What I learned from Carl Sagan

By Phil Plait | December 19, 2006 10:17 pm

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the day we lost Carl Sagan. He was a true skeptic; a man whose mind was open to possibilities, yet able to cut away the chaff of pseudoscience and blind alleys. Even when facing death — a slow, painful, wasting death — he was able to turn it into a series of lessons on science, medicine, and critical thinking. Many people, perhaps most people, would have clung to any idea, no matter how irrational, to make themselves feel better. Carl didn’t do that. He couldn’t. He not only relied on science, he reveled in it.

To celebrate the man, I am writing this essay as part of the Carl Sagan blogathon. I’m very interested and excited to see what others have written (Update: Joel Schlosberg has posted the list). Here’s my submission.

I was contacted recently by a Chinese journalist. He’s writing an article on the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death, focusing on Sagan’s impact on science, skepticism, and public knowledge, and he wanted my input. The article will run soon, and I’ll link to it if I can when it goes live (Update: here is the story (in Chinese, maybe you can get Rosie O’Donnell to translate) and here is a blurb on the journalist’s blog). He decided to use an abbreviated quote by me, so I thought it might be nice to post my complete answers. His questions to me are in the blockquotes.

First, Dr. Sagan was an outspoken skeptic as you are. So what’s the most valuable legacy that Dr. Sagan left to us who have a natural worldview, who do not believe paranormal claims and would like to examine them strictly?

Sagan made it very clear that we don’t need to examine the Universe as a supernatural creation. It is enough — more than enough — to examine it naturally. The sense of awe, beauty, wonder, and joy we feel when we view a Hubble image of a distant galaxy is a natural product of our sense of discovery. It is more amazing, and ultimately more wonderful, to think about how all these incredible things came about due to the relatively simple laws of physics, rather than try to ascribe supernatural powers behind their creation.

Second, after ten years since Dr. Sagan passed away, the world seems changed a lot. So, I would like to know, what, do you think, is the most important, and valuable insights that Dr. Sagan left to this fragile world?

I don’t think the world has changed much at all. We still have self-claimed psychics, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and all manners of conmen whose only purpose is to confuse people about the real world. Many of these people honestly believe that what they are doing is right, but that does not make them right.

Sagan’s insight, his gift to us, is the knowledge that we all have the ability to examine the Universe with all the power of human curiosity, and we need not retreat from the answers we find.

The language of the Universe, as far as we can tell, is science and math, and those remain — and will probably always remain– our best tools to understand it.


Comments (52)

  1. Dave Kary

    Nice post, and I’m slightly amazed that is has been 10 years. I remember attending DPS meetings and Gordon Conferences with Carl (and several hundred other people) all through grad school and as a post-doc.

    Sagan certainly was great at communicating what it meant to think about the universe scientifically. I think the thing I learned most from him was the importance of that communication. It’s not enough that we know how cool the universe is and how important it is for us to get a better understanding of it. We need to pass that understanding and that enthusiasm on to the rest of the public. We need to make it clear that we are not just rational parts of the universe trying to understand itself, but also that we can be excited about it too.

    Of course, nobody was a good at it as he was. I remember sitting in a DPS (Division of Planetary Sciences) public policy meeting when people were debating various issue connected to robotic and human exploration of space. In the midst of it all, Carl got up and gave an impromptu speach that was as well crafted and well presented as anything I’ve heard at a scientific meeting. He was a damn good speaker, and I’m really glad that he used that ability so well.

    One of the reasons Carl saw this need to communicate was a very practical one: if you don’t get the public on your side, they won’t keep paying for what you do. I suspect that an important part of the rebound that NASA had after the “dead time” of late 80’s came because Carl kept out there talking about astronomy and kept getting the rest of us to do the same thing.

    I also remember applying this lesson at a meeting of high-energy physicists just after the cancellation of the Superconduction Supercollider. The basic theme of the session was “So, what are we going to do now?” As the token astronomer in the room, I spoke up and said something like “You know, you folks really need to start convincing the public that what you’re doing is important, or they’re going to continue to cut funding to your projects.” At the time, most of the folks there insisted that what they were doing was too esoteric and there was no way that they can try to make it understandable. I see that since then a few people in that area (especially Brian Greene) have decided to give it a try after all.

    So, here’s to Carl, and to Phil for keeping up the tradition!

  2. Jeremy
  3. But what if Carl was over looking the big enchiliada? I mean, it’s one thing to admire what we experience with our five senses, but why does it seem Carl wants to end the exploration there?
    I become frustrated that the message stayed so bottled up within the enthusiastic presentation. Just all seems too pat an explanation to the phenomenon we witness once we surrender to the unending mystery we are experiencing!

