Billions and Billions

I would be a very remiss Great Big Nerd, indeed, if I did not participate in the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-thon. Ten years ago today, 20 December 1996, Carl Sagan died. He was only 62.

Among my earliest TV memories, alongside the cartoons and the "Sesame Street" and the "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," there is "Cosmos." Obviously, I was very small and wouldn't have watched it on my own, but my Dad was a fan. I remember bits and pieces - some interesting visuals and the distinctive music, mostly.

My strongest association with Sagan is with the movie Contact, based on his novel. Okay, so Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey have all the chemistry of a couple of mannequins. But it's one of the few sci-fi movies I can think of that's really about ideas rather than bug-eyed monsters and evil robots.

I'm also a big fan of his 1977 book The Dragons of Eden - Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. It's perhaps a bit dated nearly thirty years later, but it remains a fascinating read. There's all kinds of great stuff in it about how and why human beings are intelligent, the capacity for language in the great apes, the origins of the myth of Eden, mammals' ancient rivalry with reptiles, and much, much more. And he's quite capable of an evocative turn of phrase: "Late at night," he writes in Chapter 6, about the function of dreaming, "when it is very still and the obligatory daily dreams have been dreamt, the gazelles and the dragons begin to stir."

If there's a silver lining in Sagan's death, it is that he did not live to see the dreadful state of reason in America today. Sagan would have been more appalled than anyone to hear the President of the United States advocating for the teaching of "intelligent design" in the science classroom. He would have been horrified by the administration's - and the public's - disregard for science on the subjects of stem cell research and climate change. He would have been disgusted by the overwhelming and increasing influence of religion on public policy.

Sagan was, above all, a believer in the power of reason and rational thinking. He had no tolerance for talk of mysticism, astrology, ESP, UFOs, or anything else that couldnt' be demonstrated or tested. He believed in the potential of humanity to achieve anything, but feared that we might well blow ourselves up before we got there. In short, Carl Sagan was exactly the kind of thinker the world desperately needs more of today.

Plus, he could rock the turtleneck-and-blazer combo like nobody's business.