Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Spaceship of the Imagination

Billions of years ago I was a huge public TV nerd. The local PBS station ran my favorite shows: old Twilight Zone episodes, the BBC's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Ascent of Man, and of course Cosmos 24/7. I carried a worn copy of the book version of Cosmos to school with me and I'd leaf through it during class in 7th grade. I even have a worn LP of the Cosmos soundtrack, with those eerie Vangelis janglings and several good classical pieces mixed in.

Carl's been dead for a decade now, long reverted to star stuff. But I still remember reading Broca's Brain on a 13-hour car trip to Maine when I was 13, and The Dragons of Eden. I still have the book Murmers of Earth with its catalog of all the nifty loot Dr. Sagan wanted loaded on the Voyager spacecraft, just in case someone found humanity's calling card in deep space. He inspired my teenage Astronomy magazine subscription, and the little telescope I had that I would cart out through the woods and into a cornfield was a gift prompted by incessant nagging during that phase of my life. Couldn't see much beyond Venus's milky surface with it, but the first time I saw sunspots through a filter, and noticed the mountains on the edge of the moon, I was thunderstruck. When Sagan was at his peak, there were nearly as many Astronomy books as there were Astrology ones at our local Little Professor Bookshop--quite an achievement.

I adored Carl Sagan's quirky sense of humor (sliding down a black hole with his hands in the air), his goofy blazer and turtleneck combo, and that strange elegant manner of speech, so reserved and yet bursting with enthusiastic flourishes at appropriate times. His public atheism allowed my own to flourish without shame and despite fear of reprisal. He was a devoted humanist, and a passionate critic of the nuclear arms race when Reagan's itchy finger was on the trigger. He believed animals were intelligent and disliked cruel treatment of monkeys and other beasts in labs. Overall, he made sure that the immensity of space didn't diminish humanity a bit. It was our quest to understand the universe that made us big enough to inhabit it, lending all his works a positive slant. But tempering this happy tone were his nagging worries that we would destroy ourselves some day. We need a spokesman of his caliber to talk about the disappearance of the northern ice cap on late-night TV and before Congress, to counter logically the rise of Intelligent Design with a vigorous defense of post-Enlightenment intellectual secularism. At a time of diminishing curiosity about the world and the way it works, Sagan would fill a vacuum in the public sphere. He made it cool to be curious. Now it's cool to be an ignoramus. Imagine Carl Sagan demolishing Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity--I'd happily dial in to watch Fox for that.

Carl Sagan died ten years ago yesterday of some bone-marrow ailment. I bailed on the astronmy and physics nearly 20 years ago, but have to acknowledge old Carl as quite an influence during my formative years. He left us too soon. I wish he were still around.

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