Carl Sagan remembered

By Phil Plait | November 9, 2009 9:42 am

carlsagan_smilingToday is Carl Sagan’s 75th birthday. It would be nice if he were still around to send him the greeting personally, but sadly, he died too young: in 1996 he succumbed to complications of myleodysplasia. As he himself noted, though, the progress of science — medical science in this case — kept him alive far longer than would otherwise have been possible. Up to the end, he was an evangelist of science.

And his legacy continues. His TV show "Cosmos" continues to inspire people, and the generation of astronomers who took up the cause due to Sagan’s exhortations are still looking up, looking out, and seeking what’s around the next corner. Because of Carl Sagan, we have many more scientists who not only love the field itself, but strive to express it to others. I include myself among the latter.

That’s why we celebrated Carl Sagan Day on Saturday, to honor the man and, in my opinion just as if not more importantly, to continue his work. James Randi knew Sagan personally; they were friends for many years, and so at the celebration Randi was the keynote speaker, relating stories about the man whom Randi knew as simply Carl. Below is video of Randi’s talk. It’s an hour long, but it’s more than worth your time. This was recorded off a live stream, so go ahead and click forward to about the 9:00 minute mark to get started.

This first Carl Sagan Day was a great success. We had a great audience at every talk, kids playing outside in the inflatable rocket ship bounce room, pictures from Hubble adorning the windows and walls of Broward College, and an overall sense that there is great work that has been done, with still a vast amount yet to do.

But that’s where the fun is. Sagan knew that, and I hope that you do too. And if you don’t — if you think science is stodgy, uninteresting, and doesn’t affect your life — then hopefully you have an amazing moment lying in wait for you. Maybe it’ll be a Cassini image of Saturn, or a tiny cell undergoing mitosis under your scrutiny through a microscope, or the sudden understanding from a news article about the Large Hadron Collider. There’s no way to know what precisely that trigger will be. But at some point there will come something that will jolt you, will shake you out of your complacence, and the scales will fall from your eyes.

At that moment you’ll experience what Carl Sagan did every moment of his life, that same sense of wonder and pure, undiluted joy about the Universe. I feel it too. It’s the blood in my veins, the calcium in my bones, the electricity of my eyes and ears as they relay what they detect to my brain. It’s the sense of connectedness with everything, and it’s real.

That’s what Carl Sagan taught us.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

— Carl Sagan, 1934 – 1996

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Science, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Carl Sagan, James Randi

Comments (67)

  1. That’s a wonderful Carl Sagan quote to end it on. He was, and continues to be, an incredible inspiration for scientists and knowledge seekers around the world.

  2. Roy

    I can’t help but chuckle every time I see Daniel H. Wilson’s endorsement of your book.

    And I get goosebumps watching Cosmos, which is on Hulu right now! I’m going through much of it for the first time. It’s awesome. Like a hundred billion hotdogs.

  3. Sean

    His fire was unquenchable. I can still hear him saying “billions and billions…” Happy birthday, Dr. Sagan. We miss you.

  4. Brian T.

    Phil, will you posting a recording of the talk you gave? The feed on UStream messed up so I was only able to see the last 10 minutes or so. Thanks for all the awesome work you do!

  5. Thank you Carl, requescat in pace.

  6. I think that moment came for me listening to Dr. Sagan do his Pale Blue Dot speech (I think it is from an audiobook of Pale Blue Dot) on a youtube video.

    After that, I signed up for an astronomy class, and now I’m 2 years away from my physics bachelors, with an intent to going to grad school. I’ve always had a passing interest in the universe and in science. The fuel was there, and Dr. Sagan provided the flame to set my interests alight.

    I consider him my most important role model.

  7. We love you Carl. <3

    One of my most favorite scientists of all time.

  8. I grew up watching Cosmos, here, in São Paulo, Brazil.
    It used to be aired on Sunday mornings, 8:00, if I remember well. And I was aways already up, eager to see it.
    Sagan has a huge influence on me. I´ve read practically all of his books and he is responsible for my deep and humble respect for life and nature.

