Saturday, 14 November 2009

Carl Sagan - Cosmos & Remembrance

In the early 1980’s I spent many late evening’s watching the BBC’s Sky At Night, presented by British astronomer, Patrick Moore, and Cosmos, presented by US scientist and broadcaster, Carl Sagan. Moore was practical, but gregarious, Sagan was sincere and introspective and made you believe and dream of what could be. It came as no surprise when I discovered that Sagan played a prominent role in the US scientific program, SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). It did come as a surprise when I discovered that Contact, the film starring Jody Foster, was based his novel of the same name.

Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. His father, Sam Sagan, was a Russian immigrant garment worker and his mother was Rachel Molly Gruber. Sagan graduated from the University of Chicago with diplomas in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics. He went on to work at the famous Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and lectured at Harvard University. He worked as an adviser to NASA. There, as part of his work with astronauts and space exploration, Sagan put together the first physical message that was sent into space. He became a critic of the US Space Shuttle and Space Station missions at the expense of further robotic missions.

At heart, Sagan was a true scientific sceptic when he applied his work and learning to unexplained phenomena, particularly UFO’s and the growing number of abduction experiences. Some of Sagan's many books examine UFOs (as did one episode of Cosmos) and he claimed a religious undercurrent to the phenomenon. I find it hard to argue Sagan’s opinion whatever anyone’s path of belief takes.

Sagan understood the inherent relationship that our world has with religion over science. He challenged the conventional view of God in our world.

Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.

Carl Sagan was a humanist, devoutly against nuclear weapons, and in the last ten years of his life became particularly active politically in his opinions and views on many global issues. He fought a long battle with myelodysplasia, which included three bone marrow transplants. Carl Sagan died of pneumonia, aged 62, in 1996. On that day, a wonderful bright light went out in the Cosmos.

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