August 13, 2009

The Skeptical Naturalist

"Whatever the reason you're on Mars, I'm glad you're there, and I wish I was with you."

One of my modern-day heroes was Carl Sagan. Of the writers who have lived at least part of their lives concurrent with mine, I count Sagan near the top. I say near, as it would be difficult to bump Isaac Asimov out of the number one slot, but Sagan comes close. He was not the most prolific of authors, publishing only some 200 scholarly papers and was author, co-author or editor of 20 (or 21, depending on perspective) tomes. His last work, Billions & Billions, was finished by his 3rd wife, Ann Druyan, following his untimely death in the winter of 1996. Sagan’s only true science fiction work was the novel Contact, which Robert Zemecki made into a movie by the same name. Jodi Foster was the star.

Sagan’s finest service to mankind was in his attempts to use popular media as a means to educate the masses. Carl Sagan is inarguably the champion in that field. His television series Cosmos, in which he revealed the mysteries of the universe in layman’s terms, was a must watch for millions worldwide. The 13 hour-long episodes started and ended in 1980, but shortened versions are continuously rebroadcast by various Turner networks and by the BBC. The series is acclaimed as being the most widely watched series in PBS history.

Sagan’s advocacy for science was legend. He was a major proponent of the search for extraterrestrial life, which was the basis for the book and movie Contact. He promoted the use of radio telescopes to listen for signals from intelligent extraterrestrials. In 1982 he managed to get a petition, signed by 70 scientists including seven Nobel Prize winners, advocating SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) published in the journal Science. Single handedly, Carl Sagan turned the UFO craze into a legitimate search for extraterrestrial life.

During the cold war era, Sagan worked to raise the public’s awareness of the potential effects of a nuclear confrontation. He published a model of how even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons could dramatically upset the balance of life on Earth, coining the phrase “nuclear winter.”

The neat thing about Sagan was not so much his accomplishments, but his humility. In 1991, following Desert Storm, he predicted that the smoke from the Kuwaiti oilfield fires, set by Sadam’s retreating armies, could have a detrimental effect on agriculture throughout the Middle East and Asia. He retracted this and admitted his error in his book, The Demon Haunted World, once again proving that science is self-correcting.

In the news lately have been stories about NASA’s inability to track the so called “Killer Asteroids.” Shortly before his death, Sagan pitched his weight behind the implementation of an organized search for Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) that might impact Earth. This effort fell by the wayside until recently, when an asteroid with a trajectory that will bring it uncomfortably close to us was spotted.

Sagan was a rationalist about religion, maybe an atheist, uttering such statements such as: "The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by 'God' one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity."

Today I found the following video on You Tube. The intro had a bit of an honorific for Carl Sagan. It prompted me to write this missive. Enjoy.