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Carl Edward Sagan – An astronomer who had the right stuff

Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996), best known as Carl Sagan, was an American astronomer and media figure.

Русский: Карл Саган у модели спускаемого аппар...

Carl Sagan with a model of the Viking lander (Photo: Wikipedia)

His interest in science began at a young age. Getting his first public library card at age 5, he spent considerable time asking the librarian questions and reading up on topics that his family and friends were not so enthusiastic about.

The young Carl got bored at public school because it wasn’t challenging enough. But his family didn’t have the means to send him to a private school for gifted kids.

Nevertheless, Sagan went on to do great things as an adult. He published hundreds of scientific articles, served as an advisor to NASA, and wrote books and hosted a TV series, Cosmos, that popularized science and particularly the idea that we are not alone in the universe.

Sagan differed from many UFO hunters in that he never abandoned his healthy skepticism. An advocate of SETI (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), his method was couched in the science of his era. Some see that as a strength, others as a limitation.¹

He also made several accurate predictions about the nature of our solar system, contributed to robotic space missions and, slightly ahead of his time,

perceived global warming as a growing, man-made danger and likened it to the natural development of Venus into a hot, life-hostile planet through a kind of runaway greenhouse effect.²

Sagan taught a course on critical thinking at Cornell university and didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic God nor a God to which one would pray to. His vision of God was more in line with the supposed laws of the universe. For Sagan, it made no sense to pray, for instance, to the law of gravity. Gravity would behave the same way, prayed to or not.³

Traditional theologians would say that Sagan confused creator with creation, as so many do. But his popularity in America and abroad was phenomenal and he received many medals and awards. And entertainers like Johnny Carson regularly parodied his sound bytes and unique accent, especially with the phrase “billions and billions.”4

¹ For instance, people convinced that they can psychically connect with ETs will likely not find any kind of proof by looking through large telescopes or by listening to radio signals from outer space. The proof for them, if there is any “proof” at all, might come from situations working out in a positive way by virtue of an apparently helpful psychic ET connection. This, of course, could be further questioned from different angles. But this is beyond the scope of this entry.

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

³ “In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, ‘I’m agnostic.’ Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator God of the Universe was difficult to prove or disprove.” Ibid.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billions_and_Billions

Related » Occam’s razor


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Pluto – Even a planet can’t be sure of its status

New Horizons Spacecraft approaching Pluto

Pluto was formerly defined as the ninth and smallest planet in our solar system but on August 24, 2006 it was redefined as a dwarf planet, and the total number of planets was reduced to eight. This happened because astronomers discovered several similarly sized objects in a belt just past Neptune, known as the Kuiper belt.

I remember growing up as a kid, having the notion that there are nine planets in our solar system rammed into my head. Well, even scientific claims like the number of planets is subject to change. Although I must admit, I still think of Pluto as a planet. And all that other similarly sized stuff, well, it’s just stuff. (The power of naming, I guess).

In ancient Greek myth Plutos was a god of wealth. Hence the word, plutocracy (rule by wealthy elites). But Pluto is more commonly known as the lord of the underworld.

Eirene (Peace) bearing Plutus (Wealth), Roman copy after a Greek votive statue by Kephisodotos (ca. 370 BC) which stood on the agora in Athens.

Related » Hades, Persephone, Scorpio