Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan 1“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1995

I ran across the above quote on a blog, and it really hit home on a point I’ve been pondering and struggling with recently. It has to do with that line about how “almost no one understands science and technology.” It has to do with how weary I am of living in that world.

But rather than rant about it, here are some other quotes I like from a truly great man and wonderful scientist.

Carl Sagan 3“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”

Keynote address at CSICOP conference, 1987

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”

Psychology Today, Carl Sagan, 1996

Carl Sagan 5“The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before.

“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.

from an essay as “Mr. X” in Marihuana Reconsidered, 1971

“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.”

“Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid.”

Carl Sagan 4“There is no other species on the Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be.”

Cosmos, 1980

Carl Sagan 2“The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. … Recently, we’ve managed to wade a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting.”

“The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

~Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1990 update)

pale blue dot“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994

Carl Sagan 6“When we consider the founders of our nation: Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others; we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility. They were fluent in the English language. They wrote their own speeches. They were realistic and practical, and at the same time motivated by high principles. They were not checking the pollsters on what to think this week.”

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1995

Carl Sagan 7“I never said it. Honest. Oh, I said there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars. It’s hard to talk about the Cosmos without using big numbers. I said ‘billion’ many times on the Cosmos television series, which was seen by a great many people. But I never said ‘billions and billions.’ For one thing, it’s imprecise. How many billions are ‘billions and billions’? A few billion? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? ‘Billions and billions’ is pretty vague… For a while, out of childish pique, I wouldn’t utter the phrase, even when asked to. But I’ve gotten over that. So, for the record, here it goes: ‘Billions and billions.'”

Billions and Billions: Thoughts of Life and Death at the Brink of the Millenium, 1997

Carl Edward Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996). Astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “Carl Sagan

  • Alex Autin

    How perfectly fitting that you would present a tribute to Sagan using his own words. His work, his contributions to science and humanity, requires no one to speak for him, and any who would attempt to do so would fall inadequately short. Perhaps of all the things he did well, and there are many, the one thing he did best was communicate. He made the cosmos accessible to anyone who would listen, and many did. We have him to thank for the world being a little less ignorant when it comes to science and technology.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, absolutely right! It would be a perfect example of gilding the lily. (You and I, I think, try to follow in his footsteps in showing how exciting and incredibly beautiful the world is through the eyes of science. It’s similar to when I was a film student and people would ask me if knowing how movies were made ruined them. Not at all; to the contrary, it gives you more to appreciate.)

      (And not only such a wonderful science communicator, but he wrote one of my favorite science fiction stories, Contact!)

  • bronxboy55

    The Demon-Haunted World is my favorite Carl Sagan book. I occasionally find myself spouting something I believe is an original thought, then I realize it’s just a poor paraphrase of something he wrote.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      He really was something, wasn’t he! I’d have to admit my favorite is Contact, but everything he wrote is finest kind. I wonder what he would have thought about the world today; so many of the things he warned about…[sigh]

      • bronxboy55

        I think he would be saddened by the fact that our culture seems to have become even less educated about science than it was then. Most people believe what they’re told, and much of what they’re told is nonsense.

        I also think he would have appreciated someone like you, who’s doing his best to help reverse the tide. No small task.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I agree; I think he would be sad, too. That quote I opened with is so key… how much longer can it go on like this? I am amazed sometimes at what little grasp so many have of the most basic science. I do try to spread the word, but I’m coming to the realization that I’m no Carl Sagan and don’t seem to have a knack for getting across the wonder and joy of this stuff.

        But I keep trying hoping to get better!

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