepted.

2 ---- ---- ----
For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner ... on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. ... That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that.

3 ---- ---- ----
If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.

4 ---- ---- ----
In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

5 ---- ---- ----
One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.

6 ---- ---- ----
Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

7 ---- ---- ----
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

8 ---- ---- ----
The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.

9 ---- ---- ----
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.

10 ---- ---- ----
In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way."

11 ---- ---- ----
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

12 ---- ---- ----
We are made of star stuff. For the most part, atoms heavier than hydrogen were created in the interiors of stars and then expelled into space to be incorporated into later stars. The Sun is probably a third generation star.
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I hope that after reading these twelve quotes that they will have touched you as they did me. Even more than the work he did in basic, hard science, to me this power to dream and inspire others to dream is Dr. Sagan's greatest legacy. Sadly, Dr. Sagan passed away in 1996 and we have only his books, films and scientific work. But I think he would be pleased with the result of his labors if he could look on his achievements from the grave. You can learn more about him here:

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