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Carl Sagan Day

by Steven Novella, Nov 09 2009

For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
– Carl Sagan

Since I started blogging I have written about Carl Sagan on or about his birthday – November 9th. This year Sagan would have been 75 years old – we definitely lost him far too soon.

Sagan remains an important figure to the skeptical movement for various reasons. He made it popular to popularize science, and simultaneously showed us how it’s done. He condemned pseudoscience without seeming dismissive or judgmental. He emphasized the wonder and awe of science with poetry and power. And he had a way of forcing you to step back and take a broader perspective on the nature of things.

His signature series – Cosmos – was a breakthrough, in my opinion. What separated that series from what was (and unfortunately often still remains) the standard in science documentaries was the way in which Sagan constructed the stories of science as a personal journey. It became our personal journey as we followed Sagan through the Cosmos. Most science documentaries are constructed of talking heads looking off camera, voice overs, and graphics. In Cosmos, Sagan was talking directly to us. He was taking us gently by the hand and leading us on an adventure of discovery.

Sagan also was not just teaching us about science, he was showing us his personal love for science – how it gives us an awesome view of the universe in which we live, and why it’s important. The personal journey metaphor is also perfect. As a species, humanity is on a collective journey of scientific discovery. And we each personally take that journey as well, following in the path of those scientists who have blazed the trail.

Sagan’s book, A Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, remains one of the best entries into the world of skepticism out there – and the book I recommend to those wanting to understand what this whole skepticism thing is about. If you haven’t read it – read it write now. Buy or borrow the book, download it to your kindle, go to the library – read it.

But don’t stop there – all of Sagan’s science books are excellent reads. If you can find them, a few are available in audio format with Sagan reading.

In the last few years the skeptical movement that Sagan helped inspire has really taken off. We are bigger and more active than ever, riding the wave of social media and really taking our place as the voices of reason in society. I regret that Sagan is not around to see it and participate.

But there’s no question that his legacy continues and he remains an inspiration to those of us who seek to emulate his passion for science, teaching, and reason.

While we have remembered Sagan each year since we lost him – this year is the first Carl Sagan Day. This past weekend at Broward College the first annual Carl Sagan Day was celebrated with a full day of science. Our own Phil Plait was one of the speakers, along with James Randi and astrobiologist David Morrison. I was unable to attend, but it looks like something that should continue in the future.

For me personally, it is safe to say that Sagan was hugely influential in firing my passion for popularizing science, and he remains a role model in how to successfully promote science and reason. He remains a profound example of the ability of one man, through the power of words and ideas alone, to have a positive impact on society and millions of people.

11 Responses to “Carl Sagan Day”

  1. Jeffery2010 says:

    I will never forget the awe and wonder he inspired in me with his “Cosmos” tv show. And on a personal note – I was one of those nerds in Jr. High who was a known Trekie and a reader of books that hadn’t been assinged by the teachers. When Carl discussed his love of the Martian Tales of Edgar Burroughs I was in the middle of reading the series, and I felt a little less alone, and that made a world of difference to me as a young teenager.

    Thank you Carl.

  2. Norbert says:

    I remember reading ‘Cosmos’ (in a German translation) as a kid. I didn’t really understand much at the time and didn’t know the person Carl Sagan. But still I was mesmerized by the book! And partly because of it my interest in astronomy started.

    So from me too: Thank you Carl.

  3. Malfunky says:

    This man helped show me, a decade after his death, the wonders of the actual world. Wonders far greater than the imaginations of ancient prophets and fearful followers. And it can all be grasped, at least in concept, by education. People like him, along with the rest of the skeptical movement, saved my life. Or rather, helped me live again.

    Thank you, Carl.

  4. patientia says:

    I read Cosmos when I was 12 and stopped believing in astrology and other nonsense.

    Thank you, Carl.

  5. Kevin Fairchild says:

    I was 10 or 11 when Cosmos was broadcast. I had always liked science, but Cosmos showed me the awe and the beauty of the sciences, especially astronomy. Looking back now, I can recognize that it played a huge role in my future path, which included a degree in Physics, specializing in Astrophysics. I now teach high school physics, and attempt in my own little way to share the wonder of the universe with my students.

    Thank you, Carl.

  6. Drew says:

    Seems to me he’s had a positive impact on society and billions and billions of people.

  7. Corey says:

    Hi everyone, I wrote a short essay on my blog to commemorate Sagan’s birthday. Please check it out.
    Very nice piece Steven :)

  8. Beelzebud says:

    Just a head’s up for those that aren’t aware: has the entire Cosmos series up, and you can watch it for free. What is amazing is how relevant it still is after all of this time, with few revisions needed, only in cases of major discoveries.

  9. MadScientist says:

    James Randi’s comment about Carl Sagan’s ego had me chuckling – when he was alive the ego annoyed me, but there is no doubt that he was an excellent thinker and a rare communicator, and on the personal side he also demonstrated that not every pot-head or LSD user is a waste of space despite what the government and christian fundamentalists would have the world believe.

  10. Kurt says:

    I had never heard of Carl Sagan until years after his death. I just happened to catch “Cosmos” on T.V. one day. For what ever reason it opened my eyes to so many things that I could not possibly post all of them. Needless to say it was my “awakening” and my life has not been the same since. I felt that I had “wasted” much of my life and didn’t understand anything. For the first time in my life I took off in my “ship of the imagination”. Carl changed my way of thinking and opened my mind to receive true knowledge. For that I thank you Carl. I just wish I had known of you while you were alive, but as with me you will always have a way of strengthening peoples life through knowledge and truth. I miss you and have never met you.