Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The World Carl Would See

"For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves.  This is a time of great danger.  But our species is young and curious and brave.  It shows much promise."

Carl Sagan would have been 76 years old today, and boy do I wish he were still around.  

The world has seen such astonishing scientific and technological breakthroughs since his death in 1996, and he would have loved to see them. With our telescopes and our spacecraft we have seen farther into the depths of space than ever before, and for the first time we are coming to know a host of new worlds orbiting neighboring suns.  We have witnessed extraordinary achievements in medicine, including the isolation of embryonic stem cells and the mapping of the human genome.  Meanwhile, personal computers have become powerful enough so that anyone can explore the Solar System from home.  The evolution of the internet has put once-arcane scientific knowledge at the fingertips of anyone who seeks it, and it has allowed citizen scientists from all over the world to work on cutting-edge projects in astronomy.  As a species, thanks to advances in telecommunications, we are interconnected as never before, and that has given rise to an awesome array of new phenomena and new challenges.

Among the many advances in the fourteen years since his passing, perhaps nothing would have thrilled Dr. Sagan as much as the search for exoplanets. A handful of planets had been discovered in the last few years of his life, but the explosion of new discoveries -- almost 500 confirmed extrasolar planets to date -- has just occurred in the last decade or so. As new technology comes online, that count is likely to expand dramatically, and we will come to find planets that are more and more Earth-like. The discovery of these small, rocky planets, and most recently the possible discovery of a potentially habitable world, gives us new hope that our galaxy may be brimming with life, that we are not as alone as we feel in the vast expanses of the Universe. We know that we may be centuries away from setting eyes on the unknown wonders beyond our Solar System, but we can dream about the future and ponder the fate of our species.

It's easy to imagine Sagan's enthusiasm for our more local projects, as well. Since his death, three stunningly successful rovers have explored the surface of Mars, and they have returned breathtaking images of its desolate landscape. The Cassini mission, likewise, has given us incredible new pictures of Saturn and its moons. As we speak, the New Horizons spacecraft is zooming away from the Sun for a 2015 rendezvous with Pluto, where it will send us the first ever close-up photographs of that frozen world. The Japanese space program has recently demonstrated the viability of the Solar Sail. And Sagan would have been delighted to know that the twin Voyager spacecraft, now in their 33rd year of operation, are still dutifully calling home from the far reaches of the Solar System, and providing us with valuable data from the edge of the heliosphere.

But these last several years have also been trying times in the country and the world, and Sagan's voice would have been a welcome one in the mix. Through the uncertainty of the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear holocaust constantly on the horizon, he was a champion of peace and reason, and through science he showed us the grandeur of the cosmos and the ultimate pettiness of our worldly squabbles. He taught a healthy skepticism for authority, and a commitment to pursuing the truth no matter where it might lead.  We could use a refresher course in these areas.  Today, as global temperatures continue to rise more or less unchecked, and climate scientists are under attack from conservative ideologues, we need strong advocates for science, and Sagan may have been as good as they come. In this time of religious zealotry, birthers and death panels, Sagan would have reminded us to use our Baloney Detection Kit.

In the wake of a tough election, and the ascendancy of an anti-science majority in Congress, it's easy to embrace a bleak outlook on the future.  But perhaps what was most compelling about Sagan's work was his optimism.  Our future is by no means assured, but we have it within us to transform the world.  If we can protect the planet and confront extremism in any form, we may yet avoid self-destruction.  And one day, perhaps, we may venture to the stars.

And now, another look at one of my favorite videos - Sagan's Pale Blue Dot:


  1. Thank you for this heartfelt reflection on the influence of this very unique man. Looking back to my formative teenage years it was Sagan, probably more than any other public figure, who inspired me to look at the world in a completely new way. To ask hard questions, to learn the importance of skepticism and to appreciate the power of the scientific method and how it can be applied in our daily lives to improve the lot of our fellow man. His sense of wonder and awe at all the things around us, even the most simple of things, was truly remarkable. Damn, I miss his insight and his unique ability to inspire people. When I read any of his books, I hear his unique voice reciting every word. He was an unforgettable individual.