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Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan’

22 JULY, 2013

Isaac Asimov’s Fan Mail to Young Carl Sagan

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“You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”

Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov first met in the 1960s. “I visualized him as an elderly person (the stereotype of the astronomer at his telescope,)” Asimov recounted in his autobiography, “but what I found him to be was a twenty-seven-year-old, handsome young man; tall, dark, articulate, and absolutely incredibly intelligent.” The two went on to be good friends for more than 25 years as Asimov’s first impression was not only confirmed but amplified.

From the altogether fantastic Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), edited by Asimov’s younger brother Stanley, come a few short and infinitely delightful letters Asimov wrote to and about Sagan over the course of their friendship, brimming with equal parts good-natured humor and overwhelming respect.

There’s so much to love in this note Asimov sent to another friend on March 22, 1966:

Sagan has read half through my book on the universe and has caught one fundamental error so far. In my rendering of Eddington’s theories on stellar structure, I talked of radiation pressure. Apparently, I didn’t have to. Fortunately, it just means correcting a sentence here and there.

But that’s what I need Sagan for. Anything he doesn’t catch isn’t there to be caught. If only he were a little faster about it. I said to him I realized he was awfully busy, too, but then I added with my particular brand of ingenuousness, “But then, what is your work compared to mine?”

And he said, “You say it in such a way that I can take it as a joke. But you really mean it, don’t you?”

So I made the best of it. I said, “Yes, I do.”

A very smart fellow, that Sagan.

Jest aside, however, Asimov held profound admiration and respect for Sagan — but never revealed it in the raw, uncushioned by that same “particular brand of ingenuousness.” On December 13, 1973, he sent Sagan a short note of appreciation, with the appropriate twist of affable irreverence:

I have just finished The Cosmic Connection and loved every word of it. You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.

One thing about the book made me nervous. It was entirely too obvious that you are smarter than I am. I hate that.

Asimov and Sagan at a banquet celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mariner 2, December 14, 1982

On June 15, 1985, Asimov sent another admiring note:

I just heard your talk on nuclear winter on Public Broadcasting. I am so proud of you, I almost burst with it. It was absolutely the sanest best speech I could imagine on the subject. It delighted me so much to find that I was on your side in every sentence of your talk.

But most heart-warming of all is this short limerick Asimov sent on the occasion of Carl Sagan’s marriage to Anne Druyan, one of the most epic love stories of modern history, in 1980:

Three loud cheers for Carl Sagan and Ann
Who today have become woman and man.
Be your lives bright as day
As the broad Milky Way
As the Big Bang with which all began.

One final note on the affectionate faux-rivalry between the two appears in a letter Asimov sent to another friend on March 15, 1986:

Half a year ago, Carl Sagan published Contact and that knocked half the sales off Robots and Empire. (These days, who can afford to buy two hard-covers?)

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters is full of many more such gems from Asimov’s singular mind and heart. Complement it with Asimov on curiosity, risk-taking and the value of space exploration in this magnificent interview by the Muppets and Carl Sagan on the meaning of life.

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08 JULY, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Meaning of Life

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“We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock.”

Carl Sagan was not only one of the greatest scientific minds in modern history, he was also an unrelenting humanist with profound insight on spirituality, psychology, and even literature. From The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — the same wonderful 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existence from such luminaries as John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski — comes a remarkable contribution from Sagan, an anchoring reminder that rings with exquisite timeliness:

In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

The Meaning of Life is superb in its entirety. Pair it with Sagan’s reading list, his gentle warning to future Mars explorers, and his superb advice on mastering the vital balance between skepticism and openness.

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12 JUNE, 2013

Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality

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“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

In 1996, mere months before his death, the great Carl Sagancosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Nearly two decades after The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan’s son, Dorion, made a similar and similarly eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other. Complement it with this meditation on science vs. scripture and the difference between curiosity and wonder.

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