"History is full of people who out of fear, or ignorance, or lust for power
has destroyed knowledge of immeasurable value which truly belongs
to us all.  We must not let it happen again."

- Carl Sagan, Cosmos.
 

Dr. Carl Sagan worked as an author, astronomer and teacher. Started out at Harvard and then went on to the Smithsonian Observatory and then finally in 1970 to Cornell University as a professor of astronomy and space sciences

Before spending most of his time giving lectures, writing or promoting books or appearing on TV, he made important contributions to the study of the atmospheres of our solar system. He was the first to explain the high surface temperature of Venus as an result of the greenhouse effect. He also contributed to the studies of the origins of life and the importance of the atmospheric environment.

He was also involved in most projects of sending unmanned spacecraft for space exploration; Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager, Viking and Galileo. He was a strong advocate for SETI and helped collect a lot of money for different SETI research projects. At Cornell he created a new field of science, exobiology, dedicated to the study of alien life forms.

Carl Sagan wrote and co-wrote many books on various aspects of science, see below, and he also hosted the world famous and acclaimed TV-series Cosmos.

Most of all, he was a teacher for all of us physics and astronomy junkies.

Dr. Carl Sagan died of a bone marrow disease in 1996.

Bibliography

  • Planets, 1966.
  • Intelligent Life in the Universe, 1966.
  • Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, 1973.
  • The Cosmic Connection. An Extraterrestrial Perspective,  1973.
  • Mars and the Mind of Man, 1973.
  • Other Worlds, 1975.
  • The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence,  1977.
  • Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record, 1977.
  • Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, 1979.
  • Cosmos, 1980.
  • Comet, 1985.
  • Contact: A Novel, 1985.
  • The Nuclear Winter: The World After Nuclear War, 1985.
  • A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race, 1990.
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for who we are, 1992.
  • Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994.
  • The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,1996.
  • Billions and Billions : Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. New York: Random House, 1997.

reference: cnn, scientific american
When I first became acquainted with this man's writing it was through his novel, Contact. I was young, maybe eleven years old, and took the book from my mother's shelf for lack of anything better to do. Soon I became absorbed, however, with the character of Ellie Arroway and all that she stands for.

Ellie is a brilliant, independent woman who seeks out a career in science, against considerable odds. She attends Harvard and studies physics at a time when women in such institutions were scarce. To compete with her male colleagues she develops a "physics voice" -- louder than a normal speaking voice, to get their attention. Despite criticism she bases her career on radio astronomy dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. And, of course, she manages to find the answers to two of life's greatest questions: Are human beings alone in the universe? Was the universe made on purpose, by some higher power? (The answers, in the novel, are "no" and "yes," respectively.) She makes the most amazing scientific contributions in the history of humanity.

What blossoming geek girl wouldn't want to be her?

Because of this fascination with Ellie, I became fascinated with Sagan by association. After all, he had come up with the powerful ideas driving the story about her, and was brave enough to create a strong female protagonist for a science fiction novel. I read many of his other books.

He made me think:
Can we know, ultimately, and in detail, a grain of salt? Consider one microgram of table salt, a speck just barely large enough for someone with keen eyesight to make out without a microscope. In that grain of salt there are about 1016 sodium and chlorine atoms. . . . If we wish to know a grain of salt, we must at least know the three-dimensional positions of each of these atoms. (In fact, there is much more to be known -- for example, the nature of the forces between the atoms -- but we are making only a modest calculation.) Now, is this number more or less than the number of things the brain can know?

How much can the brain know? There are perhaps 1011 neurons in the brain, the circuit elements and switches that are responsible for the functioning of our minds. A typical brain neuron has perhaps a thousand little wires, called dendrites, which connect it with its fellows. If, as seems likely, every bit of information in the brain corresponds to one of these connections, the total number of things knowable by the brain is no more than 1014, one hundred trillion. But this number is only one percent of the number of atoms in our speck of salt.

But let us look a little more deeply at our microgram of salt. Salt happens to be a crystal in which, except for defects in the structure of the crystal lattice, the position of every sodium and chlorine atom is predetermined. . . . An absolutely pure crystal of salt could have the position of every atom specified by something like 10 bits of information. This would not strain the information-carrying capacity of the brain.

