Today the Palace celebrates the birth date of an extraordinary citizen of the universe, Carl Sagan.
Perhaps best known for his PBS series Cosmos, Sagan was a prolific author, scholar, accomplished astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, marijuana activist, science popularizer, science communicator, consultant to NASA and the Air Force, fierce advocate for scientific and skeptical inquiry, and all around cool d00d. Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell University until his death in 1996, at the age of 62.
It has not escaped my notice that many of my fellow godless humans credit Sagan’s Cosmos and his books, particularly The Demon-Haunted World, for the spark that ignited a life-long passion for science and skeptical inquiry. Sagan was a rare bird: he was a brilliant scientist whose groundbreaking achievements in diverse fields are too numerous to list here. But he was also gifted at communicating science and the wonders of the natural world to ordinary people, and relentless in his efforts to increase scientific understanding among the general public.
Sagan credited “skepticism” and “wonder” as the key ingredients in the cocktail that nourishes scientific thought: He said:
“My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to skepticism and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method.”
Carl Sagan was a person of principle: he resigned in protest from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board over the Vietnam War, and voluntarily surrendered his Top Secret clearance. After marrying novelist Ann Druyan 1981, Sagan became more politically active, particularly in opposing the nuclear arms race escalated by then-president and massive doucheweasel Ronny Raygun. And then there’s this:
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons, which would begin on August 6, 1985—the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima—the Reagan administration dismissed the dramatic move as nothing more than propaganda, and refused to follow suit. In response, US anti-nuclear and peace activists staged a series of protest actions at the Nevada Test Site, beginning on Easter Sunday in 1986 and continuing through 1987. Hundreds of people were arrested, including Sagan, who was arrested on two separate occasions as he climbed over a chain-link fence at the test site.
In honor of Carl Sagan Day, the Palace will be serving Pale Blue Martinis* throughout the day in the Grand Entry Hall, directly across from the shrine to PZ Myers.
We are also adding some of Carl Sagan’s memorable and inspiring words to the Palace Quote Collection:
“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”
“Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.”
“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”
“I went to the librarian [at age 5] and asked for a book about stars … And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light …The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.”
“Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid.”
“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.”
“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.”
“The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent to the concerns of such puny creatures as we are.”
“That kind of skeptical, questioning, “don’t accept what authority tells you” attitude of science — is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.”
“War is murder writ large.”
“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
Please also enjoy this short film with your cocktail:
Our Pale Blue Dot is a much better place for Carl Sagan having walked among us.
* Pale Blue Martini:
1 1/2 oz. vodka
1/4 oz. Blue Curacao liqueur
1 dash fresh lime juice
Stir ingredients in a cocktail shaker with cracked ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist, or a slice of lemon or lime.