Happy Father’s day from CWL:‘NASA Tribute to Carl’ByDorion Sagan
My father’s work made science cool. He showed that it was good to be smart, to be open to wonder but also critical, both of superstition and political authority. The universe was our home. Space exploration and evolution were part of a story based on evidence that belonged to all humanity, not a religious or political elite looking out for their own interests. He criticized Congress (most of whom are lawyers) for not knowing science, and he empowered the public by revealing the multicultural truth of our belonging to a cosmos that was beautiful, understandable, and open to human discovery. He showed not only that science belonged to everybody, but that a scientifically educated public was necessary for the health of society. In short he used television to democratize the advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Cosmos was one of the most watched TV programs in history, and it wasn’t drama or sports but the story of who, what, why, when, and where we are. Rather than being local or international news, it was cosmic news: a taking-stock and popularization of where we are in our voyage of self-discovery of the cosmos from which we have evolved. Although Jacob Bronowski had preceded and paved the way for my father in his TV series The Ascent of Man, and David Attenborough had expanded the form in his nature series, my father inaugurated and embodied the idea of exciting television that was about the beauty and truth of our place in a universe that is far bigger than humanity. He showed science as both an intellectual adventure and a spiritual experience. As the Protestants dispensed with priests to show that the individual could have a personal relationship with God, so my father showed that anybody on the planet, employing the nondenominational method of science, could have a personal understanding of the cosmos—a kind of God (the God of Einstein and Spinoza) but one that was open to rational and mathematical inquiry.
Cosmos may be dated in terms of production value and special effects, and certain scientific and philosophical aspects of it could be tweaked, but its spirit remains timeless. Because of the backsliding in science education, in some ways it is more relevant than when it appeared. The emphasis on evolutionary biology, scientific history, critical thinking, free inquiry and the role of evidence in the growth of humanity’s understanding in a universe that dwarfs us and in which we are not masters but an immature life form—these continue to be crucial themes.
My father was unparalleled in his ability to convey the essence of science in poetic language. He was pleasant to look at, hypnotic to listen to, and the conviction and enthusiasm of his presentations—which took the form of a moral imperative for us to know ourselves—were infectious. I miss him; the world misses him. He was not just a good popularizer, but a man in love with the truth. He was not afraid of the powers that be or, if he was, he had the courage to face them in the name of a cosmic human heritage that transcended class, sex, and racial-cultural differences. He oversaw a leap from an age of science fiction to an age of scientific reality, where we really did go to the moon and beyond. He was asked to lend his image to advertising campaigns—but he steadfastly refused. Although he was famous, he was motivated to educate and empower through science, not to cash in or compromise. Here he differs from the many celebrities and sports stars who do not think twice about attaching their name to a product to make money.
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