Carl Sagan and the Cosmos

Carl SaganToday’s birthdays are way worse than they were yesterday. At least we had some good songs then.

On this day in 1731, the surveyor and astronomer Benjamin Banneker was born. He wrote a number of the most popular almanacs of his day. But he is most notable for being a free black man. His father was a former slave and mother was free born. He was self-taught in science and no doubt brilliant. It’s the anti-Tagg-Romney syndrome. No one hires a poor black man unless he’s brilliant—then or now.

Other birthdays: Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818); mathematician Theodor Kaluza (1885); British film director Anthony Asquith (1902); Futurama politician Spiro Agnew (1918); the murderer (who shall remain nameless) of Medgar Evers (1920); poet Anne Sexton (1928); chess grandmaster Mikhail Tal (1936); singer-songwriter Tom Fogerty (1941); actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (62); one of the decent politicians Sherrod Brown (61); and character actor Tony Slattery (54).

The day, however, belongs to the writer and scientist Carl Sagan who was born on this day in 1934. If you ask 10 scientists of my generation, 7 of them will tell you they went into science because of Sagan. It wasn’t just Cosmos. (Which is still quite watchable today!) His books were great, especially The Dragons of Eden. He was, I would say, the Mr. Rogers of teen nerds. Science has moved on since he was around, so his books are kind of out of date. But they are still good reading. He had a happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression. Here is the opening of Cosmos for those who have not seen it:

Happy birthday Carl Sagan!

2 thoughts on “Carl Sagan and the Cosmos

  1. Not long ago I was writing a brother about the importance of people who popularize scientific findings. We really don’t have any, now (Sagan was a regular contributor to "Parade," that Sunday paper insert) and they’re sorely missed.

    This isn’t because writers like Sagan aren’t out there and willing to contribute to public discourse. It’s just that "science" is now a "controversial" subject.

    What’s always scared me most about the American far right isn’t their policies or their philosophies. It’s their persecution complex, which stays stuck in high gear no matter how much they win. If a writer like Sagan was published in "Parade" today, the insert would be boycotted, loathed, the editors sent reams of death threats. And yet Christians are under attack, socialism is rampant. Clearly, nothing less than total domination will ever end this persecution mania (and, if the crazies ever gain absolute control, you know they’ll just start eating their own and having loyalty pogroms, etc.)

    Here, in Minnesota, the TV weather forecaster is the biggest star on local news broadcasts, more than the sports guy. Our weather is harsh, and the difference between one or two inches of snow and if it falls at 4 AM or 6 AM makes a difference for how fast the snowplows can clear the roads.

    The most popular, ten years ago, was a mild-mannered gentleman named Paul Douglas, a trained meteorologist (most TV weather personalities aren’t) who explained, incessantly, how forecasts are generated, what predictions to bank on and which were very educated guesses. His explanations were easily understood, and he was a huge local celebrity.

    Until he started talking about climate change. Douglas was (and is) a Republican (as a local celebrity, he made lots of money and probably didn’t like paying taxes.) As a trained meteorologist, however, he couldn’t stop himself from commenting on how weather patterns now are unlike any in 100+ years of recorded data, and that unpredictable weather was going to be the norm, not the aberration, in the future.

    Canned! Can’t have that on TV. Too "controversial."

    A local paper still features Mr. Douglas’s explanations of how forecasts are made in the corner of its weather page. And he’s still a Republican, and he still spends at least two days a week using his three-inch box to share the latest findings on climate change.

    So it’s not that I miss Sagan so much (although he was terrific); I miss a popular media not so skewered towards craziness, where a writer like Sagan could explain science basics in "Parade."

  2. @JMF – I decided not to say anything in the article, but I think Sagan was kind of a dick. But he was important. You’re right. Bill Nighy is now a controversial person. It is ridiculous! Of course, Sagan was too. But only in the right wing media. Now, he would be banned from [i]Parade[/i]. We truly are in post-fact politics and that is the most frightening thing about the right. If they don’t accept scientific fact, what stops them from thinking anything? And here I’m thinking things like, "Jews control the world." I don’t think people appreciate just how dangerous the conservative movement has become via their disregard for facts.

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