If you haven’t heard of Carl Sagan then you are missing out. Not only was the renowned astrophysicist a pioneering scientist, but a leader in the field of public science communication. And personally, one of the greatest people to have ever lived.
Without him, it is unlikely that many of us would know much about the universe beyond basic education. And without his television show Cosmos, a generation of scientists may have never come to be. But Carl’s greatest contribution to humanity was his unending patience, empathy and personal charge toward empowering people with knowledge.
Even now, his profound insights into human life ring true in arenas ranging from politics to social reform. So let’s count down our top list of his most enduring quotes, perhaps you will find something that you love.
1. On understanding and knowledge.
People are not stupid. They believe things for reasons. The last way for skeptics to get the attention of bright, curious, intelligent people is to belittle or condescend or to show arrogance toward their beliefs.
Throughout his career, Carl was persistent in his pursuit of public empowerment. By treating us all as friends, capable of the greatest feats, he established a paradigm of education by right.
But with some controversy, he took what was privy only to a select few in academia and made it not just palatable, but wondrous to the rest of us. For Carl, you were not just deserving of the universe but enriched for understanding it.
And as an avowed skeptic of common wisdom and conspiracy, he approached each subject with evidence, understanding, and compassion. Simply, he forgave people human mistakes, where others would simply dismiss them.
We should do the same.
2. On the transience of human life and the immortality of words.
One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.
During one episode of his poetic homage to humanity, Cosmos, Sagan visited the ancient library of Alexandria. It was here, for a short while, that the world’s greatest minds came together in a shared mission of understanding.
And although much of Alexandria’s history was lost, small amounts remain in collected writings. An enduring legacy of another time. But for Carl words were more than just communication between friends and colleagues, but a version of immortality.
Through the written word we learned to overcome death, share the wisdom of our time with those who would come after. The ‘information-organism’ of humanity finds feet in ink over millennia.
3. On the fragility of understanding and the wonder of creation
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
In this short epithet, Sagan reflects on the vast gulf between human knowledge and the nature of the universe. And depending on your interpretation, he is either jocularly revealing a comedy of nature, or providing a deep insight into the linearity of thought.
To make an apple pie requires the ingredients created from the formation of our universe. All that is once was in the bellies of ancient stars, cast into our universe and eventually mealtimes by cosmic forces and eons of time.
But to understand the world we must first invent a way of understanding, and for that the best we have is science. It is through a skeptic and imaginative mind that we may create our universe.
4. On the humility of human life in an infinite universe (see video.)
In his famous soliloquy, Sagan reduces human accomplishment, greatness, cruelty and misunderstanding to the tiny significance it has in the greater universe.
Within his poetic testament he not only shows us just how small we are, but hints at how pointless our self destruction is.
And at the same time he conveys a message of hope disguised in a eulogy. He warns us that our future is down to us, and that hopefully by realising what we have, as tiny as it is, that we may create a better future.
Earth is our only home.
5. On the saving grace of companionship.
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
For all his poetry, lessons and foretelling, Sagan hits on something truly profound. Upon recognising the inescapable truths that are our mortality and ineffectual existence beyond a pale blue dot, he returns to what unites us all.
By embracing love we can overcome any distance. And in that the paucity of meaning is rendered mute, bearable and even empowering, as through love we can find meaning in an ocean of irrelevance. Where science can bring humility, love can bring back purpose.
Throughout his career it appears to me that Sagan’s underlying driving force must have been a deep and powerful love for the universe and his fellow man. To continuously fight for public empowerment, against governments, critics and even himself, Sagan had a heart much greater than even his ‘ship of the imagination’ could explore
But to encapsulate Sagan in five quotes is impossible, so we encourage you to explore his work further.
So which was your favourite? What have we missed and what did you take away? Let us know in the comments below. And if you found yourself touched, please help us reach out by sharing.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.