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Remembering Carl Sagan

[Carl Sagan died 10 years ago today. Here's an excerpt from the appreciation I wrote that day for the Style section.]

Carl Sagan warmed the universe.

His cosmos was not cold and dark and impenetrable. He believed the universe was surely filled with life, intelligent life, innumerable civilizations unseen. In his younger, dreamier days, he thought advanced extraterrestrials might know how to cruise the galaxies in ramjets -- spaceships with massive openings that scoop up hydrogen atoms from interstellar dust clouds and use them for fuel. In Sagan's crowded cosmos, even empty space wasn't empty.

He told The Washington Post earlier this year: "Organic matter, the stuff of life, is absolutely everywhere. Comets are made one-quarter of organic matter. Many worlds in the outer solar system are coated with dark organic matter. On Titan, organic matter is falling from the skies like manna from Heaven. The cold diffuse interstellar gas is loaded with organic matter. There doesn't seem to be an impediment about the stuff of life."

The world needed Sagan, who died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 62. We have needed Sagan ever since Copernicus removed us from the center of the universe. It is a perplexing fact of human life that we live on a rock that orbits an ordinary star on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy in a universe that is indescribably large. Sagan knew how to describe it, to convey our humble position without demeaning us. With Sagan we felt in the right place.

Sagan said, "Everybody starts out as a scientist." Every child has the scientist's sense of wonder and awe. Too often we beat it out of the kid. "The job of a science popularizer," Sagan said, "is to penetrate through the teachings that tell people they're too stupid to understand science."

[Here's the column I wrote on Sagan earlier this year.]

[Sagan news from Cornell. See also blogs by Nick Sagan and Joel Schlosberg.]

[Here's a great post about Sagan by Jennifer Ouellette. Excerpt:

'Sagan never lost his sense of wonder; he was much more excited about sharing that aspect than about simply poking holes in pseudoscience. My favorite chapter in The Demon-Haunted World was titled, "The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder," where Sagan writes about how science needs to maintain an essential balance between a ruthless scrutiny of all ideas (old and new) and an openness to new ideas. Skepticism is the means by which science winnows the wheat from the chaff; "The vast majority of ideas are simply wrong," Sagan admits. But time dilation and length contraction in special relativity, quantum tunneling, and (more recently) the discovery that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating are all bizarre, counter-intuitive notions in science that turned out to be right (based on accumulated evidence to date). His key insight:

"If you're only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderlines of science are rare, experiences will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you're too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you're going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way, you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough."

'Science has its own internal "demons," you see; its practitioners can be just as narrow-minded and resistant to change as any other human being -- and as mean-spirited. I appreciate a good debunking as much as the next person, but too often, people think slapping the headline "Bad Science!" on a piece of snide, condescending finger-pointing is all that's required. It can be entertaining in the short term, especially if the author is clever, but it's basically little more than a cheap shot. No wonder it's not very effective as a communication tool in the longer term. Nobody likes being treated like a recalcitrant canine: "No! Drop it, Caesar! Bad Dog!" People just roll their eyes, shrug their shoulders and dismiss those cranky, arrogant science types out of hand. And the would-be debunkers find themselves merely preaching to the converted.

'Sagan never took cheap shots; he didn't indulge in public ridicule or name-calling, and was gracious in the face of criticism directed his way -- without ever being weak, mind you. His debunking was thoughtful, thorough, carefully worded, and he offered the wonders of real science in place of the silly pseudostuff. People responded accordingly. That's what made him the best loved (thus far) public face of science, and why even ten years later, he is sorely missed, by both scientists and the general public alike.']

By Joel Achenbach  |  December 20, 2006; 9:08 AM ET
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