This Thursday is the eleventh anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. It is marked this year, as it was in 2006, by a world-wide Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. Last year this featured more than 250 posts in 11 languages. Sagan was a very public figure – more so than most scientists. This was because of the enormous amount of work he did to popularise science. Many remember him, and appreciated him, because of his work on video programmes like the Cosmos series. Although first broadcast in 1980 this 13 part series still presents an awe-inspiring history of scientific discovery in a popular format.
Sagan faced opposition and criticism from within the scientific community for this work. At the time many scientists did not recognise how important the popularisation of science was. In this sense Sagan was a trailblazer and has made it much easier for scientists today to do similar work. Scientists like Richard Dawkins, Robert Winston and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson discusses this in a recent Point Of Inquiry interview.
I really like Sagan’s comment about the scientific attitude:
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
Peace and understanding
Sagan not only popularised science. He put science into its social and historical context. He was also a great promoter of peace and understanding. Sagan spoke against the dangers of nuclear war and warned of the environmental effects of such a war – a nuclear winter. At the same time he appreciated that humanity has the ability to see its common interests in preventing war. The following quote from The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God expresses this:
“Never before have we had the capability of destroying ourselves, and therefore never before have we had the ethical and moral responsibility not to do so. A way of looking at the time we happen to inhabit is as follows: We started hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago as itinerant tribespersons, in which the fundamental loyalty was to a very small group, by contemporary standards. Typical hunter-gatherer groups are maybe a hundred people, so the typical person on the planet had an allegiance to a group of no more than a hundred or a few hundred people.
The names that many of these tribes give to themselves are touching in their narrowness. All over the world, people call themselves “the people,” “the men,” “the humans.” And all those other tribes, they aren’t people, they aren’t men, they aren’t humans. They are something else. Now, that doesn’t mean that a state of constant warfare existed among these tribes, as Thomas Hobbes, for example, imagined. A significant fraction of those early groups, there is reason to think, were benign, calm, peace-loving, not interested in systematic, bureaucratized aggression, which is the function of states at a later time.
As time passed, groups have merged, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily, and the unit to which personal identification and loyalties are due has grown. The sequence is known to all of those who take courses in the history of civilization at universities, in which we pass through allegiances to larger groups, to city-states, to settled nations, to empires. Today the typical person on the Earth is obviously a patchwork quilt of political, economic, ethnic, and religious identifications, owing allegiance to a group or groups consisting of a hundred million people or more. It’s clear that there is a steady trend, if the trend continues, there will be a time, probably not so far in the future, when the average person’s typical identification is with the human species, with everyone on Earth.”
The meta-post for the second Carl Sagan blog-a-thon
The Carl Sagan Portal
The Carl Sagan Memorial Book
Celebrating Sagan Blog
Neil deGrasse Tyson – Communicating Science to the Public: (Download MP3)
Books by Carl Sagan
Does science involve faith?
Thank God or Thank Goodness?
Morals, values and the limits of science
Most ideas in science are wrong!
Isaac Newton and intelligent design
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Limits of science, limits of religion
Science and the supernatural
Science, art & pumpkins