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Carl Sagan December 19, 2007

Posted by Ian in Miscellaneous.

Thanks to Ken’s blog I became aware that tomorrow (Thursday 20th December) is the 11th anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death and as a memorial another blog is running the second annual Carl Sagan blog-a-thon. As someone who has been more than inspired by Sagan I felt the need to post something about my thoughts on the man.

I was first introduced to Carl Sagan after reading a post on the JREF forum about Cosmos. I watched a few youtube videos and eventually came across this video of Sagan reading from his book Pale Blue Dot. I was immediately impressed by the rational emotion conveyed by his words, and the compelling nature of his voice. Later I found a copy of The Dragons of Eden for $5 at a second hand bookstore and bought it out of curiosity. Quite possibly the best $5 I have ever spent. Before it I couldn’t comprehend learning about the way the human mind works with such wonder and understanding, yet I was taken along just such a path by Sagan’s eloquence.

I soon acquired a copy of Cosmos off trademe and sat down to watch. From the very first moment to the last I was enthralled by how amazing this world was, and how meaningful life was with no need to fall back on religion or mythology. In a very real sense this was a spiritual awakening for me, not in the sense of a soul, but in the sense of really seeing the world for what is was. Cosmos was the beginning but I craved more.

I found and read The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and it was nothing short of a continuation of that feeling of inspiration and genuine rational reality. I found The Varieties of Scientific Experience and Pale Blue Dot and of course remained enthralled. Then I discovered Billions and Billions which was his last book. Aside from the insight, inspiration and clarity present in all his work, I found this book transcended them all with a feeling of humility and realism in the face of possible death (he was quite sick while writing it). The epilogue (available here) written by his wife Ann Druyan after Sagan’s death showed what an incredible man he was beyond his knowledge and understanding, and really highlighted that for all the legacy he left behind, he was fundamentally just a man who understood what mattered.

These are the opening lines of the very first episode of cosmos:

These words are so powerful and compelling, and I can’t help but wonder how many people’s journeys through life really began after they heard them for the first time. I think mine did.



Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There is a tingling of the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.

The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of the planet and of ourselves, a time of great danger. But our species is young and curious and brave. It shows much promise.

In the last few millenia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.



1. A. J. Chesswas - December 19, 2007

How interesting. I saw the clip of that exact quote just a couple of nights ago, in a lecture on philosophy and worldviews, which decried the way that a video which began with such an uncritical and ontological statement could be aired in schools right across America. He talked about how that particular diatribe necessarily excludes God completely – Sagan may as well be saying “there is no God”, because if there was one that fitted into his cosmos it could, by definition, no longer be God, at least not the Christian God…

2. Ian - December 19, 2007

I am absolutely convinced the world would be a better place if every child saw all 13 episodes of cosmos.

I don’t quote follow what you mean by an uncritical and ontological statement… it is the introduction to a 13 hour long TV series, I’m not sure what you expected? Nonetheless, a more inspirational and stirring start to the series I can’t imagine.

Incidentally the only way that “his” Cosmos would exclude god would be if god doesn’t exist, a notion you may have noticed doesn’t bother me too much. However Cosmos had pretty much nothing to do with god, and everything to do with what we do know and how we came to know it.

Oh, and if you think Cosmos a diatribe you are very sadly mistaken. Can I suggest you watch an episode or two before committing yourself to such a grievous mis-characterisation.


3. openparachute - December 19, 2007

I’m intrigued to know the “philosophy and worldviews” that would be so critical of such an inspiring and essentially positive statement.

4. A. J. Chesswas - December 19, 2007

haha woops i didn’t notice you’d left out the first sentence of the first paragraph of Cosmos:

“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

everything that I said above pertains to that first sentence…

5. greg - April 21, 2008

I’m still dissapointed that Jodie Foster when all that way and all she Contacted was her dad. James Woods was great 😉
Candle in the Dark is more political angled than Cosmos. Regarding Cosmos and it’s companion TV series, when did it last screen? I only recall it from the later 1980s.

6. Ian - April 21, 2008

Apparently it has been replayed recently on American TV and I presume like all good (and bad) TV series it gets its fair share of reruns.

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