Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Remembering the "People's Astronomer"

"We have a choice: We can enhance life and come to know the Universe
that made us, or we can squander our [13.7] billion-year heritage in
meaningless self-destruction." - Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
I can't really believe it's been ten years since the death of Carl Sagan. I remember I heard the news just before going to my local astronomy club's winter "party" meeting, and he was the topic of much discussion, as he and his unique vision had touched all of us who were there. We ended the evening with a toast to his memory.

I believe, like many people, I got my first experience of Carl Sagan on television, watching him as a guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The way he explained things during the discussions that he and Carson had really brought science in focus for the "lay person" who wasn't really deep into the study of astronomy and space, but found it interesting. This publicity, I believe, spurred that interest in the general public to learn more.

When Cosmos first aired on PBS back in 1980, that hour would find me sitting on the floor in front of the television in a state of awe and amazement. I guess the only thing that disappointed me was that there were only thirteen episodes, but those few episodes rekindled my fascination with astronomy and space.

(Not that I wasn't interested in astronomy beforehand. I had a long history of fascination with the subject, having gotten my first telescope (albeit an inexpensive model) when I was four years old. I can remember watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon; my father would wake me up for lunar eclipses; I got to watch space launches all the time; I would spend warm August nights around my aunt's cottage - miles and miles away from any small town - watching the Perseid meteors. I was an amateur astronomer from a young age.)

In addition to watching (and trying to absorb) the television series, I had received the companion book for Christmas, have vivid memories of only being able to read a chapter, or part of a chapter, at a time, because trying to wrap my mind around the concepts presented gave me headaches (or brainaches). But I had to understand it, so I didn't give up, but dove right in again and read more.

I can remember reading that other astronomers were not kind to Carl, because of the way he brought astronomy to the masses, and I thought it was so elitist of them to want to "keep everything to themselves" and not let people into their wonderful world. Later I realized that many of them were simply jealous of Carl's "celebrity." The others were not receiving the "glory" from the public, and it hurt their egos. But I never thought Carl was doing it for the glory; he sincerely wanted to "get the word out to the world" about the subjects that he thought the public needed to know about, and be concerned about.

Over the years I enjoyed hearing his talks, reading his books, as he strove to get people involved in not only trying to save the planet (and themselves), but to also use their minds - to think critically, and not give in to the mindlessness of pseudoscience.

Years later, Cosmos came into my life again at Christmas as the series finally became available on DVD, thanks mainly to the work of his wife Ann Druyan. It's now become a staple to watch the series at least once per year.

There are some people now who actively bring science to the public, but I don't believe they will ever have the impact that Carl Sagan had. But the word is still getting out, more and more every day. I often wonder what Carl would think about this global, internet-driven society we live in today, and the new discoveries coming out almost every day. I also believe he would be saddened by the attempts of some to squelch said research and data on important scientific fields.

Even though I would still be an active amateur astronomer, I don't think that I would be doing the public outreach today without the inspiration of Carl Sagan. Every time I answer questions via our club's website, or from a visitor to our observatory, I like to think I am continuing Carl's legacy of bringing astronomy and science to the masses, in ways they can understand, and kindle an interest in them, as he did to me (and others) many years ago.

Thank you Carl. We miss you, and we will try to keep the candle lit.

Note: I wrote this as a part of the Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon (link below)

Some links..

Carl Sagan memorial blog-a-thon
Ten Times Around The Sun Without Carl - Ann Druyan
Nick Sagan (Carl's son)
Celebrating Sagan
What I learned from Carl Sagan - from Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

The Carl Sagan Portal
The Planetary Society

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