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*He is not a secret agent. Not at all.



Cosmos Theme by Vangelis.

Carl Sagan was most assuredly one of the...awesomest motherfuckers ever to set foot on this planet (or this Pale Blue Dot). I am dead serious and I will fight to death (in the old Highland manner) anyone who dares suggest otherwise.

You simply couldn't play Astronauts Vs. Cavemen with him, because he'd consider it, answer and he'd be absolutely, irrefutably right.

December 20 marks the tenth anniversary of his death and if you look around the web you may find some others marking this date (at the suggestion of Joel Schlosberg).

As a wee lad, I was interested in space (as many wee lads tend to be). I was fascinated, of course, by astronauts and I was quite the little Star Trek fan. Then this Cornell professor dude had this multi-part series on PBS. Cosmos. It was about, well, the cosmos. Not just astronomy and astrophysics. He touched on a lot of things. Big numbers. The Rosetta Stone. Samurai crabs. Guys with metal noses. Brooklyn. The Library of Alexandria. Computer science. Big bangs. Little ones. UFOs. Brain parts. The cosmos and everything in it (that we knew of in 1980).

Cosmos made you feel smart. Cosmos, very likely, actually did make those who viewed it smarter. It was truly an education. And it lead me to read about a great many things. The lessons Carl Sagan taught me stick with me, quite clearly, to this day. More that any teacher I ever had in any classroom. In fact, he even armed me with the knowledge to take down one of those teachers who obviously didn't think much of the astro-sciences and didn't feel any particular need to teach it correctly to impressionable young minds. Carl Sagan helped build my contempt for authority.

I believe the knowledge that Sagan spread through his series (the most watched on PBS for a decade, until Ken Burns came along and rallied the civil war freaks like no others) influenced popular science fiction. People understood science a little better and perhaps you could no longer get away with stuff like " Logically, as we move faster and faster toward the sun, we'll begin to move backward in time." (Spock in Star Trek: "Tomorrow is Yesterday"). Writers had to be a little more plausible. I think, in that way, Sagan likely had a subtle impact on such things as Star Trek: The Next Generation and the science fiction that has followed in its footsteps. He even had the more distinct impact of having his offspring, Nick Sagan, writing several episodes of TNG and Voyager.

At one point, I had a job in a retail furniture and housewares type store working in the storeroom part-time in the evening. It was a pretty sweet gig, because people rarely came to pick up their furniture at night. As such, the bulk of my responsibilities revolved around changing light bulbs. There was a lot of downtime.

The store had purchased boxes and boxes of random books. Bought by the pound, they were used to dress up bookcases and set on coffee tables and what-not. One bored evening, I ventured out upon the floor and started scanning these books for something I might be able to waste a little time with. It was a metric ton of utter crap, save for one book I almost didn't notice because it was pushed back behind some other books. Contact by Carl Sagan.

I was rapidly enthralled. It had some fascinating ideas (like a private space program) and was pretty damn educational as it went along, outlining the protocols of the SETI program and explaining the ins and outs of mathematics as a universal language. I even liked the movie with Jodie Foster. The big "pay off" not being all that big didn't bother me so much because I knew exactly what was coming. I found it a reasonably faithful adaptation.

Sagan educated me. He made me smarter. Made me more objective about pretty much everything. Made me use logic and made me realize when to punt logic because it might be getting in the way. He made me realize there is always something you don't know and it's okay to not know those things. I wish I could have met him.

Cosmos is currently airing on The Science Channel. I think it's time for a refresher course in the universe.
©2024 Michael Patrick Sullivan
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