Repost: Carl Sagan Day

By Phil Plait | November 9, 2012 9:30 am

[Today is Carl Sagan’s birthday, celebrated by lovers of science and rationality around the planet. I wrote the following post last year, but I think it’s still appropriate (and I updated his age). Happy birthday, Carl. It’s a darker cosmos without you, but we still walk with the candle you lit for us.]

If Carl Sagan were still alive, he’d be 78 years old today. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been overly concerned with arbitrary time measurements, especially when based on the fickle way we define a "year", but it’s human nature to look back at such integrally-divisible dates… and Carl was very much a student of human nature.

I’ve written about him so much in the past there’s not much I can add right now, so I thought I would simply embed a video for you to watch… but which one? Where James Randi eloquently and emotionally talks about his friendship with Carl? Or the wonderful first installment of Symphony of Science using my favorite quote by Carl? Or this amazing speech about how life seeks life?

But in the end, the choice is obvious. Carl Sagan’s essay, "Pale Blue Dot", will, I think, stand the test of time, and will deservedly be considered one of the greatest passages ever written in the English language.

Happy birthday to Doctor Carl Sagan, Professor of Astronomy, scientist, skeptic, muse, and – though he may not have thought of himself this way — poet.

I’ll leave you with this, something I wrote abut Carl a while back, when asked about what his greatest legacy is:

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (31)

  1. oldebabe

    TXS. Phil. Carl Sagan just never gets old.

  2. Any time I am feeling down, I go to his wikiquote page for inspiration. He is sorely missed and needed!

  3. Colin Jagoe

    I get so much from listening and reading Sagan’s work still. Missed for sure.

  4. davidlpf aka theoncomingstorm

    This will be the last post I will probably see until the move to slate and it couldn’t be any better.

  5. OtherRob

    Cannot hear that too many times…

  6. Sam H

    He wasn’t Jesus, he was human and had his flaws, but he was in so many ways a prophet for our time – showing us the wonder and magic of reality and presenting the power of science as a source of meaning. What I would have given to meet that man…
    Also like I said he wasn’t Jesus but I frickin’ love this image :)×710.jpg

  7. Michael

    I like especially this (animated) version of the Pale blue dot.

  8. Fraser

    So, so beautiful.

  9. To the degree that passion can be rational, no one comes close to what Dr. Sagan brought us. Thanks for the reminder, Phil.

  10. Zathras

    One moment of perfect beauty.

  11. I have to agree with Phil, “Pale Blue Dot” is going to outlive all of us in the pages of notable, quotable prose.

    I wonder what Dr. Sagan would say about both Washington and Phil’s own awesome state (Phil is always in a state of awesomeness, but in this case I refer to Colorado) legalizing cannabis just a few days ago? So sad that he isn’t here to see it. We miss you, Carl.

    “The Illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in the increasingly mad and dangerous world.” -Carl Sagan

  12. James Evans

    That’s obviously the most classic bit from the Pale Blue Dot audio book, but I gotta say this excerpt about interesting Project META signals is my personal favorite:

    The thing about the audio book that always gets me when I hear clips is I’m pretty sure (not 100%) Sagan needed a fill-in narrator (J. Charles) for some parts, because his sickness was getting the best of him at the time of its recording. Great listen, and yet very, very sad at the same time.

  13. @6 Bill Storm: To the degree that passion can be rational, no one comes close to what Dr. Sagan brought us. Thanks for the reminder, Phil.

    Indeed. Perhaps what most inspired me personally about Carl Sagan was that his passion for the universe seemed to enter the realm of mysticism* at times, and he proved in this that transcendental awe and wonder aren’t exclusively the domain of spiritualists and religious folks.

    *Here I use the word mysticism to refer to reaching states of consciousness outside the norm, and a communion with a larger reality (which for us little earthbound humans means the universe at large that most of us never even pay attention to). I don’t mean it in any supernatural sense.

  14. Derek

    I teach high school choir in Colorado. When Phil posted the “Cosmos” choral suite a couple of months back, I sought the music out. We are preparing it for our December concert.

    The kids love it. And I was able to introduce them to Carl.

  15. Grand Lunar

    Fitting that I got this news from you, Phil. Haven’t seen a thing (yet) in local news.

    Sagan was truly an inspiration.
    I think there are those like him still around today (you, Neil Tyson, ect).

    But nothing quite beats the one that started it all

  16. Isabel

    Thanks for reposting this.

    @Joseph G: Yes, I thought the same thing! Great quote, thanks.

