Category Archives: Sagan – Carl

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

The astronomer Carl Sagan is one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the great secularists of the twentieth century. In 1989, after both Voyager spacecraft had passed Neptune and Pluto, Sagan wanted a last picture of Earth from “a hundred thousand times” as far away as the famous shots of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts. No photo has ever put the human condition in better perspective; it is worth seeing and hearing at least once a year for the rest of one’s life. Thank you, Carl Sagan.

(The above multimedia presentation was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 17, 2015.)

The text:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We Are Lucky To Have Been Born

Long before Richard Dawkins became a prominent atheist, he was one of the world’s great evolutionary biologists. I hope that people remember him for the great scientist he was, as well as for his bold statements against ignorance and superstition. I find this one of the most moving videos I’ve seen. Reminds me so much of another eloquent scientist, Carl Sagan.

Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara … Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Carl Sagan & Human Survival

In the final episode of Cosmos (Who Speaks for Earth?) Carl Sagan wonders whether our species will survive.

In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage: Propensities for aggression and ritual submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders. All of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience and a great, soaring, passionate intelligence. The clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain.

Sagan argues that the problem arises because our vision is too small. We lack a cosmic perspective from which national, ethnic and religious fanaticism are difficult to maintain. Perhaps such fanaticism has destroyed the civilizations on other worlds, as the Spanish destroyed those of the new world. Perhaps other civilizations have destroyed themselves with their technology, as we will do to our own in the near future. Or perhaps we will poison our air, earth, and water, fall victim to viruses and bacteria, or change our fragile climate so as to bring out our extinction. Then “There would be no more big questions. No more answers. Never again a love or a child. No descendants to remember us and be proud. No more voyages to the stars. No more songs from the Earth.” We would have ceased to listen to our compassion and reason, heeding instead to the reptilian voice of fear, territoriality and aggression.

From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: Preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet …  Shouldn’t we consider … A fundamental restructuring of economic, political, social and religious institutions?

And while change is often labeled impractical, Sagan reminds us that changes have been made. We have reduced significantly slavery since ancient times, women have been partially liberated, aggression has been somewhat curtailed, and we have begun to see the earth as an organism in need of our stewardship. We can now see the earth from a cosmic perspective “finite and lonely somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.” We can change; and we have survived. After a 14 billion year cosmic journey carbon has become people, starstuff has been animated, and the cosmos is becoming conscious of itself.

Still, we do not know our place in the vastness of space and time. It will be found only after a long and arduous journey made by sojourners unafraid of the truth when they encounter it. As the video above so movingly concludes.

And we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars, organized collections of 10 billion-billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast from which we spring.

If only our vision could be as large as Carl Sagan’s.ll trademarks mentioned herein belong to their respective owners.

Carl Sagan’s, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPG
With all the deserved hoopla over the new version of Carl Sagan’s classic TV series “Cosmos,” I wanted to call attention to his wonderful but often overlooked book: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It was an excellent text for my college courses in critical thinking, deftly distinguishing science from pseudo-science, and the reasonable from the unreasonable. The tools that guide critical or skeptical thinking and thereby allowing us to detect irrationality in all its forms, he aptly calls the “baloney detection kit.” With the medieval mindset that characterizes so much of contemporary American culture today—with its stories of ghosts and angels—Sagan’s calm rationalism shines as a beacon.

But the book deeply inspires too. Sagan, one of the promoters of the SETI project and responsible for the gold record aboard the Voyager spacecraft, denounces the absurdity of belief in ET visits and alien abductions. He wasn’t interested in believing in the fanciful, but in knowing what was true. His intellectual honesty is itself inspiring, as is his belief in the power of reason and science to understand and transform our world.

The book also warns against the temptation of believing what we want to be true, rather than in what the evidence suggests. Sagan knew the truth of Francis Bacon’s claim that: “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” Such sentiments lead down a dangerous road, to beliefs in demons, witches and similar superstitions. Such beliefs are not innocuous; people have been killed over them—absurd beliefs often lead to atrocities.

Science and reason are the only means that humans have to educe a little truth from reality. Sagan’s book testifies to the glory of the rational mind; it should inspire and warn us all.

At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes
—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counter-intuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense…. ~
Carl Sagan