It's been ten years now since Carl Sagan's death. I guess given the magnitudes with which he was used to working, ten years is nothing. As I get older, that time seems less dramatic to me as well. But in honor of the occasion many people are blogging. By this I mean full-on organized blogging to mark the date. I'm probably not really the ideal caliber blogger, but I figured I should probably throw in a kind word for the good professor as well. While I squandered all my mathematical and scientific gifts (that would be the official take, anyway) I still have a deep love for Sagan's work. Of more importance, to me anyway, I became aware of him at a time when I desperately needed role models. Whatever he was in real life, to me Carl Sagan was the ideal teacher; knowledgeable and obviously intelligent but still idealistic and creative and never, ever authoritarian. He would have been burnt at the stake in my school district.
To an 'over-active dreamer' with authority issues and a lower-middle class upbringing, Sagan was an ideal hero. He came swooping in from out of nowhere with heretical ideas that math and science were a way out, that imagination had a place in both disciplines and that it wasn't wrong to disagree when there was logical error. Since I'd just finished a battle to stay in the Forest Hills School District for having done the last one, Sagan's irreverence toward the petty dictators of doctrine really struck a chord. However, his unflagging optimism and belief in overarching good within humanity was entirely foreign. I think he might have been the first authority figure I ever paid any attention to that espoused a positive view of mankind. The idea was new and different and exactly what my family considered to be stupidly naive. Determining which opinion was more correct became an excercise in empirical reasoning. Objectively comparing the shiny, happy professor who preached that we could do better as a species by embracing our intelligence and working together verses the barely-held together family in the run down post-war housing who said such dreams were hogwash and things could only get worse, it wasn't hard to make the choice. Besides, hidden in those stupidly naive writings between information on quasars and Voyager and Hypatia was subtle encouragement to attempt becoming the person I wanted to be. It was the first time I'd ever been told the journey was more important than the goal.
I didn't become a scientist. I didn't become anything even vaguely mathematical. I don't think I was ever meant for such competitive fields. But studying them was never a waste. Calculus and interplanetary physics come amazingly close to religion once you comprehend that you can not comprehend, that abstractions are a sad attempt to simplify the majesty of the infinite. Studying the sciences also encourages you to think scientifically and to apply the scientific method as a litmus test in daily life. The world would be a better place if more of us were taught to do just that, to observe and objectively judge the world around us. We can do better and we should always try to do so, even if we never actually get there.
I'm still a dreamer. I'm still a skeptic as well. And I probably have Sagan to thank for that. Without a role model to show me the fence could be walked, I would have turned away from one or the other to lose either my logical reasoning or my sense of wonder. Either would have been a tragedy. So thank you, Dr. Sagan, for that and for the myriad of things you taught me beyond the importance of astronomy.
I hope you've found your peace in the cosmos.