From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 4, 1996, pp. 10-17.
The following article is copyright ©1996 by the Skeptics Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (818) 794-3119. Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this article in its entirety, including this notice. A special Internet introductory subscription rate to Skeptic is available. For more information, contact Jim Lippard (email@example.com).
"There is a place with four suns in the sky-red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth-and made of diamond....The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming part of it."
-Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection
When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, I eagerly read the scientific papers of an obscure young astrophysicist who was one of the few researchers investigating the possibilities of life on other worlds. Then I went to graduate school at Cornell University, and not long afterwards, he became a professor there. His name was Carl Sagan.
Over the years, as he became my teacher, friend, and colleague, I watched as his charisma and gift of poetic language blossomed into a TV personality, bestselling writer, Pulitzer prizewinner, novelist, and the world's leading evangelist of science. And all the while, he continued to do world-class research. I would like to share some of my personal reminiscences of him.
Carl was a great professor. His ability to express the most arcane concepts in intuitive terms made it easy to grasp difficult theories of astrophysics. I can still see him drawing on the blackboard, reducing complex phenomena to comprehensible images. This same skill shone through his books and TV shows.
He took over a minor scientific journal, Icarus, and persuaded the leading figures of solar-system research to publish some of their major papers there. He loved editing it, even loved assembling the tables of contents. His publisher sometimes got annoyed at the huge phone bills he rang up, because he preferred to speak directly with scientists around the world, rather than rely on mail. But it became a leading periodical in its field.
With his wide-ranging mind, he was one of the few scientists able to do research in both biology and astrophysics. In his lab, he re-created the conditions that led to life on primitive Earth, and furthered our understanding of the chances of life evolving on other worlds.
When NASA designed the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft to be the first ever to fly to Jupiter and Saturn, they discovered that they had incidentally created the first interstellar spaceships. The energy needed to get to Jupiter was so great that the Pioneers would be moving too fast for the sun to pull them back. They would drift on through the Milky Way for billions of years. Some day, they might be found by another civilization. So why not include a message to them? But who could design a message to alien beings having no language in common with us but mathematics?
Naturally, they turned to Carl. He devised an ingenious map showing where we are in the galaxy by drawing the positions of pulsars, dead supernova stars that emit fantastically regular radio pulses. To show who made the plaque, it bore a picture of a man and woman. Because these humans were naked, NASA received complaints about sending pornography into space. It is difficult to imagine, though, that tentacled little green beings would find such pictures very erotic.
Today, the plaques are past the farthest planets of our solar system, drifting like a message in a bottle through the cosmic ocean of which he often spoke. Perhaps, millions of years from now, after wandering the dust-lanes of the interstellar void and gliding past stars of many colors, one may be found by spacefaring aliens. If so, how wonderfully appropriate that they will be reading a message from Carl Sagan.
After these were launched, he led a team including his future wife Ann Druyan, that created a more sophisticated message for the two Voyager spacecraft following in the spatial footprints of the Pioneers. They designed a kind of videodisk containing photos of life on Earth, samples of our greatest music, and greetings in many languages.
Now that message, too, is traveling to the stars. Someday a being may unwrap this gift from a distant planet, and see pictures of sheepherders and astronauts, listen to Beethoven's Fifth and Johnny B. Goode, and puzzle at the kaleidoscope of languages. One of the English messages he, she or it will hear is "Hello from the children of planet Earth" - spoken by Carl's son, Nick.
While the Voyagers flew from Jupiter to Saturn, he and scientists Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman created an organization to further space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Thus was born The Planetary Society. It became the fastest-growing public-membership organization in the world and quickly reached 100,000 members on every continent, educating people about the universe, and supporting research, especially on Mars and SETI.
In his books, articles and shows, Carl campaigned against irrationality. Although he believed it was likely that there is intelligent life on other worlds, he was relentlessly skeptical about claims that the Earth is being visited by UFOs.
Despite his disbelief in UFOs, he was one of the pioneers of SETI. Back in the early 1960s, it took a lot of courage to speak out in favor of looking for astronomical signs of other civilizations, when most scientists regarded this as a lot of Buck Rogers nonsense.
He was asked to edit the translation of a book by Soviet astrophysicist Iosif Shklovsky called Intelligent Life in the Universe. He added so many notes elaborating his own ideas that it doubled the length of the book, so he was made coauthor. It became the bible of SETI, summarizing the arguments about why life should exist elsewhere, and how we might find it.