If the universe had natural laws that governed its behavior to the same degree of regularity that determines a crystal of salt, then, of course, the universe would be knowable.

from Broca's Brain

He made me smile:
"Let's see if I've got this straight," he returned. . . . "It's a lazy Sunday afternoon, and there's this couple lying naked in bed reading the Encyclopedia Britannica to each other, arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more 'numinous' than the Resurrection. Do they know how to have a good time, or don't they?"

from Contact
He put some of my beliefs about science and skepticism into words more perfectly than I ever could:

"A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage." . . .

"Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle -- but no dragon.

"Where's the dragon?" you ask.

"Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.

"Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

"Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

"Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." . . .

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? . . . The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.

from The Demon-Haunted World
Sagan himself never achieved Ellie Arroway's level of scientific greatness. His work with SETI was often seen as laughable, and he never made contact with unknown life. He died without realizing his dreams, without answering his great questions.

And yet, it is Sagan, not Ellie, who is my hero.

Sagan knew that often true greatness takes more than one person's lifetime to achieve, and that a man must inspire others to carry on his work if he wants to help solve the biggest problems. Through his teaching, his writing, and a wonderful television series, Sagan was able to show many people what science is all about, and inspired countless minds to work toward scientific goals. Many people, myself included, owe to him a love of science and an increased sense of wonder at the world around us.

His death was immensely sad, but he lives on in every seeker of knowledge.

This node was created for We Could Be Heroes: tes's Everything2 Heroes Quest.

At the pizza place I delivered for we earned minimum plus tips and a commission on everything we delivered. So there was an incentive to drive quickly, to be 'top driver' for the night. Now it gets cold in Ithaca during the long winters. And when you're driving with a seat-full of pizzas, there's gonna be a lot of steam. When the steam hits the windshield, it turns to ice. And then you're driving inside a deathbox, as quickly as you can. Only you're leaning way out the driver's side window so you can see, and you're trying to keep a cigarette lit too. Now, if someone orders a sheet pizza(Pudgie's huge, rectangular, 32-slice deal), it's pretty much a given that they're stoned. And they're more than willing to tip you with a hit.

Or they're Carl Sagan, who has a really cool house cut into the side of a gorge up on University avenue, across from the Rockledge fraternity. I took the order when he called it in and it was all I could do to keep a straight face while he asked me for "Oh, about four or five of, of those subs of yours--"

"Anything on them?"

"Oh...everything, only no hot peppers on one of them."

"Will that be all?"

"Oh...and some of those wing things you make. Some of them, too."

"It'll be there in about half an hour."

"...and if it takes longer we get it free, right?"

Cheap git. "No, I'm afraid that is someone else's offer."

"Fine, fine."

"Thanks. Bye."

Well I wouldn't show that slip of paper with his order on it to anyone and insisted on putting it together myself. In what I thought was record time.

Fifteen minutes later I skidded to a stop at the professor's house, knocked twice, and waited.

"Hello. Wow, that was quick. Come in, come in, you're freezing out there."

It was late, I was already buzzed, and his house was even cooler on the inside than out.

"Can I get you anything? Coffee, hot chocolate..."

I looked over and saw a well-stocked bar.

"Scotch?"

"Dewar's?"

I'd just discovered the pleasures of good Scotch. "Any single malt?"

His face lit up and he walked hurriedly behind his bar and began pulling out bottles. "Glenfittig, glenlivet, glen--"

Shit. He'd offered me the Dewar's first. Shit.

"Fittig. Neat. Thanks."

He poured both of us healthy shots. The Scotch was smooth and smokey and went down easy. He tipped me five bucks and I was outta there. I didn't get into my car right away, though. I leaned back against the car, lit up a cigarette and took a drag. Another car pulled in next to mine. Two young women got out, saw my 'Pudgie's' hat, said "Cool, the food's here", and walked right in to the professor's house. I shook my head, got into my car, pulled out, and headed for base, the warmth of the Scotch my nightlong companion.

RICHH


Internet folklore, can't claim it, but am sure happy to pass it along.

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