  4. jbrader

    A few years ago I was just starting college with no real idea of what I wanted to study. I was at a bookstore one day and the cover of Pale Blue Dot caught my eye. About a month later I had read almost all of his books. Now I’m an astrophysics major and can’t imagine myself studying anything else.

  5. Max Fagin

    Here, Here.

    Sagan was a brilliant man, and a brilliant writer. I think the scene between Dr. Arroway and Reverend Billy Joe Rankin in “Contact” is on of the best pieces of dialogue ever written. It tells us exactly what science is, and why it has been so successful in explaining the universe around us.

  6. I recently participated in the Pale Blue Dot III conference at the Adler planetarium here in Chicago this fall. The many speakers were varied and diffuse, from astrobiologists to geologists to microbiologists..all helping to define extra-terrestial life and working off each other in the various diciplines to a common goal.

    In many of the presentaions, the common thread was the influence of Carl Sagan and his vision…and many times against the mainstream norm. Quite a few there owed their careers to his efforts, and it was nice to listen to the tributes.

    My first introduction to Sagan was as a young kid and catching him on the Tonight show, where he was a regular guest. I enjoyed his discussion on the upcoming Viking mission to Mars and attempting to relay the importance of astronomical/space research to the American public, but of course, it was more interesting for the audience to know more about Farrah Fawcet. I still have his “Cosmos” record album and listen to it every now and then.

    No one has seemed to come to the forefront and fill the void he left. I wonder why.


    Chicago Astronomer Joe

    Telescope/Observatory Operator
    Adler Planetarium & Museum

  7. carri

    Carl Sagan has had an impact on the layperson that is rarely seen, he made science no longer frightening, but able to be learned and understood.

    From personal experience, I took high school chemistry for two years, and hardly understood anything. Though after watching an episode of Cosmos (The Life of Stars) I think I have a shot at understanding how we’re made of star stuff.

  8. Great post! Carl’s death was indeed a great loss. He inspired me to get a scientific training and becoem an amateur astronomer. he did more to popularize scienc then anyone else, and he is sorely missed today.

    I am also participating n the blog-a-thon. Here’s my entry: http://tragicplanet.org/2006/12/20/46/

  9. Here’s my humble attempt at remembering Dr. Sagan.

    Remembering the “People’s Astronomer”

  10. Josh

    I’m often a little dismayed by the arrogant and condescending attitude taken by the skeptic community, and that’s why I find Carl’s approach so appealing. I think Carl understood that humans are inherently scared and that’s why people turn to nonsense to provide themselves with a sense of purpose and comfort. This isn’t something to be derided or made fun of; instead, we should follow Carl’s lead and SHOW these people how the universe itself can be a source of joy and comfort, even without concepts like omnipotent gods and other irrational beliefs.

  11. George

    Should that be conpersons?

  12. NTB Heliochromologist George

    Carl Sagan demonstrate in many original ways our place in the cosmos. I remember one image he presented from Viking(?) showing a large bright dot as being our planet seen from afar.

    When I first took an astronomy course in ’73, the textbook was colorless and the prof. was my old, stoic calculus prof. I dropped the course and never took another course though my real science love was always astronomy. Seeing Sagan on Carson helped me regain interest in the wonders of universe. His works and programs brought reality into our Star Trek imaginations without deterioration.

    [Then a long came a website devoted to cool astronomy stuff and now they can’t get rid of me. :)]

  13. JerryL

    If you haven’t read “Billions and Billions”, I think it’s his best book. The last chapter made me cry. It’s written by his wife several months after his death.

  14. david fairwether

    I learned alot of Carl like how it is more wonderous that everything in the universe connected to each other then it is being seperate from everything else.
    I think his legacy goes beyond the COSMOS series there is the planetery society , his books and the poplularization of science.

  15. My entry in the Blog-A-Thon:


    I have to say that Carl inspired me, as I’m sure he did so many others, and I miss him.

  16. What I learned from Carl Sagan is curiosity. The way he used to explain things was so captivating that you wanted to know more about all of that. I also loved “Billions and billions”, wonderful book, not just about science, but about many other things.

  17. spacewriter

    Carl’s legacy is a love of learning, a yearning to push the frontiers. He did that, and along the way, inspired a generation of writers, scientists, and seekers.

    My post is here.

  18. ZB

    Thanks for spreading the word about the Blogathon, and for a great addition to it.

    Here’s mine.

    (Also, thanks for the link in the Best Science Blog post. You will always be the best blog in our hearts. Those of us that have them, at least.)