So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel prizewinners. This was a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial field.
Carl also had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell anecdotes. Once, he told me about doing a TV show in which he discovered, just before the cameras rolled, that the seat of his pants had split. He had to make certain that he never faced away from the camera.
One of my favorite stories was from when he and Shklovsky were sitting together at a conference in the USSR. The speaker droned on about his dubious theory that great scientific ideas are born during times when sunspots are active. Shklovsky whispered that this theory must have been conceived when sunspots were absent.
Carl was sometimes criticized for things he was not responsible for, and mocked for things he never said. In his enormously popular Cosmos series, there were many camera shots of his profile. People criticized him for being so egotistical, but this was the director's choice, not his.
Johnny Carson, America's popular talk-show host, loved to affectionately mimic Carl - one of his favorite guests - by saying "billions and billions," until everyone associated it with Carl. Yet Carl never said that precise phrase in public until years later.
He grew quite tired of it. I remember a concert for Planetfest, a Planetary Society celebration of space exploration in 1981. He spoke about space exploration while accompanied by music conducted by John Williams, and inevitably had to use the word "billions." As soon as he did, tittering broke out in the audience. He glared at the offenders and continued.
One of his greatest contributions to society came from his essays for the popular national Sunday supplement, Parade. With these, he was able to explain to a huge audience topics from all realms of science, and to attack the endless gullibility of a public that fell for even the most unsupported claims of paranormal events. He reminded them that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Through Carl, millions and millions of people learned much about the universe. One extraordinary fact he taught them was that most of the atoms of which we are made were born in stars that exploded long ago. He observed that "We are made of star-stuff."
He certainly was.
My heroes are few. Martin Gardner, Dick Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan. With all that brilliance, my starry zodiac was more than adequate. Dick, Isaac, and now Carl are gone.
I'm glad that I last saw him in person in Seattle, looking well, and to all appearances recovering from his ailment. We sat and spoke for a long time. The last time.
Up until the end, he was confident, cheery, optimistic. Despite the ravages of his illness and the obvious, visible effects of the therapy he was undergoing, he made every public appearance he could in his last weeks. He was brave in the face of his demise, and went like the warrior he was.
I remember his joy at seeing the first photos to come in from the surface of Mars, his exuberance standing before a night sky in Cosmos, and the broad grin he unleashed when the stunning pictures from Jupiter began to crawl across a computer monitor. I urge you, if you have not yet read his last book, The Demon-Haunted World, please do so. Many months ago, I received a bound galley of that book, with a cautionary note not to prepare a review based closely upon it, since there were many planned changes due. When I eventually received the final draft, I noted many instances where Carl had strengthened his language, upgraded and fortified his adjectives, and in general hardened his language. I had the chilling thought that perhaps he felt this might be his last statement about the pseudoscience, crackpots, frauds, and quacks that he so resented. Now I'm more convinced of that possibility.
He had the ability to captivate with his words, spoken or written; the Cosmos series was seen by 400 million people worldwide. His students at Cornell worshiped him, and though his colleagues were often pedantically annoyed at his high public profile and expressed opinions that he should return to pure research, he managed to ignore that pressure-happily for us-and continued to be the great teacher of critical thinking that the world came to know and respect. The academic pressure was so great when he taught at Harvard, that he was "passed over" for tenure, and Harvard's stupid loss was Cornell's gain.
Carl came up against the Reagan Star Wars fiasco, and became so involved as an advocate of rationality that he was publicly arrested. He championed the SETI program - with Frank Drake - and in all respects he supported science and the simple process of thinking.
A giant has fallen. We can only celebrate his life and continue
to listen to him through his writings. I miss him, and I feel
December 20, 1996, as I was sitting in the Skeptics Society's office this morning working on final edits of this issue and my forthcoming book, my partner Pat Linse came in. I bid her good morning and inquired if there was anything important happening that I needed to know. "Yes," she said with an ashen look in her face. "Carl Sagan is dead." The news came like a blow to the gut. Just last week I saw him on Nightline, telling Ted Koppel that the prospects for his future health were excellent. Just last month Carl and I had communicated by e-mail about doing an interview for Skeptic magazine. And just like that he is gone.
