Wednesday, December 20, 2006


It is the tenth anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan. Humanist Joel is hosting a Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. I was introduced to Carl, along with millions (or BILLIONS and BILLIONS maybe I should say) in 1980 with his Cosmos television series.

I was 19 and just beginning college. I'd taken two years off after high school to work and travel — not because I was idealistic or adventurous, but because I had nothing better to do. A notorious "underachiever" as my father generously called me, I had no college ambitions, no ambitions at all, save just to be out of high school. A year working as a stockboy at Lechmere, following six months of travel in Europe and Israel, led me to consider the virtues of schooling.

After a lifetime of mediocrity in education, I began to excel in college, community college admittedly at first, but I put my whole heart and mind into it, and discovered perhaps for the first time since early elementary school, that I loved learning. In grade school I'd loved learning, on my own anyway. I've fond memories of perusing the many books in my home. I loved looking through the Golden Book Encyclopedia (Bertha Morris Parker) — I remember once being blown away reading that Neanderthal Man lived for some hundreds of thousands or even millions of year - I thought literally that individual Neanderthals human beings lived that long :-) Whoa!!! I was curious but was also occasionally an idiot! :-)

Anyway, I was so into college, 4.0 GPA easy. And I loved all of it, literature, philosophy, math, science. But two events, I think, turned me toward science above other endeavors. First, my father, rather randomly and curiously, gave me Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach for my 19th birthday which I totally clicked with — it turned me on to math, logic, computer science, and classical music — Bach's Musical Offering is still one of my favorite pieces.

Second, Cosmos, the television series which began in 1980, every Sunday, for some number of weeks. I so looked forward to it. The whole thing, Carl and his enthusiasm, the ideas, the images, and the music, which can still almost bring tears to my eyes. How corny, I know, but there it is. That opening music, to me, embodied Carl's pantheistic view of the Cosmos, that we, our existence, I, am the Universe's way of getting to know itself, we all are part of creation   all that every was or will be, star stuff, profound stuff! It touched me. I didn't know it then, but science was becoming my religion. I'd previously and hence held on precariously to an ancient and feeble Christian faith, which finally gave way to a relatively confident agnosticism, which finally crumbled under an acceptance of non-theism (someday I will say "atheism").

Anyway, I love and thank Carl for his enthusiasm and his ability to express his sense of wonder for the Cosmos, the Earth, Existence, and to pass this sense of appreciation on to me and many others.

My father and some of my other loved ones, watching Carl with me on those family Sunday's in the early 1980's did not share my appreciation. He was a simple "reductionist", a technocrat, an atheist, almost a joke ("billions and billions" they would ape in Carl's endearing Brooklyn accent) — how could I be so shallow as to be blinded by science, and not see the mystery of life explained by religion (not just any religion of course — Christianity). Science was just another religion they'd say (a curious criticism, obliquing insulting their own belief in religion).

That turned out to be for me, so much gobbledygook — muddled and wishful thinking. I've come to feel almost sorry for my less scientifically minded loved ones, with little appreciation of or interest in the wonders of existence around them, preferring the more abstract, elusive, and parochial wonder of God's unbounded love. I'm just not that deep.

I own Cosmos on DVD and still watch it occasionally, and have introduced it to my kids (9 and 11), and they actually seem to enjoy it. It has held up very very well over the years. My 8 year old boy especially likes the line animation of 3.5 billion years of evolution in 45 seconds, as well as the whole piece on The Elements, and of course the discussion of Googol and very large numbers.

Btw, one of my favorite albums is Murmurs of Earth, a recording of the music sent out on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. It is the most distant human-made object in the Universe — nearly 10 billion miles from home now, and continuing on its journey at 38,000 mph. The sounds and music (and images) included on the recording, intended to a give an alien intelligence a glimpse of life on Earth, was compiled, I believe, mostly under the direction of Carl Sagan. Much of the music is also featured in Cosmos.

I highly recommend it, though unfortunately, it no longer seems to be available and is difficult to find (the recording that is; the book is available). I see one on eBay at the moment — 14 bids, $100! Wow, maybe I should sell mine (no way). If anyone is interested I'll considering zipping up the bits of my recording and, risking copyright violation, making it available for free.

A couple other links — Celebrating Sagan and Nick Sagan's Memories Of My Dad.

In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

   — Carl Sagan , 1934-1996


At 9:36 AM, Blogger Rachael said...

I'm a little young for Carl Sagan (he passed a way just a year before I finally broke out of my fundamentalist upbringing) still, I can't say I have been totally unaffected by his work.

Something small: Listening to my overly patriotic Russian father-in-law, Sagan's 'pale blue dot' was ever present in my mind - so elegant a parsing of an important and complex message. (Now I wonder what will happen if I send an image, with the caption to him? - hee.)

More mundane: I've been inspired to acquire and make use of a microrecorder - and not shy away from filing cabinet I've been wanting. (If I have it right, Carl is notorious for both his microrecorder, and collection of files.)

If you do copy Murmurs, let me know! I'd love a listen.


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