Remembering Carl Sagan

Happy Birthday Carl SaganToday (November 9th) is the 79th Birthday of Carl Sagan, eminent astronomer, humanist, and popular science writer. I intended to blog about Camus on his 100th Birthday (which was on 7th), as he is probably the philosopher who has influenced me the most on a personal level, but I think I owe Carl Sagan a post as my respect and adoration towards him is hard to describe.

I think there is a point in many people’s life when they do self introspection, and are left with a hell lot of unanswered questions and existential crisis hits them hard. I can’t speak for everyone, but that was true in my case too, and that was when I found Carl. His views have profoundly influenced me, and as most literature intended to inspire has no or little effect on the ever so cynical me, I should thank Sagan for putting me right on track, his words struck a chord with with me right away. I am against idolizing anyone, but Sagan is one such person I admire so much, to the point that you could say that I idolize him. His views on science, skepticism, humanism and other social issues are so profound, that it’s hard not to recommend his work to anyone.

Sagan, arrested during the protest at a nuclear site in Nevada

Sagan, arrested during the protest at a nuclear site in Nevada

He was also involved in various activism. Image on the left shows him being arrested anti-war activism in a nuclear testing site. Something we, who advocate for scientific progress (and rightly so) should always remember, the equal emphasis he placed on humanism and it’s core values. He was not only an activist, but in my view, in many ways, a rebel. Him, along with his wife Ann Druyan (whom I will hopefully write about later) were arrested three times at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. To quote Ann Druyan here:

During the 1980’s we were arrested three times at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site while protesting US underground nuclear testing. This kind of activism cost him many of the glittering prizes and honors that he might have gotten if he had played along with things he thought were wrong. He turned down three invitations to dine at the Reagan White House. He couldn’t be co-opted. His opposition to the Star Wars swindle drew a lot of fire. I wish the world had a Carl Sagan now to publicly argue against the new Star Wars proposals. He could spot the phony technical arguments of the Department of Defense and bust them publicly in a way that we could all grasp.

Carl took on the military-industrial complex. He campaigned around the world for an end to the production of weapons of mass destruction. To him it was a perversion of science. So yes, it’s true that Carl was frequently denounced by televangelists, astrologers and The Wall Street Journal. Even so, it wasn’t much of a price to pay. He was the happiest person I ever knew.

 He expressed his feminist perspectives quite clearly at various points of his life, and through his sole novel Contact, where the protagonist was a female scientist, which he co authored with Ann. Here is a great excerpt from his letter to Explorers Club, which used to be exclusively male till then:

When our organization was formed in 1905, men were preventing women from voting and from pursuing many occupations for which they are clearly suited. In the popular mind, exploration was not what women did. Even so, women had played a significant but unheralded role in the history of exploration — in Africa in the Nineteenth Century, for example. Similarly, Lewis and Clark were covered with glory, but Sacajewea, who guided them every inch of the way, was strangely forgotten. All institutions reflect the prejudices and conventions of their times, and when it was founded The Explorers Club necessarily reflected the attitudes of 1905.

He also argued for reproductive rights in Billions and Billions (which again, he co-authored with Ann Druyan). Some excerpts:
By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions.

In its first decade, the AMA began lobbying against abortions performed by anyone except licensed physicians. [..] Women were effectively excluded from the medical schools, where such arcane knowledge could be acquired. So, as things worked out, women had almost nothing to say about terminating their own pregnancies. It was also up to the physician to decide if the pregnancy posed a threat to the woman, and it was entirely at his discretion to determine what was and was not a threat. For the rich woman, the threat might be a threat to her emotional tranquility or even to her lifestyle. The poor woman was often forced to resort to the back alley or the coat hanger.

Here is his response the question about lack of diversity in Science education and it’s implications:

We also might ask how it is that of the first ten or twelve questioners only one was a woman in an audience in which women are much more strongly represented. These are wide-ranging, difficult questions. I don’t claim to have the answers except to say that I know of no evidence that women and what in the United States are called racial minorities are not as competent as anybody else in doing science. It has to do, I think, entirely, or almost entirely, with the built-in biases and prejudices of the educational system and the way the society trains people. Nothing more than that. Women, for example, who are told that they’re too stupid for science, that science isn’t for them, that science is a male thing, are turned off. And women who despite that try to go into science and then find hostility from the high school math teacher—“What are you doing in my class?”—find hostility from the 95 percent male science classes, with the kind of raucous male culture in which they find themselves excluded, those are powerful social pressures to leave science. I wrote a novel once, Contact, in which I tried to describe what women dedicated to science have to face, that men don’t, in order to make a career in science.

So yes, again it’s hard to put in words to what extent Sagan has influenced my life and my character development in the latter part of my life. And I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that.  So thanks for everything, Carl. You have taught be to be humble and skeptical, you’ve helped me lose a lot of prejudices and dogmas I had held, combat my existential struggles, and shape up the way I perceive the world.

Happy Birthday!