How fleeting is our tenure on planet Earth, Sagan might have said. We must make the most of it. Carl certainly did. Born November 9, 1934, in New York City, he obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1960. From 1962 to 1968, he worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. >From 1972 to 1981 he was Associate Director of the Center for Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell University. Up until his death he was David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Science there. Throughout this time he worked closely with NASA and JPL on many space probes, and he co-founded and served as President of the Planetary Society. As if that wasn't enough, Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden, following that up with such classic works as Broca's Brain, The Cosmic Connection, Intelligent Life in the Universe, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Pale Blue Dot, and The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan is best known to the general public as the writer and host of the most-watched documentary series in history, Cosmos, for his regular appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and for his column in Parade magazine.
Among Sagan's plethora of awards were NASA's Apollo Achievement Award, the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award from the American Astronautical Society, the Masursky Award from the American Astronomical Society, the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal from the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation, the 1981 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, and honorary degrees from 22 universities. The film version of his novel Contact, about the first communication between humans and an alien intelligence, is scheduled for release in the summer of 1997. It stars Jodie Foster and is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who did Back to the Future. What a full life it has been.
It was a gloomy day here at the office. As I write Carl is on the television screen discussing the long historical chain from genes to brains to books, as Cosmos plays in the background-our own small tribute to one of the finest human beings of our age. Like so many others my life was deeply affected by Sagan. His book, The Dragons of Eden, got me thinking about the evolutionary aspects of human behavior when I was a graduate student in psychology, and provided material for a number of lectures in my introductory psychology course when I was a professor. Cosmos showed me how important the history of science is to our understanding of how science works and its impact on our culture.
Most significantly, in the Fall of 1987, Sagan delivered a lecture I attended in Pasadena, California, entitled "The Burden of Skepticism." It came at a crossroads in my life when I was trying to find my intellectual moorings. After reminding us of the joys and responsibilities of science and skepticism, Sagan concluded: "If we teach school children the habit of being skeptical perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin commercials and 35,000 year old channelers. Maybe they will start asking awkward questions about economic or social or political or religious institutions, and then where will we be? Skepticism is dangerous. In fact, it is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. That is exactly its function."
It is not only what Sagan said, but how he said it that signaled to me what I needed to do. His forceful presence, deliberate style (with that sonorous voice), carefully-chosen humor, and most of all his pure class radiated that night. I wanted to be a part of the business of skepticism and start asking awkward questions of any and all institutions and beliefs. It was a defining moment. I wanted to be a skeptic.
Immediately after the lecture I applied to the Claremont Graduate School, earned a Ph.D. in the history of science, and within six months of graduating in 1991 founded the Skeptics Society. In a way, the Society was born at that 1987 lecture, at which Carl stated what I think is the essential tension between skepticism and credulity, and serves as a beacon toward which we may steer whenever we lose our intellectual moorings.
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.)
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
No one is grieving today more than Carl's family. But on another level we are all grieving because Sagan transcended self and science, reaching through the intellectual, cultural, and political boundaries to all peoples. To quote George Bailey's guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody, from It's a Wonderful Life: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
You see, Carl, you really had a wonderful life.
ON THE COSMOS:
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us-there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries."
-"The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean," Cosmos, p. 4.
ON EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE:
"There are some hundred billion (1011) galaxies, each with, on the average, a hundred billion stars. In all the galaxies, there are perhaps as many planets as stars, 1011 x 1011 = 1022, ten billion trillion. In the face of such overpowering numbers, what is the likelihood that only one ordinary star, the Sun, is accompanied by an inhabited planet? Why should we, tucked away in some forgotten corner of the Cosmos, be so fortunate? To me, it seems far more likely that the universe is brimming over with life. But we humans do not yet know. We are just beginning our explorations. The only planet we are sure is inhabited is a tiny speck of rock and metal, shining feebly by reflected sunlight, and at this distance utterly lost."
-"The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean," Cosmos, p. 7.
ON DISCOVERING EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCES:
"The receipt of a message from an advanced civilization will show that there are advanced civilizations, that there are methods of avoiding the self-destruction that seems so real a danger of our present technological adolescence. ...Finding a solution to a problem is helped enormously by the certain knowledge that a solution exists. This is one of many curious connections between the existence of intelligent life elsewhere and the existence of intelligent life on Earth."
-"Knowledge is Our Destiny," The Dragons of Eden, p. 234.