  19. I don’t have a blog of my own, even though I spend an awful lot of time posting comments on other people’s sites. This keeps me civil, I think, and makes it easier to walk away from the Web when I need a break. This is the first occasion when I actually wondered if I should start a blog of my own — just create a blogspot page, post a few quick essays and then leave it behind for the historical record.

    I haven’t done that, but I did write up my thoughts. After checking out Rebecca’s contribution to the blog-a-thon at Memoirs of a Skepchick, you can read my remarks in the comment thread.

    I am very impressed with the writings people have contributed so far. Many thanks to you all.

  20. Alyssa

    Here’s a shot of a question from today’s

  21. Alyssa

    http://static.flickr.com/126/328302076_5c3e95c657_o.jpg * from today’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

    (I’ll master this comment system someday…)

  22. Bummer that it stumped the guy so much he had to use two of his lifelines (and he probably already used the audience poll on a previous question).

    Of course, I would have flamed out at a much earlier, easier sports or literature question, so I won’t judge!

  23. The Who Wants to Be a Millionaire pic is priceless. How soon people forget! Judging from the contestant’s appearance, he was already an adult when Carl and his coauthors wrote about nuclear winter, but I guess he wasn’t paying attention. This surprises me less than it might have, because one of my supervisors (when I worked in the California state government back in the 1980s) actually told me she had never heard of him. Amazing. Later I got to tell Sagan about it in person and this month I wrote up the incident for the commemorative blog-a-thon.

  24. Wow, hard to believe its been 10 years. Sagan had a vast impact on me, but there is one story I always fall back on. I didn’t really discover the joys of science until I was a Jr in High School (’88-’89), which was around the same time that I had to look at colleges.

    I’d settled on either a Comp Sci or Physics major, and was looking at several schools (Cornell, RPI, etc…), but this one college I’d never heard of kept sending me literature. Some weird college in Pittsburgh, PA…Carnegie Mellon. I grew up in the northern nether reaches of New York State and so I’d never heard of it, nor had my guidance councilor. So, I just kept throwing the literature out.

    Anyway, while this was going on, I was reading Sagan’s “Cosmos” and about 3/4ths of that way it mentioned this same school. IIRC, it referred to some of the work being done on neutrino’s changing their stripes. So, I figured if Sagan thought it was important enough to mention, then I should take a look at it.

    So, I arranged and interview and fell in love with not just the school, but with the city of Pittsburgh(*)… So, I have him to thank for the whole of my undergraduate experience. Even though I ended up working in outside of my field of study, majoring in physics but becoming a software developer, I wouldn’t change a thing.


    * Yes, despite its reputation as a dirty, filthy, boring town… there is a lot to love about Pittsburgh.

  25. Astrogirl

    Carl inspired me in so many ways. I grew up watching the Cosmos series. My dad and I discussed (and still do) many of the books, research, outreach, and life of Carl. I have read almost all of his books, and Contact is my favorite novel AND movie.

    He introduced me to the brilliance of skepticism in the face of anti-science and psuedoscience. His was my first influence as a young girl to turn a skeptical, scientific approach towards astrology, psychics, UFO abduction, and creationism.

    He also inspired me in the area of popularizing science. I have volunteered and worked for science museums and observatories ever since high school, and continue to do so on my spare time when not working as a professional scientist. I know I could not have kept up the enthusiasm consistently all these years in addition to college and then working, if not for Carl. He showed us why we need to bring science (especially astronomy :-) ) to the public.

    I miss you, Carl.

  26. John A. Kingman

    Carl’s contributions were manifold. I recently read his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” and then passed it on to my daughter. I highly recommend it.

    Carl leaves a vacuum which has yet to be filled, although I like what I’ve seen of Neil DeGrasse Tyson as a spokesman for science.

  27. Cindy

    I watched Cosmos in 6th grade (?) and decided then I wanted to be an astronomer. I was fortunate enough to meet Carl Sagan about 6 months before he died and told him that it was his fault I was an astronomy grad student. I remember being on an observing run 10 years ago and hearing the news of his death. Conversations that night at the Kitt Peak dining room were mostly on how Carl Sagan had impacted many of the astronomers there.

    I’m glad Phil is one of the people trying to fill Carl Sagan’s shoes.

  28. ljk


    December 20th, 2006 at 1:36 am

    But what if Carl was over looking the big enchiliada? I mean, it’s one thing to admire what we experience with our five senses, but why does it seem Carl wants to end the exploration there?

    I become frustrated that the message stayed so bottled up within the enthusiastic presentation. Just all seems too pat an explanation to the phenomenon we witness once we surrender to the unending mystery we are experiencing!


