Thursday, December 20, 2007

Renegade Science: Carl Sagan

The Aracibo Radar Telescope, Costa Rica

Last night was the 11th anniversary of the death of Carl Sagan. He was seemingly everywhere during the '70's and '80's, a popular media figure, affable and engaging. Even when stricken with cancer he continued his work of putting a human face on scientific endeavours, particularly space exploration. His novel "Contact" was adapted for a film starring Jodie Foster, with a remarkable ending sequence depicting the First Contact with an extra-terrestrial species in profoundly personal terms.

While no renegade in the strict sense of the other scientists in this series of posts, it is important to remember Sagan's early contributions to global warming theory, and perhaps more importantly, his sense of priorities: science, for Sagan, was never an end in itself, but rather a means to understand and appreciate the mysteries of nature.

The following is a tribute excerpted from the Carl Sagan site, found here:

"His thesis included his discovery of the surprisingly high temperature of Venus and his correct explanation that it was caused by a runaway greenhouse effect. Early on he began to wonder what would happen if our own moderate greenhouse effect here on Earth were to intensify as it had on Venus. He became one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming and other forms of inadvertent climate modification, including the potential consequences of a major nuclear war which he named "nuclear winter."

It was nearly fifty years ago that Carl began his life-long research on the origin of life and the search for life and intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos. Back then, research on the latter subject was effectively a form of professional suicide. The scientific community viewed it as a subject beneath its dignity. Only a handful of courageous scientists, Carl among them, dared to jeopardize their careers by doing such research. Today as the numbers of newly discovered extra-solar planets steadily mount, the field of astrobiology flourishes.

Even earlier, the notebooks he filled in his teens were suffused with a passion for the values of science and democracy. He viewed the error-correcting mechanisms built into both the methodology of science and into our constitution as being on a par with the domestication of fire, the invention of agriculture and writing; among the most precious innovations ever devised by our species.

In this society dependent on science and technology, he thought that it was critically important for science to learn to communicate its insights, values and methods to everyone. At a time when "reputable" scientists rarely if ever ventured before the public, he was willing to risk his career for that also. One such effort, his 1980 "Cosmos" television series, has now been seen by a billion people worldwide. Parts of it will be broadcast in North America at 8pm EST on Christmas Day on the Discovery Science Channel. On Tuesday evenings at 9pm EST, starting January 8, 2008 the whole series will begin to run again. "Cosmos'" enduring world-wide appeal is another testament to his prophetic vision.

He believed that science must always remain scrupulously faithful to the most rigorous possible methodological standards but that we shouldn't shrink from the spiritual implications of its insights. He dreamed of a civilization rooted in our dawning understanding of nature, where skepticism and wonder went hand in hand. He didn't want to humiliate or demean the believer. He was always ready to communicate."

1 comment:

andy koopmans said...

Thanks for the tribute to Sagan, Gary. I remember watching Cosmos when it came out on PBS. I was just the right age to be swept up by the series. I've re-viewed it recently and it's still good--the spaceship studio scenes are a little cheesy, but they were then too.

In recent years, I read everything by Sagan. His contribution to astronomy and space exploration is alone enough to make him worth remembering, but as a naturalist, his The Demon Haunted World remains my favorite. It is an effort to help dispel the lazy thinking, superstition, and anti-scientific/anti-reason zeitgeist that has been on the climb for decades.

Also, I love that a genius like him admitted (and it was revealed posthumously) that he smoked pot daily. Not all day, but once a day. He attributed some of his breakthroughs to it. Dispels also the dumb stoner notion.