ON EXPLORING THE COSMOS:
"This is the time when humans have begun to sail the sea of space. The modern ships that ply the Keplerian trajectories to the planets are unmanned. They are beautifully constructed, semi-intelligent robots exploring unknown worlds."
-"Travelers' Tales," Cosmos, p. 138.
ON THE VIEW OF EARTH FROM 3.7 BILLION MILES AWAY AS A PALE BLUE DOT:
"Look again at 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. ... There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."
-"You Are Here," Pale Blue Dot, pp. 8-9.
"Comets approach the Sun, flicker a few hundred times, and die like moths around a flame. But a vast repository of them waits at the periphery of the Solar System. When the present configuration of continents is unrecognizably altered, when the Earth is engulfed by the expanding Sun, when, in its dotage, our star feebly illuminates the charred remains of this planet - then, even then, the skies will still be brightened as young comets, newly arrived from the interstellar dark, make their wild perihelion passages. When the rest of the solar system is dead, and the descendants of humans long ago emigrated or extinct, the comets will still be here."
-"A Mote of Dust," Comet, p. 372.
"As soon as I was old enough, my parents gave me my first library card. I think the library was on 85th Street, an alien land. Immediately, I asked the librarian for something on stars. She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained, and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book - the right kind of book. I opened it breathlessly and read until I found it. The book said something astonishing, a very big thought. It said that the stars were suns, only very far away. The Sun was a star, but close up."
-"The Backbone of Night," Cosmos, p. 168.
ON CHILDHOOD DREAMS OF BEING AN ASTRONOMER:
"When I was twelve, my grandfather asked me-through a translator (he had never learned much English)-what I wanted to be when I grew up. I answered, 'An astronomer,' which, after a while, was also translated. 'Yes,' he replied, 'but how will you make a living?' I had supposed that, like all the adult men I knew, I would be consigned to a dull, repetitive, and uncreative job; astronomy would be done on weekends. It was not until my second year in high school that I discovered that some astronomers were paid to pursue their passion. I was overwhelmed with joy; I could pursue my interest full-time."
-"Preface," The Cosmic Connection, p. vii.
ON THE BRAIN:
"The human brain seems to be in a state of uneasy truce, with occasional skirmishes and rare battles. The existence of brain components with predispositions to certain behavior is not an invitation to fatalism or despair: we have substantial control over the relative importance of each component. Anatomy is not destiny, but it is not irrelevant either."
-"The Future Evolution of the Brain," The Dragons of Eden, p. 189.
ON GENES, BRAINS, AND BOOKS:
"When our genes could not store all the information necessary for survival, we slowly invented brains. But then the time came, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than could conveniently be contained in brains. So we learned to stockpile enormous quantities of information outside our bodies. We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of that memory is called the library.
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person-perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic."
-"The Persistence of Memory," Cosmos, p. 281.
"I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir."
-"Science and Hope," The Demon-Haunted World, pp. 26-27.
WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE NONSENSE:
"Such reports persist and proliferate because they sell. And they sell, I think, because there are so many of us who want so badly to be jolted out of our humdrum lives, to rekindle that sense of wonder we remember from childhood, and also, for a few of the stories, to be able, really and truly, to believe-in Someone older, smarter, and wiser who is looking out for us. Faith is clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that impart credibility to that seal."
-"The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars," The Demon-Haunted World, p. 58.
ON SCIENCE LITERACY:
"All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions. But I do not see how we can deal with the universe-both the outside and the inside universe-without studying it. The best way to avoid abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate, to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest and concern - if both its delights and its social consequences are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press, and at the dinner table - we have greatly improved our prospects for learning how the world really is and for improving both it and us."
-"Broca's Brain," Broca's Brain, p. 12.
ON SCIENCE AND UNCERTAINTY:
"We will always be mired in error. The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is a pervasive, visible self-assessment of the reliability of our knowledge. You can often see error bars in public opinion polls...Imagine a society in which every speech in the Congressional Record, every television commercial, every sermon had an accompanying error bar or its equivalent."
-"Science and Hope," The Demon-Haunted World, p. 28.
ON HUMANS AND ANIMALS:
"We must stop pretending we're something we are not. Somewhere between romantic, uncritical anthropomorphizing of the animals and an anxious, obdurate refusal to recognize our kinship with them - the latter made tellingly clear in the still-widespread notion of 'special' creation - there is a broad middle ground on which we humans can take our stand."
-"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, p. 413.
