Saturday, April 28, 2007

Carl Sagan

In my teens I remember watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on PBS and I even went out and bought the companion book. I was amazed at this funny looking man with the turtle neck and corduroy jacket’s ability to teach. It wasn’t just his knowledge but there was something in the mannerisms and his voice that made him sound like a little kid that had just figured out something really cool. Carl’s enthusiasm for science was infectious. Just by listening to him talk and narrate his program it made me want to go out and try to discover something. Although he was deeply rooted in it he never lost the awe and reverence of the natural world.

As I’ve stated in the past, I have a tendency to read a book and if I like it I will read everything I can find by that author. I read Contact when I was in my early twenties but in the last six months I have been trying to read everything I can find by Carl Sagan. I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World Science as a Candle in the Dark and Billions and Billions Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.

To put it bluntly, The Demon Haunted World is Skepticism 101. Carl establishes how so many claims that purport to be science are actually not even close. Holding fast to Occam’s razor he shows how all of the so called paranormal experiences that litter Oprah, Montel and X-files can be better explained with much more rational, and scientific causes. Some have claimed that by attempting to find logical rational explanations Carl has taken a lot of the mystery out of the universe. I think he would disagree. By refusing to get side tracked on the little illusions created by our pattern seeking mind Carl’s strategies of detecting and avoiding boloney allow us to move forward and work on the truly awe inspiring questions that surround us.

Billions and Billions is without a doubt the most personal of Carl’s books. Literally on his deathbed suffering from a rare blood disease Carl seemed to be driven to get his last thought down onto paper. Chapter after chapter seemed to remind the read of just how fragile this pale blue speck we live on really is. He does get a little preachy about certain thing but I suppose I would too if I felt like no one had been listening to my advice for decades and now I was having to hand the torch to the next generation.

After his fourth bone marrow transplant Carl died before Billions and Billions could make it to the publisher. His wife Ann Druyan who helped Carl edit most of his books had to write the epilogue for this one. The last chapter and Ann’s epilogue had me in tears for the hour that it took me to read them.

I personally would like to thank Carl’s sister, Cari for the four donations of bone marrow that she gave to Carl in those last few years of his life. Without her gift these books would not have been possible. Carl’s doctor once commented to Ann Druyan that most bone marrow transplant patients can’t find the strength to even read a book while going through treatment. Carl wrote two.

I’m currently reading The Varieties of Scientific Experiences a Personal View of the Search for God. Unlike his other books, this is a compilation of essays and speeches that Carl gave while he was teaching. Ann Druyan compiled and edited them so we all could benefit, not just the few who happened to be in the Cornell lecture hall those day. I am enjoying it as well.

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