Carl Sagan, one of the world’s greatest popularisers of science, died on December 20th at the age of 62, after a long battle with a bone marrow disease. Sagan was one of America’s pre-eminent scientists, educators, skeptics and humanists. He was also a founding member and Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and a member of the Council for Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism.
Sagan’s award-winning 1980 TV series Cosmos turned the ebullient cosmologist into an international celebrity, with audiences of over half a billion people in 60 countries; the book spent 70 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
His article in Parade (March 1996), titled “In the Valley of the Shadow”, spoke movingly of his illness and his attitude to death as a non-theist and skeptic:
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.
Despite Sagan’s fame as popular writer and TV personality, his main career was in academia. From 1971 until his death, Sagan was Professor of Astronomy and Space Science at Cornell University. He also worked for NASA and was responsible for NASA space probes Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager I and II interstellar messages.
Sagan actively supported the work of CSICOP. In 1987 he was the recipient of CSICOP’s “In Praise of Reason Award”.
In 1994 CSICOP created the Isaac Asimov Award to honor Asimov for his extraordinary contributions to science and humanity. The first winner of this award was Carl Sagan. When told that the award would be presented to Carl Sagan, Janet Asimov said, “There is no one better qualified for the CSICOP Isaac Asimov Award that his good friend and colleague Carl Sagan. Isaac was particularly fond of Carl. He was also in awe of Carl’s genius, and proud that he was so adept at communicating science to the public through speaking, writing, and the visual media.”
At the CSICOP Seattle congress, Sagan spoke to an audience of over 1,000 skeptics about his love of science and the importance of popularisation of science:
“Science is still one of my chief joys. The popularisation of science that Isaac Asimov did so well — the communication not just of the findings but of the methods of science — seems to me as natural as breathing. After all, when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”
Paul Kurtz, chairman of CSICOP, said, “Carl Sagan was one of the leading scientific skeptics in the world and a critic of anti-scientific and irrational attitudes, and perhaps the leading proponent of the scientific outlook and the methods of science. His untimely loss is deeply felt by the scientific and academic community.”
In his last book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, Sagan wrote:
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonise about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
“The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
The world has just become a bit darker.