"In the entire Velikovsky affair, the only aspect worse than the shoddy, ignorant and doctrinaire approach of Velikovsky and many of his supporters was the disgraceful attempt by some who called themselves scientists to suppress his writings. For this, the entire scientific enterprise has suffered. Velikovsky makes no serious claim of objectivity or falsifiability. There is at least nothing hypocritical in his rigid rejection of the immense body of data that contradicts his arguments. But scientists are supposed to know better, to realize that ideas will be judged on their merits if we permit free inquiry and vigorous debate."
-"Venus and Dr. Velikovsky," Broca's Brain, p. 127
BIOLOGY AND HISTORY:
"Biology is much more like language and history than it is like physics and chemistry. ...Now you might say that where the subject is simple, as in physics, we can figure out the underlying laws and apply them everywhere in the Universe; but where the subject is difficult, as in language, history, and biology, governing laws of Nature may well exist, but our intelligence may be too feeble to recognize their presence - especially if what is being studied is complex and chaotic, exquisitely sensitive to remote and inaccessible initial conditions. And so we invent formulations about "contingent reality" to disguise our ignorance. There may well be some truth to this point of view, but it is nothing like the whole truth, because history and biology remember in a way that physics does not. Humans share a culture, recall and act on what they've been taught. Life reproduced the adaptations of previous generations, and retains functioning DNA sequences that reach billions of years back into the past. We understand enough about biology and history to recognize a powerful stochastic component, the accidents preserved by high-fidelity reproduction."
-"Life is Just a Three-Letter Word," Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, p. 92.
"Because the word 'God' means many things to many people, I frequently reply [to people who ask 'Do you believe in God?'] by asking what the questioner means by 'God.' To my surprise, this response is often considered puzzling or unexpected: 'Oh, you know, God. Everyone knows who God is.' Or 'Well, kind of a force that is stronger than we are and that exists everywhere in the universe.' There are a number of such forces. One of them is called gravity, but it is not often identified with God. And not everyone does know what is meant by 'God.'...Whether we believe in God depends very much on what we mean by God.
My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species."
-"A Sunday Sermon," Broca's Brain, p. 291.
ON THEISM AND ATHEISM:
"Those who raise questions about the God hypothesis and the soul hypothesis are by no means all atheists. An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions seems admissible, and considering the enormous emotional energies with which the subject is invested, a questioning, courageous and open mind seems to be the essential tool for narrowing the range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence of God."
-"The Amniotic Universe," Broca's Brain, p. 311.
ON A PLEA FOR TOLERANCE:
"We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish. And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."
-"Who Speaks for Earth?," Cosmos, p. 339.
ON THE TRANSIENCE OF LIFE:
"Each of us is a tiny being, permitted to ride on the outermost skin of one of the smaller planets for a few dozen trips around the local star. ...The longest-lived organisms on Earth endure for about a millionth of the age of our planet. A bacterium lives for one hundred-trillionth of that time. So of course the individual organisms see nothing of the overall pattern-continents, climate, evolution. They barely set foot on the world stage and are promptly snuffed out-yesterday a drop of semen, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, tomorrow a handful of ashes. If the Earth were as old as a person, a typical organism would be born, live, and die in a sliver of a second. We are fleeting, transitional creatures, snowflakes fallen on the hearth fire. That we understand even a little of our origins is one of the great triumphs of human insight and courage."
-"Snowflakes Fallen on the Hearth," Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, pp. 30-31.
ON LIFE AND DEATH:
"Most people would rather be alive than dead. But why? It's hard to give a coherent answer. An enigmatic "will to live" or "life force" is often cited. But what does that explain? Even victims of atrocious brutality and intractable pain may retain a longing, sometimes even a zest, for life. Why, in the cosmic scheme of things, one individual should be alive and not another is a difficult question, an impossible question, perhaps even a meaningless question. Life is a gift that, of the immense number of possible but unrealized beings, only the tiniest fraction are privileged to experience. Except in the most hopeless of circumstances, hardly anyone is willing to give it up voluntarily - at least until very old age is reached."
-"What Thin Partitions...," Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, p. 159.
On July 3-6, there will be a huge celebration of space exploration held in Pasadena by The Planetary Society, coinciding with the arrival of NASA's Mars Pathfinder spacecraft at the red planet. Anyone interested may contact The Planetary Society, 65 N. Catalina Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106-2301; phone 800-9WORLDS.
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