    Why the five senses? Because as Sagan said, it is too easy to
    fool one’s self, especially when one starts getting into the more
    esoteric realms. Rene Descarte, often considered the father of
    modern philosophy, said pretty much the same thing when he
    decided he could not trust his senses, only that he knew for sure
    he was thinking.

    So start with a grounding base and move up from there. We
    have more than enough so-called self-help gurus talking out
    of their hats about becoming One with the Cosmos, etc., when
    it is in fact mere psychobabble. As Sagan warned and tried to
    fix, far too many people are not trained to distinguish between
    the facts, scientific theories, and jut plain baloney.

    If you haven’t already, I hope you take the time to read some
    of Sagan’s works. Start with Cosmos and Broca’s Brain. Almost
    all of his books are still in print.

    My tribute to Carl Sagan:


  29. Thanks for the announcement about the blogathon. Here’s my own humble effort:


  30. Chip

    I was fortunate to have met Carl Sagan when he came to my college many years ago to give a wonderful slide presentation, “A Tour Through The Solar System”. A good number of my fellow students were UFO fanatics and a lot of questions put to him involved crashed saucers, alien visitation and the like. Carl was more than patient, but I’ll never forget his slowly enunciated softle spoken mantra to these questions: “Where-is-the-evidence?”. So simple a response and yet so appropriate to science and rational thinking! Carl is missed now more than ever.

  31. LinuxRules, Greece

    When I was a kid I was convinced that UFO exists and when I was staring at the stars by just putting my hands around my eyes, I though that I could see THEM coming. That was pure emotion then.
    Carl’s Cosmos “thought” me to look at the stars through the eyes of logic. All those laws of physics and maths took the magic out of it, and made me wonder how could THEY make it all the way down here.
    After all those years I feel free from both worries. I can now look at the stars and admire the universe the way Carl might wanted us to: simple and magnificent.

  32. Troy

    I remember 10 years ago as I pulled out the local newspaper I was really excited to see Carl Sagan on the front page, then I realized knowing he had health problems that it meant he died even before I read it.
    Carl Sagan to me personally has made me a skeptic and gave me the framework to think straight about things. As a civilization with a lot of baggage he gives an exit for everyone to cut through the crap we’ve inherited in mysticism, pseudoscience, and poppycock. Cosmos was his magnum opus and essentially dethrones religion as the creation, maintainer, and destroyer of the universe. Like previous posters it is sad no one has yet taken his place, we need a pope of science. Another big loss people don’t realize is how Carl got the space program to take pictures for the sake of art such as the Voyager 2 image of the solar system and the Galileo Earth movie. I wonder if he had been around if Galileo would have been directed to image Amalthea on its descent? He had connections and the wonder to ask the right questions.
    At the time of Carl’s death Mother Theresa also died, as I predicted at the time Carl’s memory and impact will be much stronger. Carl’s life was a stone thrown in a pond, the rings will propogate for a much longer time and cover a much larger area.

  33. Carl Sagan gave me the courage to face alien abductions. For you see, I enjoyed the privilege of an alien abduction every few weeks during my junior year of MIT.

    Let me elaborate on that:

    Junior year for us physics majors is deliberately designed to be a brutal experience. To use flamboyantly gender-biased language, the professors want a chance “to separate the boys from the men” (you can substitute “sheep from the wolves” if you prefer). Key ingredient in the witches’ brew is Junior Lab, a class which the course catalog says will require eighteen hours of work per week. Well, if you’re a slacker, perhaps: I never knew anybody who did a decent job doing less than twenty. And you’re expected to be taking three other classes at the same time, including your first real encounter with quantum mechanics — a nice, intuitive subject which gives you time to relax and contemplate — and if you believe that, I’ve got a very attractive deal on a bridge in Brooklyn. . . .

    Put simply, if you survive junior year, you know you can make it as a physicist. You also learn just how productive you can be in a state of sleep deprivation. I was a lightweight, usually tumbling into bed between two and four A.M. when others could go all night long. However, I would wake up around six, when the sun started hitting my bedroom window, and damnably, I would have the hardest time falling asleep again.

    So I would curl up there in bed, not able to be awake, not able to sleep. And then, pretty dependably — when I was truly zonked with exhaustion but somehow unable to doze off — I would feel a wave of numbness, followed by a strange paralysis. With my eyes closed, I would see my room, but with the sizes and proportions all distorted. If the experience lasted long enough, I would sense myself rising into the air and sometimes even flying through abstract tunnels of light.

