Carl Sagan

[from the vaults, 4/26/2010]

We are lucky in our lifetime to have scientists who are as able with their pens as they are with their petrie dishes, people like Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson, Lewis Thomas.
My personal favorite is astronomer Carl Sagan, yes, he of the billions and billions. In his collections of essays, this curious and eclectic thinker writes about everything from the sex lives of dolphins to the prehistory of earth to Immanuel Velikovsky’s theories of alien visitation. No subject is safe from Sagan, in print or in life, and he was one of modern science’s great interpreters, even when it wasn’t strictly necessary, vide the following story.

cosmicOne thing that is so attractive about Sagan is his ability to be humbled in the face of someone else’s intelligence, including a room full of first graders. “A friend asked me to come to talk to his class,” Sagan writes in one essay in The Cosmic Connection, “which, he assured me, knew nothing about astronomy but was eager to learn.” So Sagan goes to his young friend’s class, armed with slides of colorful gaseous nebulas to entertain the kiddies, and then makes the mistake of asking the class how mankind figured out the earth was round. One kid pipes up with the example of a ship’s master sinking beneath the horizon as it sails away from you. A second says what about an ellipse, you know, when you can see that the moon is round? Another says, well, what about that guy Magello who sailed around the world? You can’t sail around the world if it isn’t round. A fourth kid says, hey, don’t you know there’s pictures of earth from space, and the pictures are all round? And then a fifth kid says, oh, yeah? What about the Foucault pendulum experiment?

First graders, all. It is a considerably chastened astronomer who goes home from school that day, and Sagan’s not too proud to say so.

brocaIn Broca’s Brain he writes of the influence science fiction had on his ten-year old self, beginning with the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (he didn’t think much of John Carter’s advance work), Astounding Science Fiction and Star Trek. In Billions and Billions he writes the calmest, sanest, most rational look ever at abortion, a relief and a resource to the reader who’s had it with ranting. In The Dragons of Eden he quotes God to Eve: “In pain shalt thou bring forth children,” and observes, “Modern men and women have braincases twice the volume of Homo habilis.’ Childbirth is painful because the evolution of the human skull has been spectacularly fast and recent.”

Yes, at times Sagan can also be a little acerbic, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Book Review Monday Chatter

Dana View All →

Author and founder of

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I like your list. Please add Brian Greene to it (The Elegant Universe, for one) and a couple of books by E. O. Wilson: Biophilia and The Diversity of Life. I love your post.

Leave a Reply