I was there.
I walked that campus and slept through my classes and met my wife and pulled all-nighters to cram for my exams . . . while Carl Sagan was somewhere on that campus, thinking mind-expanding thoughts, inspiring a new generation of scientists, and ultimately, preparing for his own departure.
While I knew of Sagan back in those days and respected his “take science to the people” attitude, I didn’t truly appreciate his genius or his impact. For one, I knew nothing of astronomy (and still really don’t), so I was much more likely to admire some famous zoologist or paleontologist than an astronomer. I had certainly heard of “Cosmos”, but I had never watched an episode. Sagan’s message, I thought, was not meant for me, it was meant for people who dig stars and galaxies and physics, not people who dig birds and bones and trees.
It has only been recently, now long after Sagan and I have both left Cornell, that I have become more familiar with that message, and I realize how mistaken I was.
Today, what I know and appreciate about Carl Sagan I owe to the modern skeptical movement, and perhaps most directly to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. Listening to the “Skeptical Rogues” wax nostalgic for Sagan inspired me to explore a bit more. The beauty of Sagan, however, is something that really did not hit me until I heard on the Skeptics’ Guide a story about John Boswell’s Symphony of Science project. Here, Boswell has taken Sagan’s words, and his voice, to make a musical experience of profound inspiration and beauty, that of course is only possible through a staggering demonstration of human technological advancement.
I play “We Are All Connected” in my classes to instill in them the idea that science is more than the tedium and pedanticism with which it is so often associated in our culture. Science is beautiful. Nature is beautiful and wonderful, even when it is vicious and unfeeling. When Sagan explains “we are a way for the cosmos, to know itself” I find myself stunned that this is perhaps the most interesting idea I have ever heard anyone utter. How can we not be inspired by science when we realize that nature existed for billions of years, changing, growing, and expanding, until some part of itself developed the means to study and understand . . . itself?
Sagan’s genius was not just that he had these thoughts, but that his command of language to communicate them was so clear and elegant and poetic in its simplicity.
“I find it elevating and exhilarating
to discover that we live in a universe,
which permits the evolution of molecular machines
as intricate and subtle as we.”