    “This is so freakin’ cool!” I would exclaim. Curiosity and enthusiasm quickly overcame me, since I recognized the exact phenomenon which Carl Sagan had implicated in alien abductions of today and demonic visitations of yesteryear. After a few such experiences, I discovered I could give myself a good shake and break the sleep-paralysis. Sometimes, after I did that, I could relax into my little hypnogogic trance again.

    I expect lots of people have had similar experiences, half-awake and seeing odd things. (I mean, I tripped out in a dentist’s chair at age eight after inhaling too much nitrous while they fixed my sugar-rotted baby teeth. Weird things can happen to the brain, even in daily life!) Junior year at MIT gave me the chance to explore the phenomenon, to test it with a little repeatability.

    As Carl wrote, “And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and hoaxing, don’t we have before us a matter of supreme importance — touching on our limitations, the ease with which we can be misled and manipulated, the fashioning of our beliefs, and perhaps even the origin of our religions? There is genuine scientific paydirt in UFOs and alien abductions — but it is, I think, of a distinctly homegrown and terrestrial character.”

  34. Dr. Sagan’s warm distinct human voice is my most fond memory of him. Doctor Einstein was the first scientist to touch the general public with his genial manner.

    I wonder how far outside the solar system the outer space probe Pioneer TEN is right now. That engraving of the human man and woman was a work of cosmic art.

  35. ljk

    This Web site shows you where all the Sol system escaping
    space probes are now on their journeys into the Milky Way


  36. Damn. I didn’t expect this to be as emotionally wrenching as it was. I just relived a huge chunk of my life from ages 12 through 22. Here’s my (typically narcissistic) contribution:

  37. astrogirl2100

    BA: thank you for bringing the blog-a-thon to my attention. I think that it has been very interessting to participate and read other blog-a-thon posts.

  38. By the time I got to reading more of Carl’s work (I had inherited a copy of _Intelligent Life in the Universe_ from my grandfather fairly early on) he was already gone. So some of the substantive lessons about the nature of the universe were not new to me. But, as people here and elsewhere have commented, Carl’s real gift was as a communicator. There I still struggle, and there I still return to his work to learn. I think that’s the most important lesson he taught of all – to wrestle with the unknown, the unfamiliar, and attempt to get some glimpse of understanding.

  39. i miss having Carl Sagan in the world. he explained science and its concepts in such a way that every person could think “scientifically.” for those of us interested in science, he was a hero. his ideas fired not just the scientific mind, but the creative one as well. here’s my tribute to him — in art: http://www.dubhsidhestudios.com

    there’s really no one who has come forward to fill the void that was left by his death — and i can’t help but wonder if the vacuous idiocy that passes for late night entertainment on the broadcast channels would even think to have someone of Sagan’s ideas and concepts on their shows. too “think-y” and too “secular” for the general public. *sigh*

    thanks, Carl.

  40. I think that the great gift of Carl Sagan was to express the wonder that can fill the imagination of a skeptic; that skeptics do have meaning whether or not we are religious. I think that there are eloquent spokespeople for science, they just haven’t achieved his “star” status. Sorry about he pun.

    I think that Phil does a great service when he is on Coast to Coast A.M., Dawkins and Harris are eloquent defenders of science, but there just haven’t been any people that have inspired the wonders of nature in the way the Carl did…with the possible exception of the late Steve Irwin.

  41. Carl knew how to enjoy life, with cannabis and a hot wife.

  42. Hey Bad Astronomer!
    Very nice post. It is so great to finally find so many people whose lives were changed by Sagan’s curious nature and his Cosmos series. I am amazed at how many people have written essays for the Celebrating Sagan blog-a-thon. I have linked to my own essay with my signature. I also am starting a podcast where I’ve recorded the essay at this URL:

    Take care,
    Josh Gough

  43. yaz

    Every night before I go to sleep I have to watch one of his videos…I am obsessed with Carl Sagan…

  44. slavador

    I remember as a child in the 1970s as a non-athiest explorer of scientific knowledge finding Carl Sagan as a real threat and nearly switching over to a field whose leaders did not irrationally attack believers. While obtaining my BsC in Maths and Physics in the ’80s I could not help but find almost all students in these fields were members of the Star Trek/ Carl Sagan cosmos cults. Most were marginal minds. I believe that Carl Sagan did more damage to science than anyone in the ’60s – ’80s by overtly alienating 80-90% of the population from studying it. My son is now chasing his masters in Maths and it appears that the few children that the trekkies managed to produce are more likely to be gamers than scientists. Sagans time as communisms ambassador to America is over. While the Vatican’s high powered telescopes and atom smashers are honing in on the truth, the heirs to Sagan’s legacy are satisfied to play world of warcraft and watch TNG reruns.


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