    Thank you for sharing this news upon his day, I had no idea.

  9. Narvi

    @Sean: Carl Sagan never said “Billions and billions”. Not once. As he noted in his autobiography, that’s a parody by Johnny Carson.

  10. r00b

    Carl, we miss you.

  11. Adrian Lopez

    English is not my native language and the audio in this video of James Randi was rather poor (at times I could hear the audience better than I could hear Randi), so there’s a lot in Randi’s words that I missed. I did enjoy those bits I did understand, and I enjoyed your talk as well.

  12. Kevin

    I’ve always thought astronomy (and science) is fun. Every since I saw the moon for the first time through a telescope (I was four years old) astronomy and space has held me in it’s embrace. I never get tired of talking about it; I never get tired of going out and observing the sky.

    I don’t know how people could ever lose interest in science.

    I’ve said it before…. Science is Cool!

  13. mike burkhart

    Carl Sagan mad astronomy fun and I like that he begain A serious debate on life elseware in the universe (were as before talk about alien life was reserved to the science fiction realm and not a topic that mainstreem science talked about) in fact I have a viedo tape called whos out there? that showes Carl at a symposium on alien life held in the early 70s at Boston univeristy . I agree with one of his ideas that alien life since it eveloveds in a diferent envorment would not be like us at all (I wonder if SETI keeps this in mind?) at the same time he did not think think aliens were visiting us in UFOs and did not sound like a supermarket tabloid when discusing the topic .

  14. What an amazing man. Seriously one of my personal heroes.

  15. David

    I just listened to 10 minutes of Cosmos (via Google Video) at work. Not watched, just listened. The sheer majesty of the universe is conveyed so beautifully in his voice.

    I think watching this as a teenager when it first aired was a big part of me becoming an atheist. Carl showed me that there was no need to believe in a God to see that the universe is a place of beauty and wonder. Skepticism isn’t just about being rational; it’s about making the decision to enjoy the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

    Thank you once again, Carl, for creating this.

  16. Never knew that was a parody!

    Great write-up Phil. Very inspiring. I’m 31 years old and if I could drop everything and go back into the science field, I would. I think I might once the kids are a little older.

    Fact is so much more amazing than fiction, IMO.

  17. JDS

    Just a suggestion:
    in honor of Carl Sagan, temporarily change your blog’s name to “BAD ASS ASTRONOMY.”

  18. Trebuchet

    I didn’t know Sagan died of Myelodisplastic Syndrome. It’s a terrible disease, my mother has been fighting it for 2-1/2 years. He was a great American — no, make that a great citizen of the pale blue dot, Earth.

  19. Oh how I wish I could have been there. I love all things science and even though I don’t live in an environment where I can fully experience it, it’s a real joy to see that others get their share of it. Happy Carl Sagan Day!

  20. Tim

    That’s one of my favorite quotes of all time. It’s full of excitement, hope, wonder, and best of all, truth.

  21. It seems Sagan’s legacy is often greater than his accomplishments in life. “Popularizer” is often a dirty word among scientists.

    It’s true though, Sagan inspired many, both in and out of the scientific community.

  22. Linda Harr

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY CARL I have read BIllions and Billions and keep Cosmos handy to read when I watch you Cosmos on YouTube so I can read and understand more. What can I say? We love you and miss you. I hope you are now star stuff as you deserve that anyway. Thank you for being such a great teacher and cool human being!

  23. Amanda

    How I wish he were still alive, but many of the points he made in the 70s and 80s are even more relevant, today. If only more people would listen.

  24. Shai

    Happy Birthday Mr. Sagan! You will be missed!

  25. anon

    without knowing it, I’ve been quietly celebrating his birthday! Watched most of Cosmos this weekend! Still great! hope to watch Contact again soon as well. Happy Birthday Mr. X!

  26. AtomicRobb


    It was truly a pleasure hearing you speak on Saturday and being a part of the first Carl Sagan Day. The tears in my eyes after James Randi shared his story of wanting to call Carl and share the astronomy joke were quite hard to hold back. I hope to bump into you at the open house at some point.

