Saturday, 8 November 2014

Carl Sagan at 80

Tomorrow, on the 9th of November, Carl Sagan would have celebrated his birthday were he still alive. This year would have marked the 80th anniversary of his birth. 80 is not the ripe old age it used to be anymore, so it is really sad that a rare disease took him away about 18 years ago.

He and I would have disagreed on many social policies (but not all of them; I am also in favour of the legalization of drugs as well as of cutting the amount of money spent on the military). In his otherwise truly wonderful book Cosmos, he states his opinion that a nation is more advanced the higher the fraction of its GDP is spent on public libraries. Upon the realization that the government could tax to the maximum and spend all the proceeds on public libraries, this seems like a pretty bizarre view (although it has the advantage of radically downsizing the many wasteful government programmes!).

But disagreement is no reason to hold another person in any less high regard. Besides, Carl Sagan had many - one might say "billions and billions", which, unlike popular belief, was not an expression he was in the habit of using - other terrific qualities, many of which he used to convey science and the scientific method to those of us not working in Departments of Astrophysics. Certainly a part of my appreciation of our astonishing universe I owe Carl Sagan. One of my favourite remembrances from Cosmos the TV series is when he discusses the people of "Flatland", where everything extends forwards and backwards, left and right, but not up and down; where everything is absolutely flat.

Imagine the things the Flatlanders would see were one to pick them up away from their quotidian plane. I find it a wonderful depiction of both what it might be like to experience an additional dimension and of how one might observe a two-dimensional world without them looking back. The people of Flatland ought to be a lot more self-conscious - and perhaps we too, in case of watchers from higher dimensions that we cannot perceive!

Carl Sagan had a great knack for finding the right words for just about anything he wished to say. One might even say that much of his work is poetic, although one must take care not to let this imply that it lacks other qualities. He had this knack because he really knew his subject; for so many others, possessing less engaging personalities and less varied vocabularies and all-round educations, his phrasings would have made them seem like they were aiming too high: But for Sagan they were apposite. His use of similes is impressive in its ability to inspire - who can forget that "we live on the shores of the cosmic ocean"?

Another thing which contributed to his ability to inspire is his genuine sense of wonder at the world around us. I reckon this, coupled with a keen perception of its structure and mechanics, probably made his sole attempt at fiction, the book Contact (dealing with signals being received from the skies), such a great achievement. The fiction here plays second fiddle to the facts, but where the facts are unknown, the fiction, centring on what might be possible, fills in to convey what I suppose must be some of his passion for science. A romantic view, surely, but a real one nonetheless.

The best way of celebrating the life of Carl Sagan on this 80th anniversary of his birth would be to, say, gather some evidence to inform an idea or learn something one did not know before; celebrate the triumph of the physical world, our vicinity of which is the product of stars which burnt out thousand of millions of years ago, by finding out still more about it. I am one of those people supposed to be dedicated to science and the discovery of Truth (and I guess I really am), so for me, finding any specific way of celebrating his life is not so easy. Maybe I will have to settle for (re-)reading one of his books. At any rate, Carl Sagan's was a life well lived. He continues to be missed.

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