Still at the edge of forever: for Carl

Carl Sagan in 1980

Ten years ago today, Carl Sagan died. He had been a hero of mine since childhood, since I first watched Cosmos. I would kick the rest of the family out of the lounge room, close the door, turn off the lights, pull the beanbag up to the TV as close as possible, and let Carl show me the Universe and its history. From Empedocles and the water-thief, to the discovery of volcanoes on Io; from Lowell's dreams of Martian cities dying beside canals choked with dust, to Wolf Vishniac's death in Antarctica while paving the way for the search for life on Mars; the Big Bang, the Tunguska Event and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. I can't have been much into double digits when I first watched Cosmos, if that; heady stuff indeed for a young boy. His own joy in the search for knowledge was palpable, infectious, inspirational -- to the extent that I cannot understand how anyone could ever feel any differently. Here's a short clip from one episode of Cosmos, "The edge of forever": more metaphysics than physics, but if you've never seen it before, it will give you an idea of his style; and if you have seen it before, it will transport you again. It still sends shivers down my spine.

Not only did I adore Cosmos the series, and Cosmos the book, I also inhaled his other books: The Cosmic Connection, Broca's Brain, The Dragons of Eden; and later, Contact, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, The Demon-haunted World. Carl hugely influenced my basic worldview: rationality is our best tool for understanding the world, secular humanism our best antidote for the fact that we can never be perfectly rational. We are not at the centre of the Universe, which is anyway indifferent to our presence; but we are sentient, and that is a precious thing, or ought to be, to ourselves and perhaps to others.

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.1

Carl's love for astronomy also helped steer me into pursuing astronomy as a career. From about the time I saw Cosmos on, I had a burning desire to become an astronomer and explore the Universe too. I nearly did too; I started a PhD and was nearly a year into it when I realised that (a) I wasn't very good at it and (b) I wasn't enjoying it very much. That's not Carl's fault, of course, but astronomy was such a hard thing for me to let go of, having made it a part of me for so long, and that's partly a testament to his eloquence and his passion. To cut a long story short, I switched to an MSc as a sort of consolation prize, while pondering what to do next. And it was during this time that I learned of Carl's illness. He continued to work and to write. A friend, a fellow astro postgrad, saw him speak at a conference in Hawaii and reported that he looked distressingly ill.

Ten years ago today, I sobbed like a child into my girlfriend's arms, and I must confess that I am tearing up even now. (Having Vangelis's "Heaven & Hell Part 1" playing in the background probably doesn't help.) Carl Sagan is gone, and he is sorely missed, but his influence will remain -- at least for as long as I live, and I suspect for much longer than that.

Other memories of Carl which have crossed my personal blog horizon: Bad Astronomy Blog, Centauri Dreams, Respectful Insolence, Cocktail Party Physics, Butterflies and Wheels, a great one from Larvatus Prodeo, and most poignantly of all, from his wife and collaborator Ann Druyan. These are all part of a larger blog commemoration effort (the results of which can be seen here), and the blogless can join in too.

Image source: Wikipedia.

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  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York and Avenel: Wings Books, 1995 [1980]), 4. []

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