  27. Mike

    Discovered Carl and Cosmos at 16 and it/he changed my life. He was a treasure.

  28. Slow Learner

    The coolest thing of all is that you are the universe and the universe is you. The inner is the outer.

  29. Carl Sagan was sweet. Happy birthday!

  30. Leander

    “It’s the blood in my veins, the calcium in my bones, the electricity of my eyes and ears as they relay what they detect to my brain.”

    Fascinating as these things might be, they’re all…on the surface. Fascinating, but distracting from reality like all glittery and superficial things. What really brings the universe to life, what really creates the joy is – the fear of death, the realization of being alive, the horror of all the suffering on this rock, the awe in the face of humanity’s endless potential of creativity, of destruction, joy, sadness, fear, love. Calcium, electricity, blablabla…those are the underlying, quantifiable processes to unquantifiable experiences that really define human existence – and I’m sure Sagan knew that.

    “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love. ” – Carl Sagan

    Happy Sagan Day.

  31. Scott C. MacDonald

    A couple of months ago I gave my well read (very well read) copy of Cosmos to my 12 year old son as he had expressed a certain intrest in astronomy and cosmology. Needless to say, he was and remains further inspired. I expect he could give his progeny this book with much the same results. Thank You Carl Sagan. Thank You. Myself, I’ve read the book and all his others from Broca’s Brain to Comet, all of them so well written, numerous times. I’ve enjoyed the television series a couple times, but, the soundtrack has been my constant companion, my friend when I’m down, my insperation when I’m uninspired and my orchestra when I’ve had a few too many drinks. Thank You Carl Sagan. Thank You.

  32. 18. Lewis Says: “Never knew that was a parody!”

    Right. It’s one of those great quotes that was never spoken like Bogart’s “Play it again, Sam” or Kirk’s “Beam me up, Scotty.”

    – Jack

  33. Tina

    My hero. Because of him I strive to introduce kids to Science. Everyday. Till I’m so old I can’t even remember what a molecule is. Hopefully never.

  34. Naomi

    Carl Sagan is the reason I’m studying to be a scientist.

  35. Bondservant1958

    Carl changed my mind! It started with his book The Dragons of Eden

  36. StonedOdie

    Sagan is god… Amazing person he was. Awesome w/ Sagan day

  37. The surface of the Earth is the shore of a cosmic ocean…

  38. oldmoal

    Einstein inspired awe; Sagan inspires action, cooperation, enjoyment, and awe of the universe.

    I wish the media could find someone to update his series, and have the courage to produce it. So much has been discovered since “Cosmos” that we need his wonderstruck approach to inspire new youngsters. The current spate of melodramatic science shows does not have enough continuity to inspire and there is to much fear of exposing the public to “real” science, the description of nature through the media of mathematics.

    I disagree with #17 in that for me the awesomeness of the universe makes me more religious, not less. How can you speak of the “beauty and wonder” (totally unscientific terms) of the universe and not consider the possibility, even need of divine creation. (I am, by the way, a rampant anti-creationist, but still an osmotic Christian.)

  39. ozprof

    I find it interesting that so much of the astronomical community honours Sagan these days compared to how he was vilified at first for producing “Cosmos”. In some ways he was ahead of his time. He did a great job of popularising astronomy.

  40. Shawnotron

    @ #51 (oldmoal) I don’t think a person can really understand or appreciate beauty until they develop a true understanding of the inner workings of nature. For me, the more I learn about the universe and the complexity of evolved life, the more beautiful it becomes.

    I think most atheists have probably considered the possibility of a divine creation but have ruled it out as a likely possibility as more and more evidence becomes available. Think about it like this; early man used the idea of divine creation to explain the unexplainable and throughout time, as we have learned more about the true nature of the universe, the responsibilities of the many gods we invented have dwindled. They call it the god of the gaps. Following the evidence seems to show that the idea of a divine being was entirely created by man, and then through our long quest for the truth, ruled out.

