Carl Sagan guided the maiden voyage of Cosmos a generation ago. He was the most successful science communicator of the 20th century, but he was first and foremost a scientist. Carl contributed enormously to our knowledge of the planets. He correctly predicted the existence of methane lakes on Saturn’s giant moon Titan. He showed that the atmosphere of the early Earth must have contained powerful greenhouse gasses. He was the first to understand that seasonal changes on Mars were due to wind-blown dust. Carl was a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence. He played a leading role in every major spacecraft mission to explore the solar system during the first 40 years of the space age.
Currently watching: 'Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie', Narrated by William Shatner
“The conventional bombs of World War II were called “blockbusters”, filled with 20 tons of TNT they could destroy a city block. All the bombs dropped on all the cities during World War II amounted to some 2 million tons of TNT — two megatons. Coventry, Rotterdam, Dresden and Tokyo — all the death that rained from the skies between 1939 and 1945 — a hundred thousand blockbusters, two megatons. Today, two megatons is the equivalent of a single thermonuclear bomb — one bomb with the destructive force of the second world war. But there are tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The missile and bomber forces in the Soviet Union and United States have warheads aimed at over 15,000 designated targets. No place on the planet is safe.
The energy contained in these weapons — genies of death, patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps — totals far more than 10,000 megatons; but, with the destruction concentrated efficiently, not over six years but over a few hours. A blockbuster for every family on the planet; a World War II every second for the length of a lazy afternoon. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people. In a full nuclear exchange, in the paroxysm of global death, the equivalent of a million Hiroshimas would be dropped all over the world. And, in such an exchange not everyone would be killed by the blast and the fire storm and the immediate radiation. There would be other agonies. The loss of loved ones; the legions of the burned and blinded and mutilated; disease; plague; long-lived radiation poisoning the soil and the water; the threat of stillbirths and malformed children; and, the hopeless sense of a civilization destroyed for nothing. The knowledge that we could have prevented it and did nothing.”
Darwin’s transcendantly democratic insight that all humans are descended from the same non-human ancestors, that we are all members of one family, is inevitably distorted when viewed with the impaired vision of a civilization permeated by racism. White supremacists seized on the notion that people with high abundances of melanin in their skin must be closer to our primate relatives than bleached people. Opponents of bigotry, perhaps fearing that there might be a grain of truth in this nonsense, were just as happy not to dwell on our relatedness with the apes. But both points of view are located on the same continuum: the selective application of the primate connection to the veldt and the ghetto, but never, ever, perish the thought, to the boardroom or the military academy or, God forbid, to the Senate chamber or the House of Lords, to Buckingham Palace or Pennsylvania Avenue. This is where the racism comes in, not in the inescapable recognition that, for better or worse, we humans are just a small twig on the vast and many-branched tree of life.
Natural selection has been misused by capitalists and communists, whites and blacks, Nazis and many others to grind this or that self-serving ideological axe. It’s not surprising that feminists feared that a Darwinian perspective would provide yet another cudgel for male scientists to hit women over the head with — about alleged inferiorities in mathematics or statecraft. But for all we know, such a perspective might reveal, that the raging hormonal imbalances that propel men to violence make them less than optimal for leadership of a modern state. If we believe sexism to be a prejudicial error, that fact will emerge from scientific examination, and we should favor its rigorous scrutiny by the methods of science.
Much of the recent controversy over the application of Darwinian ideas to human behavior has been motivated by the fear of such misuse by racists, sexists, and other bigots – as indeed happened with ghoulish and tragic consequences in World War II. However, the cure for a misuse of science is not censorship, but clearer explanation, more vigorous debate, and making science accessible to everyone. If some of our proclivities are inborn, as surely must be the case, it hardly follows that we cannot learn to modify, mitigate, enhance, or redirect the resulting behavior.
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
― Carl Sagan
Zen Pencils Comic: 100. CARL SAGAN: Pale blue dot
excuse me, no one is allowed to make me cry like that
Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan. For years you taught young and old alike to wonder and to think critically. You were a model scientist and a great man.