If you read this blog with any sort of regularity, you most likely read other skeptic-blogs, and so are probably aware that today is Carl Sagan Day. There’s not much that I can say about the greatest teacher of the 20th century that hasn’t been beautifully said already. Odds are, most of us feel the very same way about Carl, and we all feel cheated for having lost a friend that we never knew, or will never hear from again.
Carl’s achievements as a teacher and communicator are what most people sing his praises of, often against a backdrop of the flack he endured from his scientific colleagues. Carl dared to do that most audacious and plebeian of professor-activities: to actually profess things. Still today, in the halls of the academy, “popular” is an offensive notion, and Carl was treated as less of a scientist because he was adept at teaching. Speaking from my old university, I did my best to impress upon my colleagues that Carl Sagan was not only an accomplished scientist, but also a legitimate philosopher of science…yet even amongst my fellow humanities academics, Carl’s ability to be a teacher somehow made him less of a professor and academic. An ironic condemnation to be sure, since a key part of what it means to be a professor is to be a teacher, not just a researcher. For my money, I don’t care how respected a professor is if he can’t teach worth beans (I’m sure we’ve all had professors like that).
Yet Carl’s talents as a researcher and scientist were not slight at all. Carl’s research was instrumental in allowing us to understand the Greenhouse effect of Venus (and of Earth), and he developed sophisticated models of the atmospheres of Mars (later verified by the Mariner 9 and Viking missions) and the organic chemistry of Jupiter’s atmosphere. At at time when planetary science was considered fringe, Sagan was at the centre of the research teams, helping to organize mission specs and research priorities for the missions Mariner 2, Mariner 9, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Viking 1, Viking 2, Galileo, and was a founding member of SETI and the Planetary Society. Sagan invented an entirely new scientific discipline: “exobiology”, a term now known as “astrobiology”, and is at the forefront of such missions as Kepler and Cassini.
Carl was a very accomplished scientist.
I still haven’t read all of his books. I own them all, and I have the time, but if truth-be-told, I’m afraid of there one day being a moment when there is no more Carl to read. I wept when Douglas Adams died (having just finished reading the Hitchhikers’ series for the 5th time right before that fateful afternoon in 2001), and while reading the last chapters of “Billions and Billions” (which were written by Carl and Ann Druyan while Carl was dying) in a cafe, I openly wept there too, hiding my teary-eyes behind sunglasses. Carl was just too, for lack of a better word, ‘beautiful’ of a human being for me to look at him as objectively as I’d like. But I don’t care. Douglas Adams is the reason I read as an adult, and Carl Sagan is the reason I think and learn as an adult. I, as I’m sure most of you reading this, still feel as though a close personal friend was taken from me, and it stings me all the more that I never got to meet him, or hear what he had to say about the recent astronomical discoveries of methane on Mars, or the rocky extra-solar worlds (found with techniques he pioneered in the 70′s). We also could sure use Carl right now to stand up for scientific education in the classroom, but thankfully, he taught us all well.
Carl, Skeptic North, and I personally, owe much to you. More than even my late grandfather, you’re the reason I wish there was an afterlife so I could have a conversation with you, just once.