    To me, it seems far more amazing to understand how the very nature of the stuff that makes up the universe, given enough time, has become assembled in such a way that it can contemplate itself. Enough stuff, given time, will contemplate itself. That is so much more wonderful than the idea of bearded sky wizard snapping his fingers and flinging it all into existence. The thought of a creator holds no wonder, it’s not interesting to think about and it leaves nothing to discover. It is also logically flawed at the very beginning, because if you believe everything created requires a creator than you must begin to wonder who created him…

    I maintain that science, without superstition, holds the most beauty and wonder for those willing to do the work to seek the truth and understand it to the best of their ability.

  41. Shawnotron

    Also, does anyone know if there is a transcript of Randi’s talk here? Or maybe a video with subs? The audio is kinda bad and my ears are not so good. I can hear some of what Randi says, but most of his speech is lost to me. I would love to know what he had to say about Sagan.

    Any help is appreciated, thank you.

  42. Merijn Vogel

    That closing line “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known”, has now been promoted to my signature, thank you for that :-).
    I didn’t really like the tone of voice in the only Carl Sagan book I read, being ‘Science as a candle in the dark’, so I’ll try some of his other books instead.

    As far as popularising, I’m going to hold a mini-quiz about astronomy during a family-party, to try to raise a bit of cosmic awareness (apart from WooWoo) in my 4 generations of atheistic family. Have a bit of fun, and trying to get a few scientific pieces of trivial information into some heads.

  43. David

    Pot smoker, big time.

  44. dingo

    OK, fine,
    what else to do
    on such a tiny blue dot
    so crammed full of superstitious monkeys
    shooting at each other most of the time?

    Carl opened his big mind and heart
    to infinite possibilities
    that way.

    Bless him!

  45. Neil Schipper

    When anti-science Abrahamic fundamentalists record a lecture and post it on the internet, the audio is almost always good. Why is that? It’s almost as if they’re more instinctively conscious of the importance of transmitting their message to the intended recipients with adequate fidelity.

  46. bsk

    Carl Sagan probably had such a huge impact on my life. I cry every year on his birthday, and I didn’t even know him personally.

  47. Um No

    Heh. I still have fond memories of when I was at Cornell (mid to late 1990s) and our stargazers group invited Mr. Sagan to join us for dinner. It wasn’t a speaking engagement or anything like that; we just wanted to buy a great scientist dinner.

    Two days later, we were contacted by his agent, who demanded a hefty fee for his presence at our little soiree. I don’t recall the specific amount, but I do remember that the figure quoted for magnanimous Mr. Sagan’s appearance was in the five-figure range.


  48. Patrick

    I’m calling bullcrap on “Um No”, who, on November 16th, 2009 at 11:28 am said:

    >”I still have fond memories of when I was at Cornell (mid to late 1990s) and our
    >stargazers group invited Mr. Sagan to join us for dinner. It wasn’t a speaking
    >engagement or anything like that; we just wanted to buy a great scientist dinner.
    >Two days later, we were contacted by his agent, who demanded a hefty fee for his
    >presence at our little soiree. I don’t recall the specific amount, but I do remember that
    >the figure quoted for magnanimous Mr. Sagan’s appearance was in the five-figure range.”

    This sounds *suspiciously* like the story where the Rockledge frat boys across the gorge (Stewart Ave. Bridge in Ithaca) invited Carl over and Carl’s assistant (Shirley?) misunderstood the invite and sent them then speakers fee package instead.
    (They put up a giant “colorful” message in Xmas lights which got Sagan’s attention immediately and the whole misunderstanding was sorted out.)

    The other clue indicating that the post from “Um no” was bullcrap was the timeframe:

    >”I still have fond memories of when I was at Cornell (mid to late 1990s) and our
    >stargazers group invited Mr. Sagan to join us for dinner.”

    Carl wasn’t at Cornell in the later 1990’s. He wasn’t even living in Ithaca.
    He died in 1996.

    He spent most of what little time he had of the mid-1990’s in Seattle at the Fred Hutchins Cancer Research Center. So i’m declaring this claim by “No Um” to be, at best, highly suspect. At worst it’s utter bullcrap.


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