Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan



Ten years ago, we got the news that Carl Sagan had died of pneumonia, a side effect of his long battle with cancer. It felt almost like I had lost a friend, even though I had only once briefly been within two feet of him and had only been in the same room with him three times.

It's hard for me to make an eloquent summary of how Sagan impacted my life, so I'll just ramble about some of my favorite Carl Sagan books and shows.

I have had an interest in science, and astronomy in particular, for most of my life and "Cosmos" came along at a good time to nurture that. I remember seeing "Cosmos" when it was originally on (I was about 8 years old) and I still enjoy watching it today on TV and DVD. Even though some of the graphics have been updated, it is amazing how well the original information holds up after 25+ years. To this day I'm fascinated by Hypatia of Alexandria and her famous library because of that show. I kept hearing Sagan's voice the first time I saw the Rosetta stone at the British Museum, sounding out the letters of Ptolemy's name as he described how it was used to decipher Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The cartoon of the evolution of life from single-celled organisms to us was my introduction to the topic. The Cosmic Calendar, with the Big Bang at January 1 and human life at the final minutes of December 31 first showed me the awe of deep time. And how many people my age first knew what a googol was because of this show and not because of a search engine with the same name (although a different spelling)?

I first read "Contact" when I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. At the time I wasn't absolutely sure what I wanted to do with my life, and after a side-track of wanting to be an astronaut I ended up studying astronomy in college. I didn't end up going all the way to a PhD, but I did get my Bachelor's degree in astronomy and I still work in the field doing educational support and public outreach at the University of Texas.

My final semester in college, I took a brilliant class called "Pseudoscience and the Paranormal" taught by one of our Physics professors and shortly after, Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" came along, which only strengthened and reinforced my ability to use my "skeptical toolbox". My favorite chapter is "The Dragon In My Garage". It precisely sums up the extent that people will go to hold on to beliefs. It reminds me of one of my favorite Sagan quotes: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". "Evidence" being the operative word.

It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Sagan's death, and I wish he had lived longer to see the amazing developments in astronomy. But I'd like to think that he lives on in a way through the many people he has inspired over the years.

You can see other memories and thoughts on the life and work of Carl Sagan at Joel's Humanistic Blog at the Carl Sagan Memorial blog-a-thon.

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