  17. Well said BA, well said. :-)

    Wish Carl Sagan were alive still today. The world needs more people like him.

  18. Alex K

    Dr. Sagan had many gifts. From my own personal experience, I believe his greatest talent was the incredible ability to explain complex problems, issues, and ideas simply to those who were not experts. Surely teaching, communicating science to others, and inspiring people to discover is at the very top of his list of accomplishments. He profoundly changed the way I think about everything. He was, is and ever will be my hero. I miss him a lot; the whole world suffers from his loss.

  19. Cokehead

    On the one hand, I’m sad Carl Sagan isn’t with us. On the other hand, I’m angry about all the crazy right-wing demagogues that have outlived him. Ultimately, I appreciate his contributions to human culture and society. He’s missed.

  20. Peter Davey

    I wonder just what is so “outrageous” about banning a drug, whose use, as an assortment of medical studies have shown, can trigger a variety of psychological symptoms, including schizophrenia, in those using it.

    I’m afraid that Sagan seemed to be working on the principle that, if you enjoy something, it cannot be harmful – an idea that hardly qualifies as rational, although it is quite a popular one.

    On a slightly wider point, I wonder how many of those supporting the use of cannabis, have ever read “Brave New World”, with all the good citixens getting their daily doses of soma to help stamp out individualism – “I drink to my own annihilation!”

    Someone once said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

    Look how much controversy a certain Charles Darwin stirred up, with his startling notions concerning man’s presence on this planet. How much easier to persuade Darwin, with the aid of some appropriate drugs, of the social harm his ideas might do; enabling him to suppress those contentious ideas, and so help bring about a more “serene” society.

    If, as suggested, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, then I suspect that the price of eternal vigiilance is abstinence from drugs that give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, no matter how desperate the situation, and that any society that hopes to progress must accept a certain amount of friction.

  21. All the Carl Sagan videos have aged well. He really did think carefully about what he said, how to say it, and used the very best information available.

  22. Isabel

    “I’m afraid that Sagan seemed to be working on the principle that, if you enjoy something, it cannot be harmful – an idea that hardly qualifies as rational, although it is quite a popular one.”

    Your comment is what is irrational. Sagan said or implied nothing of the kind. I don’t see this as a “popular” view either. Can you provide some evidence?

    The rest of your comment is dishonest gibberish. Darwin wouldn’t have published his works about evolution if he had smoked pot???? You don’t understand Sagan’s comment at all.

    Even worse, you focused on serenity, but conveniently ignored “Insight” and “sensitivity” and “fellowship”. Alcohol may encourage fellowship but it hardly produces insight, nor did soma. Soma did the opposite! What a dumb analogy.

    Are you for alcohol prohibition? Why or why not?

  23. Isabel

    Another point: if we only allowed substances that were “harmless” we would have to ban practically everything!

    The issue has been looked at by multiple federally appointed commissions, that have repeatedly concluded that prohibition of cannabis is not justified. There are “rational” ways to go about the process. The irrational part is that the recommendations have been ignored.

  24. carbonUnit

    This passage does bring chills.

    Full text from the video and background info available at the PBD wikipedia entry:

  25. Infinite123Lifer

    ” … can trigger a variety of psychological symptoms, including schizophrenia, in those using it.”

    I am not so sure. Lets wiki for fun, rather than choose some obtuse article for debunking.

    Which mentions:

    “Despite increases in cannabis consumption in the 1960s and 1970s in western society, rates of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia remained relatively stable over time.”

    And today millions more use a much much much stronger form of cannabis …

    A correlation vs causation expert would be nice here.


    Just purchased a first edition, hardback of one of my favorite books of all time at the used bookstore for 5$ … Contact, I love the book and I am proud to have one of the old ones.. Sagan is a badass! That means I think he’s uber cool to avoid any confusion.

  26. Peter Davey

    With regard to the question of “serenity”, it is surely the duty of scientists to challenge established beliefs, no matter how much conflict it might cause.

    For example, Darwin’s discovery of evolution, although it did much to define Mankind’s place in the Universe, could hardly be said to lead to a more “serene” society, with society split between “creationist” and “evolutionists”.

    A society such as the one described in “Brave New World” might well decide to suppress Darwin’s work in the interest of harmony.

    Some of you may have seen the film version of H G Wells’ “Brave New World”. Towards the end of the film, Mankind, having moved on to a more enlightened society, prepares to

  27. Peter Davey went to take his green brownies out of the oven and forgot to come back :)


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar