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 Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon
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Dave W.
Info Junkie

USA
25887 Posts

Posted - 12/08/2006 :  22:41:07  Show Profile  Visit Dave W.'s Homepage Send Dave W. a Private Message
Anyone who is a fan of Carl Sagan, and wants to write something for the upcoming memorial Blog-a-Thon but doesn't have Web space or a blog themselves is invited to post their contributions here in this thread, and we'll make sure that Joel includes a link to it.

- Dave W. (Private Msg, EMail)
Evidently, I rock!
Why not question something for a change?
Visit Dave's Psoriasis Info, too.

Kil
Evil Skeptic

USA
13368 Posts

Posted - 12/17/2006 :  22:57:06   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit Kil's Homepage  Send Kil an AOL message  Send Kil a Yahoo! Message Send Kil a Private Message
Thinking About Carl Sagan


We had all heard it was coming. Carl Sagan had a terminal illness. He was loosing his battle with cancer. That fact did not lessen the pain of his dying to those of us who care about science and skepticism. His magnum opus on skepticism, The Demon Haunted World had just been released. His final shot across the bow of irrational thinking and in my opinion the finest book on the subject of skepticism that us skeptics have in our arsenal of suggested reading for the uninitiated.

For a while, back in the eighties, “billions and billions” was the stuff of parody. Dr. Sagan would say that he never actually said that, but it didn't really matter. “Cosmos” was a hit in a way that no other science show, or book, had ever really been before. And the “billions and billions” caricature was so recognizable to the public that Dr. Sagan's name did not have to be mentioned to get the reference. Carl Sagan was a star. And not just among astrophysicists and astronomers. Oh no. He made himself our scientist too. He was the face of science in the popular media. And that may have been, from the standpoint of letting us regular folks in on the wonders, mysteries, and discoveries of science, which turned many of us into cheerleaders for science, his most important contribution. He talked to us, and we understood.

Sagan understood that it was the ignorance of science that contributed to the rise of pseudo-science and other kinds of sloppy thinking. He understood that popularizing science, by making it accessible and enjoyable was nearly as important as doing the science. And he did his best to correct the view that scientists were some strange breed of ultra smart geeks who cared little about how the rest of us monkeys saw them or what they did. He showed us that science was the very human endeavor of wonder, search, discovery and sometimes failure that leads to new questions just begging to be answered.

By far, my favorite essay on skepticism is Carl Sagan's The Burden of Skepticism published in Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12, Fall 1987. In it he reminds us skeptics to keep an open mind. With all of the baloney that comes our way and from so many directions, this reminder goes to the core of our mission as skeptics. I find that I cannot paraphrase my favorite paragraphs, or convey the ideas from the essay and do it the justice it deserves. So I will not even try. Here, in this skeptics opinion, is the most important lesson that us skeptics must remember as we attempt to advance critical thinking as the default method for evaluating claims of fact to the larger populace.

In Dr. Sagan's own words:

quote:
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal valid

Uncertainty may make you uncomfortable. Certainty makes you ridiculous.

Why not question something for a change?

Genetic Literacy Project
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Dave W.
Info Junkie

USA
25887 Posts

Posted - 12/18/2006 :  08:14:17   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit Dave W.'s Homepage Send Dave W. a Private Message
"Cosmos" began airing shortly after I entered high school. And I remember reading Broca's Brain later on that same school year. As a 14-year-old who'd been playing Dungeons and Dragons and a couple other role-playing games for a few years and writing computer games during the previous couple of summers, it wasn't the science or the education that got me hooked on Sagan, it was instead the ideas for games of one sort or another that found inspiration from Sagan's work that kept me coming back for more.

Yes, please, let's board the "spaceship of the imagination" one more time, and see what there is to see out in the universe! Back then, it was all fodder for my imagination. After all, much of it (especially the books) was over my head.

It wasn't until years later that I realized how very important "Cosmos" was, and remains today. It was, of course, my introduction to Sagan (as it was for most of my classmates), but that (also obviously) wasn't Sagan's goal. Getting people interested in science, now there was a challenge. And a difficult one when faced with people like my physics teacher of three years later, who was famous for saying, "now what I'm about to say is important, so wake up the person next to you."

My wife gave me the DVD set a few years ago. After a few episodes, I was happy to hear my three-year-old (at the time) ask, "can we watch more of the Cosmos guy?" (My wife, unfortunately, finds that Sagan's voice grates on her like nails on a chalkboard.) I don't know what attracted the boy to "Cosmos," but he watched every episode. I'll play it through again in another couple years, and see what happens then.

A little more than a year before "Cosmos" aired, my family took a vacation (well, a working vacation for my dad) up to Ithaca, New York. Having never heard of Sagan, I certainly wasn't looking for him while we were near Cornell University. However, at the risk of making this piece sound even more like hero worship than it already does, it pleases me to think that I may have sat in a restaurant that Sagan frequented, or even driven on some of the same roads, those 27 years ago. Because I'm pretty sure that's as close to his sort of greatness that I'll ever come.

- Dave W. (Private Msg, EMail)
Evidently, I rock!
Why not question something for a change?
Visit Dave's Psoriasis Info, too.
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Dave W.
Info Junkie

USA
25887 Posts

Posted - 12/18/2006 :  12:04:42   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit Dave W.'s Homepage Send Dave W. a Private Message
Another resource: Celebrating Sagan.

- Dave W. (Private Msg, EMail)
Evidently, I rock!
Why not question something for a change?
Visit Dave's Psoriasis Info, too.
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Siberia
SFN Addict

Brazil
2322 Posts

Posted - 12/18/2006 :  14:30:11   [Permalink]  Show Profile  Visit Siberia's Homepage  Send Siberia an AOL message  Send Siberia a Yahoo! Message Send Siberia a Private Message
Dear Mr. Sagan,

I haven't been able to know you, which is a shame - I was born too late, in a country too far, for such to be possible. You're dead now, but this letter will remain, not for you (obviously, as you're dead), but for those who knew you as I did - on books, on websites, through other people.

Mr. Sagan, I was too young to ever understand the meaning of your death, when you died. However, I do remember I was sad - very sad, considering I was twelve. I was nine when I first held a book of yours in my hands, and started to read it. It made little sense back then, but it did do something - it fed my hunger to know more. The book was Pale Blue Dot, and it moved me. If the text was beyond me, the beautiful photographs were not, and I loved that book. More than anything, it inspired in me the need to know - to achieve - to wonder. I cannot be thankful enough for that, Mr. Sagan; my life would be much bleaker without that.

Fast-forward to 2006 - ten years after your death. I am a scientist, Mr. Sagan, though I am not in the astronomy or astrophysics branch. I contribute to SETI via the grid technology that did not exist when you died, beyond the merest rudiments. Because of you and that fateful book, I'm thinking about abandoning the corporate career for one in the Brazilian space institute - dedicated to research in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics.

Mr. Sagan, we still live in a demon-haunted world (I loved that book, by the way, as every one book of yours that I've managed to read) and I'm afraid things are getting worse. People like you still try to change that, but I'm afraid we're outnumbered and outclassed. We miss you sorely, Mr. Sagan. I wish I had your talent, Mr. Sagan; it'd make my work much easier.

We've tried; we're still trying. But at least, Mr. Sagan, at least you managed to open the doors of science (more like sledgehammer them) for this one, otherwise ignorant, silly, superstitious young Brazilian girl, in a world where science is not popular - and certainly not loved as I learned to love it.

Thanks for everything,
Andreia Marques.

"Why are you afraid of something you're not even sure exists?"
- The Kovenant, Via Negativa

"People who don't like their beliefs being laughed at shouldn't have such funny beliefs."
-- unknown
Edited by - Siberia on 12/18/2006 14:40:15
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