Saturday, 6 November 2010

Heroes - Carl Sagan

I thought I'd do something different in my blog. I'm going to write a series of articles about people I greatly admire. I won't write these all at once, but rather write them over time interspersed with other blogs. These are people I admire, respect, look up to and who have influenced me in some way. The series will also hopefully give you a bit of an insight into who I am as a person.

For my first blog in the series I want to write about the late, great Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan was an American astronomer and author. Born on November 9th 1934, he passed away on December 20th 1996. He wrote the book behind the incredibly successful series Cosmos. This was back in the 1980s, and it was the first time I had come across him.

I have always been a naturally curious person, and have always had an interest in finding things out and asking questions. I have an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge. When I watched Cosmos for the first time, my curiosity about the universe grew from an interest to complete wonder. My fascination was piqued.

I have since read the book Cosmos, and found it utterly compelling. The book that first got me interested in not just Carl Sagan, but science as a whole, was The Dragons of Eden. In the book Carl "combines the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and computer science to give a perspective of how human intelligence evolved" - Wikipedia.

If you don't think books on subjects relating to science can be interesting, then you have never read a book by Carl Sagan. I have read many of his books, including the Demon Haunted World, Billions and Billions and Contact (please don't watch the film that is based on the book - the ending to the book is utterly profound).

After reading The Dragons of Eden, my fascination with science blossomed and flourished. I had found an author who was not only extremely intelligent, but could write in a way that anyone with a keen interest could understand. More importantly than that however, was that his writing instilled in me a sense of wonder that has remained with me to this day.

Never has anyone caught my imagination as much as Carl has through his writing. Never has anyone made me feel humbled and fascinated by the universe and our place within it. His books are as intellectually invigorating as they are deeply profound.

I would strongly urge you to watch this video for Pale Blue Dot. It is only 3 and a half minutes so please make the time to watch it. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. The text to the video is taken from the book of the same name, so will give you an indication of his writing style if you have not come across him before.

"The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from a record distance, showing it against the vastness of space. By request of Carl Sagan, NASA commanded the Voyager 1 spacecraft, having completed its primary mission and now leaving the Solar System, to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space." - Wikipedia

I have watched this video clip many times, and posted it onto my Twitter and Facebook feeds too. It never fails to make me feel humbled by the sheer vastness of the universe, how insignificant we are, and to put in perspective all of our inflated human egos. I challenge anyone to watch this clip and not feel humbled by it. If we could all think in the same vein as Carl narrates in this clip, we would advance as a species and progress our knowledge.

It is also fair to say that reading Carl Sagan started me on the path towards rejecting religion. Here is a typical quote from Carl that demands you consider the universe with more intellectual vigour than the introduction of imaginary gods:

"I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true."

It is not just Carl's sheer intellect that I admire, but his compassion. He writes not just as a scientist, but as a curious and thought provoking human being. It is clear from his writing that he cares deeply about our planet and its inhabitants - humans and non humans alike.

I have also taken to heart his quote that "there is no such thing as a dumb or stupid question" which forms a chapter from his book The Demon Haunted World. Anyone who knows me has almost certainly heard me say this. I never undermine anyone for not knowing something that I may know. They will almost certainly know a great many things that I don't know. By asking questions where you are not made to feel intimidated or undervalued, we all further our knowledge.

After a long and difficult fight with myelodysplasia, which included three bone marrow transplants, Carl Sagan died of pneumonia at the age of 62 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, on December 20, 1996. He was buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Ithaca, New York - Wikepedia.

It is no accident that I have chosen Carl Sagan to be the first in my Heroes series. That should indicate how much I admire and respect him.

To live in the hearts we leave behind is to never die - RIP Carl Sagan


  1. That was a wonderful tribute to Carl and I thank you for writing it. I've added it to StumbleUpon so more people can (hopefully) be made aware of the great man and start their own journey.

    The quote about stupid questions is a favourite of mine too.

  2. Thank you for the positive feedback Robert, I greatly appreciate it. Carl Sagan has long been a strong influence on my thinking and the way I look at the world. I wish I had a fraction of his capabilities.

    I hope you drop by and read some of my other blogs. I hope to hear from you again soon.