Proof that time flies: Cosmology Bus is one year old today! It's been a real treat posting here and -- count on it -- I'm already looking forward to the year ahead.
Thanks to all of you who visit regularly, as well as to those who stop less often but still linger long enough to read awhile. Your interest and support are greatly appreciated!
A couple of posts back (A Billion Bytes) I mentioned several Carl Sagan connections and recommended the very solid Sagan biography by Keay Davidson. Since then I finished his well-researched book and am keeping my eyes open for a copy to add to my bookshelf. It's that good.
Another recommendation: if you aren't one of the estimated 600 million people on the planet who've already had the pleasure, then do yourself a favor and sample any of the original 13 episodes of Cosmos, A Personal Voyage, Sagan's unmatched presentation of the universe (co-written with Ann Druyan among others) which aired on PBS in 1980. It was a milestone in his life, in his career, but more significantly, in the history of making science accessible to a general audience. One measure of its phenomenal success is the large number of (then) young people who were inspired by the series to pursue careers in science. But, for me, its real strength will always be found in the ideas it contains and their unique expression through a very gifted individual.
Some readers may also know that Sagan wrote the novel Contact, which later became a successful motion picture starring Jodi Foster, Matthew McConnaughey, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and James Woods. Keay Davidson devotes a whole chapter to the film, which he introduces this way:
Contact is not a great film, but it is a good and noble one. It is far superior to the usual special-effects-jammed blockbusters with microsecond editing, assembly-line dialogue, Dolby racket, and casual brutality that we now glumly know as "the movies" . . . It is a miracle that any good film is ever completed -- especially a film as intellectually ambitious, and with so unlikely a herioine, as Contact. She was a scientist, an atheist, and a woman. "Strike three!" one imagines the studio head snapping during the pitch meeting.
Davidson reminds his readers that when Contact was published, some thought its depiction of the main character, Ellie Arroway, was sexist, primarily based on interpretations of the novel's ending. Davidson concludes otherwise, and recouts how Sagan, Druyan, and producer Lynda Obst made careful efforts to make Arroway believable as a woman scientist and radioastronomer who struggled for acceptance in a male-dominated profession and in late 20th century American culture. His insights into the story of how the film was made will appeal to anyone who enjoys science fiction and behind-the-scenes Hollywood.
Of course, there was much more to Carl Sagan than Cosmos and Contact. He left a very impressive body of scientific and popular work, including more than a dozen bestselling books, some co-authored, all of which concerned in one way or another either the prospect of life beyond Earth or the curious nature of life on Earth. He also had children through two marriages, a transforming third marriage to Ann Druyan, and long-term professional collaborations and personal friendships that for the most part weathered his own shortcomings as an individual. When he died at the relatively young age of 62, in December 1996, he left far more admirers than detractors.
My immersion in Sagan's life story in recent weeks occasionally raised a question: is there anyone in the scientific community today who is in the public eye in a similarly effective way? The answer is clearly no, and not even close.
The few scientists who today reach potentially millions through television and the web don't have the same presence or, for that matter, the same audience. The world has changed since Sagan captured the public's imagination. Today there are too many competing channels of information, too many divided interests, and probably too many personal agendas to make this even a remote possibility. (Though British particle physicist Brian Cox, former D:Ream keyboard artist, is certainly one worth watching. His documentaries on subjects such as time, gravity, and CERN's massive Large Hadron Collider are visually interesting and well-produced.)
Carl Sagan and the Dalai Lama at Cornell University in the early 1990s. Credit: Jon Reis Photography.
Meanwhile, in my own researches, I've also found much to appreciate about Sagan's views on science and religion. His contributions in these areas made, and still make, my world a richer place. "His argument was not with God," Ann Druyan wrote in her introduction to The Varieties of Scientific Experience, Sagan's posthumously published 1985 Gifford lectures, "but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed."
Thank you, CES. And happy birthday, CB.
Next stop: tbd
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter