Tuesday, February 25, 2014

 

Carl Sagan's Legacy

Carl Sagan's groundbreaking PBS series "Cosmos" introduced millions of people to the wonders and mysteries of the universe. Sagan often spoke of "great demotions," meaning that humanity has been forced to accept that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, that our solar system is not the center of the galaxy and that our galaxy is not the center of the universe. Sagan began "Cosmos" by telling the viewers, "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."

Joel Achenbach's Smithsonian article Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable describes Sagan's influence as a science popularizer and explores his core beliefs, "including the sense that there is an order and logic to the universe, that it is fundamentally a benign place, congenial to life and even intelligent life. His cosmos was primed for self-awareness. He sensed that humanity was on the cusp of making a cosmic connection with advanced civilizations (and no doubt that a certain Brooklyn native would be in on the conversation!). In effect, he believed he was fortunate enough to live in a special moment."

Sagan did not think that evidence supported the notion that UFOs are spacecraft piloted by intelligent extraterrestrial beings but, like Fox Mulder from "The X-Files," it could be said that Sagan wanted to believe. Shortly before Sagan passed away, he told Achenbach, "I'd rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I'd hate to die and never know."

While Sagan spoke about "great demotions," David Grinspoon--son of Sagan's best friend Lester Grinspoon--promotes a concept called "Anthropocene," meaning that "human beings are changing the Earth so rapidly and dramatically that our presence is becoming part of the geological record. And we can't pretend it's not happening. We have to learn to manage this place. Grinspoon made an analogy: It's as though we've just awoken to the fact that we're at the wheel of a speeding bus on an unfamiliar road. And we realize we don't know how to drive."

Achenbach concludes that Sagan would not be disturbed by Grinspoon's ideas:

Would Sagan have been able to square his great demotions with this new Anthropocene concept? Of course. The universe isn’t about us. The Earth is but a grain of sand. But upon this humble rock we will make our stand. It’s a task that will require science and reason--but also courage and far-sightedness. So it is that Grinspoon says of his old "Uncle Carl": "Lord knows we need him now."

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