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The Legacy of Carl Sagan: We are a way for the cosmos to know itself

Published: November 6, 2009
Section: Opinions


This Monday will mark the 75th anniversary of the birth of Carl Sagan, the astronomer and astrochemist, famous for his plain-English explanations of the workings of the cosmos. At the height of the Cold War, Sagan produced a 13-part television show, entitled “Cosmos,” which portrayed the Earth as a cohesive unit and put into perspective just how minor our differences are, while simultaneously elevating the whole of humanity to its rightful position as the descendants of a long heritage of matter within the universe.

My journey to explore the work of Sagan began when I read his book,”The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” for a class last semester. I was further inspired by an online video entitled “We are all Connected” (http://www.symphonyofscience.com), which auto-tuned Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye into an original song about the connections between humans and the universe.

Each of the scientists represented in “We are all Connected” share a common link–a commitment to explaining the wonders of science to the general public. Sagan excelled in his ability to take detailed and complex issues and explain them not only in a manner accessible to non-scientists, but also with an infectious sense of wonder, grandeur, and motivation. Readers, viewers and students alike are all mesmerized by his explanation of the phenomenon within the cosmos, from the interactions of the smallest atoms to the movements of entire galaxies.

How small the issues in the world seem when put into perspective. The conflict between communism and capitalism was minute when compared to the distance from the Earth to Jupiter. The differences between an American citizen and a Soviet citizen were only as large as we pretended, when all humans are bound by a common heritage as the product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of scientific inquiry. Sagan had an important message for the world at a time when we came very close to destroying all known life forms in the universe: what unites us is more powerful than what divides us, and that we are all connected to each other and to the cosmos.

Sagan’s underlying message perfectly frames his stance: the atoms that make up our bodies are traceable to ancient stars which exploded, and sent particles flying through space. In short, “we are made of star stuff.” The differences between a Democrat and a Republican, or an Irishman and a Frenchman, are so minute when viewed at the scale of the universe that it makes little sense to emphasize them over the similarities. Sagan envisioned a world united by a common cause–the explorations and study of our universe.

It is important to recognize therefore that humanity has been charged with a sacred task-–to learn and know our surroundings.

I wonder what he would say today as the world, far from learning the lessons of the Cold War, continues to tear itself apart. Unlike in Sagan’s time, the major international conflicts of today are more about religion than politics. A strong proponent of humanism and a self-proclaimed agnostic, I imagine he would have little patience for the petty quarrels that are threatening our world. His substantial misgivings about the role of religion in decision making, even before it became the fuel for major world conflicts, suggests that he may have had a stern message for the modern world.

Additionally, Sagan was a vocal advocate for science education, and spurned the intrusion of pseudoscience and non-science into our society. It is reasonable to think that he would not have preferred the alternative sciences in vogue at the moment. I am intrigued to imagine what he would say as the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, as humanity moves closer to realizing his dream of our journey beyond the solar system, while poised once again upon the precipice of our destruction.

In honor of Sagan and his legacy, I suggest that we all take a little time on Monday to reflect on our connection to the rest of humanity, and to the cosmos. It surely would be a shame for the citizens of the Pale Blue Dot to destroy each other over minor disagreements and silly divisions when we are connected by so much more, at a level so basic and simple that it is easy to forget. Once we put aside our petty differences, we can realize the promise of humanity. As Sagan put it “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day journey to the stars.”

Let us honor his memory not only by embracing our common heritage, but also by practicing skepticism in our daily lives.