Thursday, December 21, 2006

Remembering Sagan

Joel over at Joel's Humanistic Blog has organized a blog-a-thon to honor the tenth anniversary of the passing of Carl Sagan and I wanted pay my respects to that wonderful advocate for science.

It is hard to believe that it is ten years. Like so many others of my generation, it was the combination of Cosmos and regular doses of Nova that first got me excited about science and changed the path of my life and shaped my intellectual interests. Sagan was an idol to so many of us who looked to him as the embodiment of our excited interest in the universe we inhabit. He was a real scientist who would talk with us, not talk down to us or over our head, but bring us into his world in which there was unending mystery, but also structure and reason. We could use our minds to understand the seemingly incomprehensible and emerge with images of beauty, inspiring awe.

Every time we understood something it opened up more questions that we could naively posit possible solutions to, solutions that would be undermined with more learning that opened up more questions. But from having understood the answers to the last questions, you knew that if you were smart enough, creative enough, and careful enough, you could answer them too, which would then give you another set of questions. The universe could be understood, it was orderly, but it was also vast ocean. Today, I teach a course entitled "Wrong Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience" in which I begin with Sagan's last book, The Demon Haunted World, in hopes of conveying those twin senses of wonder and structure in my students.

Then there was the time I almost got to meet him in person. I had an appointment. My name was on Carl Sagan's desk calendar for the last day of January, 1986. I was being recruited out of high school by the lacrosse coach at Cornell. He knew I intended to major in physics and he thought it would be a draw if I would meet with Carl Sagan in person. He was right. I couldn't believe I was actually going to be sitting in Carl Sagan's office and talking about science. I had seen him talk so many times before on the screen and seemed like he was talking just to me, but this time he really would be. He looked so tall, I wondered if he really was. Did he have a firm or a gentle handshake? I was a high school senior and could not admit to being giddy about meeting a geeky hero lest everyone know that I was such a geek (as if they didn't all know).

Then, two days before I was to go to Ithaca it happened. The Space Shuttle Challenger, on mission 51-L, exploded. It was a terrible tragedy. I remember walking past Mr. Blinke's history class, seeing the television on, and wondering what that forking trail in a clear blue sky was and then reading the caption. I will never forget that image.

While it can never compare to the loss of that terrible my visit was also a casualty. As I flew from Baltimore-Washington International airport to Ithaca, Carl Sagan flew from Ithaca to Washington to be part of the investigative panel. We probably passed in midair. I got to meet with some Nobel laureate whose name I don't even remember (but would probably be very impressed with if I knew it now). It snowed. They took me to some annoying frat party. I opted against Cornell. But I was this close to getting to meet him.

We miss you, Carl Sagan. We need a charismatic, but authoritative voice in the public discourse speaking enthusiastically about science, speaking up for baloney detection, a gentle, but smart presence to inspire the next generation.