Sagan and Hope

December is a heavy month for the Deathdays of atheistic celebrities – Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il being the most obvious examples. However, there is one that slipped my mind before being reminded by Jerry Coyne. (Not personally, obviously. Despite deigning to pose for a picture with me, Dr. Coyne and I are not on a first name basis…) 17 years ago today, Carl Sagan died. At the time, I was a fresh-faced five-year-old with no concept of… well… anything, but many years later, I discovered Sagan’s work through the incredible documentary series Cosmos, and John D. Boswell’s fantastic Symphony of Science videos. Apart from his enviable eyebrows and aurally orgasmic voice, what most struck me about Sagan was how obviously he was enamoured with science, and its ability to explain the world around us. Particularly stirring is his image of the pale blue dot, that tiny orb upon which every great figure, every incredible idea and every single human event ever occurred. Sagan phrases it much more elegantly, of course:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

I still look up often, and on a cloudless night am struck by a terrifying feeling of insignificance, staring as I am into effective infinity. But Sagan has these comforting words:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

This profound statement says almost all that is necessary about humanism. When challenged to explain how love evolved, or how it can have meaning in a world of “mere” chemical reactions, or why those of us without a god don’t commit suicide en masse, this is my response.

As I said about Hitchens just a few days ago, I admire the stoicism and courage with which Sagan faced his death. Both men had the questionable advantage of seeing their end coming to meet them, and this makes their adherence to principle and their refusal to give in to delusion all the more admirable. Sagan’s thoughts on death are as comforting and reasonable as his thoughts on our cosmic finitude:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. 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.

Not much else needs to be said by me about Sagan. He was more than capable of speaking for himself, and his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is still a superb primer for any budding sceptic. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space will quickly knock any anthropocentric chauvinism on the head. And Cosmos (both the book and the television series) will provide a riveting introduction to life, the universe, and everything.

On a final note, Sagan also counts as my favourite celebrity chef, purely for his apple pie recipe:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

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