When I first became acquainted with this man's writing
it was through his novel
. 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
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?"
He put some of my beliefs about science
into words more perfectly than I ever
"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
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's
"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
the world around us.
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.