There is a bed in Seattle which is nestled in North America on the spinning Earth led by the Sun around the Milky Way, a speck of cosmic dust floating in the Universe. On this bed Carl Sagan died of an obscure disease for which there is no cure. Carl Sagan is a celebrated writer and astronomer, but most remembered for his writings. Like Galileo he brought the beauty of science to the people. He is the writer of Cosmos’, an award winning television mini-series that brought the wonders of astronomy into the home.
His last and final work was a collection of his essays; Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death on the Brink of the Millennium.. Sagan wrote with a sense of awe, humility and reverence of nature. This book is an expression of Sagan’s passions for the things around. The book is so varied in topic that it is difficult at times to find a unifying factor. Nor does the book reach any sort of conclusion as to the direction of man and things around him.
In this we can understand the true sadness of Sagan’s death, he was a child who was overwhelmed by the beauty of the universe around him and had not the time needed to express all of it in words. The book is split into three parts; “The Power and Beauty of Quantification”, “What are the Conservatives Conserving? ” and “Where Hearts and Minds Collide”. In the first section Sagan begins by teaches the reader about large numbers and what innovations in the past allowed us to use them.
Sagan moves slowly and tactfully building the readers understanding of these basic concepts of large numbers and exponents, then applies them to such problems as exponential growth of populations, radioactive decay and nuclear chain reactions.. He exposes scientific concepts like a traditional narrative. Building the story’ to the questions he would most like answered concerning the nature of the universe and extraterrestrial (intelligent or otherwise) life.
There is only a slight deviation coherence of this section where Sagan-or the editors- decide to delve into the nature of man’s war instinct and whether or not it is good to suppress it or nurture it. Sagan feels that thousands of years of a hunter/gatherer society will not be offset by relatively few years of a sedentary existence. Despite this Sagan maintains an optimistic outlook on humanities destiny, a trend that runs the course of the book. Overall this section is fairly light and enjoyable to read, the concepts early in the section will not overwhelm the reader.
Upon finishing the section one is left with a sense of satisfaction, not the confusion associated by the jargon riddled books that plague this genre. In our day, that is today, there are more scientists than there ever was in the past. Tomorrow will bring more still. Scientists by nature are disruptive creatures, there favourite pastime is pacing in back and forth in their laboratories creating theories as to how the clockwork of the universe ticks. Others scientists spend their time trying to disprove each others theories. In doing so changing the nature the universe-there could be nothing more disruptive than that.
What then do we do when two scientists, or, two separate herds of them disagree on a theory. We could have them strap on safety goggles, have them butt heads like mountain goats, last scientist standing is correct. Though this sounds amusing, in some circumstances it is not any better than some of systems that exists to test the validity of a theory. A theory by definition can never be proven or become fact, except for mathematical ones. The Scientific method requires of us to perform tedious experiments and to keep concise observations as a means of strengthening a theory This is the inherent problem.
If two contradicting theories are both sound then which one do we accept, and to compound the problem; what if the theories were predicting if life on this planet would end in the next year, decade or century. Choosing one over the other now becomes very personal, and scientists might try to resolve their problems with attacks on each others character, each will accuse the other of scare-mongering or being too conservative. This only breeds paranoia and hate for science in the minds of the public.
The issues are ozone levels, greenhouse gases, fish stocks and whatever is being leached into your backyard. Sagan address’ this issue in the second part of his book. This by far being the strongest and most important part because it affects the each life on our planet. It is interesting that Sagan in his final chapter of this part “Religion and Science: An Alliance” that Sagan comes to the conclusion that Science and Religion can together work through this problem; Science being the antithesis of Religion, but both-for now- are committed to helping humanity prevail.
The third and final part is mixed bag of topics from Americas cold war with Russia, America war with itself, a new view on abortion, morality and Sagan’s top three advances in twentieth century existence. Each essay only begins to discuss topics of enormous depth. Sagan in the style that is prevalent throughout the book keeps them all very readable and thought provoking. The essays define so well aspects of the Twentieth century that one gets the feeling that some of them will find their way into the anthologies of the future. In many ways this book is loosely held together.
Individual parts hold some unity but the book as a whole does not. This may be because the book was published after Sagans death, lack of matieral or and editors blunder. This should not detract the reader from the importance of this book. In 1994 I spent one month in the country of my ancestors, India. Immediatley I marveled at the advancements in my rural village in the period between a prior visit. Televisions had become widespread, satellites were attached to a quarter of the homes and telephones were now as common as curry. Night fell on my humble village.
The nights are pitch black, there are no lamps to illuminate the streets. A problem quickly arises; if you don’t know every back alley, every tiny claustrophobic cobble stone street, every pseudo-dead end path (paths that seem to dead ends but if you walk through a Hobbit hole like door, you emerge on to another tiny cobblestone street), you are quickly lost. On top of all of this, the streets are roamed by stray dogs. Attempting to walk across the village, as I did without a flashlight(they attract bandits) is daunting; frightening on the most primitive of levels.
To my relief I have learned that since my visit street lamps have been installed in heavily traveled areas. As a western observer I overlooked the technological necessity of my village. By my village’ I mean then millions of rural villages in the dozens of countries around the world. All the gadgets that these villages will acquire will not make up for the basic security that a simple low pressure sodium street lamp will provide. These small centers will have to be built up from the ground up with their specific needs in mind.
Sadly this has been overlooked by the western guardians’ of civilization, the dozens of failed hydroelectric, infrastructure and aid projects are a testament to that. Another sad fact is that our Eastern brothers are fed some of same 500 channel universes that are numbing western man’s mind. All the eastern man receives is the ugly consumerism that is the foundation of western man’s existence. The need is in education. As the technological need for both these men is distinct so too is their need of education.
The western nations feel that democracy is what all nations must have to be fair and right and just and pious. Western man takes a zealous position and feels that democracy should not be strived for but imposed. Overlooking the fact that a successful democracy requires a certain level of education by its people. An education that eastern man does not have. They only man who gains is the western man because he has his thumb firmly over the squirming eastern man’s head. Conversely, as the west becomes changed by technology it too will need a new kind of education.
Not a kind of education that is provided in the halls of higher education but a kind for the average man. The need for this education is to remedy the phenomenon of scientific myth. Scientific myths are the conceptions that a mass population has as to the limits and powers of science. These myths are most expressed in the realms of pseudo science, advertisements, media and most importantly industry. As I write there is a debate over whether or not genetically altered food is safe or not.
Both sides are armed with their infantry of experts and spin doctors. Whether there is real danger in the food is almost not a question anymore, rather this issue is that of public relations. The con side could easily win by playing to the fears of the public, by painting a picture of a Jurassic Garden, where asparagus is more deadly than killer bees. It does not matter which theory is right, the public will not be accepting when it is afraid, no amount of RNA, DNA,G,A,T,C,X Y and Zed will change that. This is where people like Carl Sagan fit in.
The power of his writing is its ability to teach the average man of the wonders around him in and easy to understand, non-confrontational manner. From this education we will learn to be critical of science and not shun it. The real progress for both western and eastern man will happen on a personal level and education is its vehicle. We do not judge the progress of a society by measuring the height of their buildings, the strength of their telescopes or grace of their athletes. We measure progress by looking at the individual.