Ten years ago today, Carl Sagan died.
I remember not being too shocked by the news. After reading his nonpareil excoriation of magical thinking, The Demon-Haunted World, I recall distinctly having the impresion that it was a deliberate bequest, that he was pouring out everything he had learned about the dissection of pseudoscience. It felt a little as though a torch was being passed.
The feeling was underscored by the hardcover dust jacket, which showed a candle’s flame, and by the subtitle of the book itself: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
But before that, long before, I had been introduced to Carl through a landmark PBS series, one which left its mark permanently on my psyche.
Cosmos was an adventure, a thrill-ride through the astonishing world of physics, science, evolution and knowledge; as broad as its subject, the series tried to show us how the world would look if we rode a beam of light; how unutterably, incoceivably vast the universe is; and how incredibly fragile we are.
But the resilience of the mind behind the series was tremendous. Carl was more than a popularizer of science; he wasn’t simply an ambassador of knowledge to the laity. His sole science fiction foray, Contact, was eventually transformed into a respectful and well-crafted film that, despite a few glaring departures from the book, I think he would have found acceptable.
And his enthusiasm to show, to describe, to share the wonders of the universe was palpable.
Thus, it’s still Cosmos that I recall most about Carl.
I first saw the series in my very early teens, when I was most in search of an intellectual mentor, and his vicarious tutelage led me down a path of rationalism, evidence and skepticism — one which has often been intensely frustrating, but one which has kept me from the pitfalls of fanaticism and given me the tools to analyze, as best I can, the plausibility of any given claim.
Carl helped form my mind, and he touched the minds of millions of others every bit as profoundly. Very few people can truthfully lay claim to such a legacy.
We need more like him, and I miss him.
Update: There are a lot of other bloggers offering comments on Carl today.
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