20 December 2006

What I learned from Carl Sagan

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan. There is a memorial blogathon going on. See his son's blog, Nick Sagan, for many more links.

I first encountered Carl Sagan from the TV series Cosmos. I convinced my mom to get me the book for it, which I read repeatedly. Of course I loved the astronomy in it. Though I never once considered a career in astronomy, I have photos from the Hubble on my walls, and belong to The Planetary Society, which Sagan helped found.

But the two things that really remain in my mind about Cosmos have to do with the ancient world. First, I learned that the ancient Greeks were pretty cool. Most computer science people will know the name Eratosthenes from a method for finding primes. I know him as the first guy to measure the circumference of the earth. I learned how easily learning can be lost.

Second, I learned about the horrible death of Hypatia of Alexandria at the hands of fanatics, and I learned Sagan's opinion on such things. Suddenly I had the start, at least, of a framework for my own nebulous skepticism about religion. A more systematic skepticism would have to wait for me to grow up and read a lot more, but Sagan pointed me in the right direction.

At the end of Contact, just before the credits, the word "For Carl" appear. That can still choke me up a bit. I should dig up my copy of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark...

1 comment:

Shady Character said...

I'm so glad you posted this. Cosmos, both the TV series and the book awed me as a child. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to keep me from descending into a few years of religious fervency. During my "recovery" --which, for those who've not gone through it, can be painful, frightening and angering--it was "The Demon Haunted World" that finally lifted me free. Dr. Sagan was one of the key people who helped me understand that the universe is amazing enough without having to make up stories. And, like you, I choked up when "For Carl" appeared in the Contact credits.

Happy Solstice! Here comes the sun!!