From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 4, 1996, pp. 10-17.
The following article is copyright ©1996 by the Skeptics
Society, P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119.
Permission has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation
of this article in its entirety, including this notice.
IN MEMORY OF
By Tom McDonough
"There is a place with four suns in the sky-red, white,
blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they
touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with
a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth-and made
of diamond....The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first
time we are becoming part of it."
-Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection
When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, I eagerly read the scientific
papers of an obscure young astrophysicist who was one of the few
researchers investigating the possibilities of life on other worlds.
Then I went to graduate school at Cornell University, and not
long afterwards, he became a professor there. His name was Carl
Over the years, as he became my teacher, friend, and colleague,
I watched as his charisma and gift of poetic language blossomed
into a TV personality, bestselling writer, Pulitzer prizewinner,
novelist, and the world's leading evangelist of science. And all
the while, he continued to do world-class research. I would like
to share some of my personal reminiscences of him.
Carl was a great professor. His ability to express the most arcane
concepts in intuitive terms made it easy to grasp difficult theories
of astrophysics. I can still see him drawing on the blackboard,
reducing complex phenomena to comprehensible images. This same
skill shone through his books and TV shows.
He took over a minor scientific journal, Icarus, and
persuaded the leading figures of solar-system research to publish
some of their major papers there. He loved editing it, even loved
assembling the tables of contents. His publisher sometimes got
annoyed at the huge phone bills he rang up, because he preferred
to speak directly with scientists around the world, rather than
rely on mail. But it became a leading periodical in its field.
With his wide-ranging mind, he was one of the few scientists able
to do research in both biology and astrophysics. In his lab, he
re-created the conditions that led to life on primitive Earth,
and furthered our understanding of the chances of life evolving
on other worlds.
When NASA designed the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft to be the
first ever to fly to Jupiter and Saturn, they discovered that
they had incidentally created the first interstellar spaceships.
The energy needed to get to Jupiter was so great that the Pioneers
would be moving too fast for the sun to pull them back. They would
drift on through the Milky Way for billions of years. Some day,
they might be found by another civilization. So why not include
a message to them? But who could design a message to alien beings
having no language in common with us but mathematics?
Naturally, they turned to Carl. He devised an ingenious map showing
where we are in the galaxy by drawing the positions of pulsars,
dead supernova stars that emit fantastically regular radio pulses.
To show who made the plaque, it bore a picture of a man and woman.
Because these humans were naked, NASA received complaints about
sending pornography into space. It is difficult to imagine, though,
that tentacled little green beings would find such pictures very
Today, the plaques are past the farthest planets of our solar
system, drifting like a message in a bottle through the cosmic
ocean of which he often spoke. Perhaps, millions of years from
now, after wandering the dust-lanes of the interstellar void and
gliding past stars of many colors, one may be found by spacefaring
aliens. If so, how wonderfully appropriate that they will be reading
a message from Carl Sagan.
After these were launched, he led a team including his future
wife Ann Druyan, that created a more sophisticated message for
the two Voyager spacecraft following in the spatial footprints
of the Pioneers. They designed a kind of videodisk containing
photos of life on Earth, samples of our greatest music, and greetings
in many languages.
Now that message, too, is traveling to the stars. Someday a being
may unwrap this gift from a distant planet, and see pictures of
sheepherders and astronauts, listen to Beethoven's Fifth
and Johnny B. Goode, and puzzle at the kaleidoscope of
languages. One of the English messages he, she or it will hear
is "Hello from the children of planet Earth" - spoken
by Carl's son, Nick.
While the Voyagers flew from Jupiter to Saturn, he and scientists
Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman created an organization to further
space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence
(SETI). Thus was born The Planetary Society. It became the fastest-growing
public-membership organization in the world and quickly reached
100,000 members on every continent, educating people about the
universe, and supporting research, especially on Mars and SETI.
In his books, articles and shows, Carl campaigned against irrationality.
Although he believed it was likely that there is intelligent life
on other worlds, he was relentlessly skeptical about claims that
the Earth is being visited by UFOs.
Despite his disbelief in UFOs, he was one of the pioneers of SETI.
Back in the early 1960s, it took a lot of courage to speak out
in favor of looking for astronomical signs of other civilizations,
when most scientists regarded this as a lot of Buck Rogers nonsense.
He was asked to edit the translation of a book by Soviet astrophysicist
Iosif Shklovsky called Intelligent Life in the Universe.
He added so many notes elaborating his own ideas that it doubled
the length of the book, so he was made coauthor. It became the
bible of SETI, summarizing the arguments about why life should
exist elsewhere, and how we might find it.
So persuasive was he that by 1982, he was able to get a petition
advocating SETI published in the journal Science, signed
by 70 scientists, including seven Nobel prizewinners. This was
a tremendous turnaround in the respectability of this controversial
Carl also had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell anecdotes.
Once, he told me about doing a TV show in which he discovered,
just before the cameras rolled, that the seat of his pants had
split. He had to make certain that he never faced away from the
One of my favorite stories was from when he and Shklovsky were
sitting together at a conference in the USSR. The speaker droned
on about his dubious theory that great scientific ideas are born
during times when sunspots are active. Shklovsky whispered that
this theory must have been conceived when sunspots were absent.
Carl was sometimes criticized for things he was not responsible
for, and mocked for things he never said. In his enormously popular
Cosmos series, there were many camera shots of his profile.
People criticized him for being so egotistical, but this was the
director's choice, not his.
Johnny Carson, America's popular talk-show host, loved to affectionately
mimic Carl - one of his favorite guests - by saying "billions
and billions," until everyone associated it with Carl. Yet
Carl never said that precise phrase in public until years later.
He grew quite tired of it. I remember a concert for Planetfest,
a Planetary Society celebration of space exploration in 1981.
He spoke about space exploration while accompanied by music conducted
by John Williams, and inevitably had to use the word "billions."
As soon as he did, tittering broke out in the audience. He glared
at the offenders and continued.
One of his greatest contributions to society came from his essays
for the popular national Sunday supplement, Parade. With
these, he was able to explain to a huge audience topics from all
realms of science, and to attack the endless gullibility of a
public that fell for even the most unsupported claims of paranormal
events. He reminded them that "extraordinary claims require
Through Carl, millions and millions of people learned much about
the universe. One extraordinary fact he taught them was that most
of the atoms of which we are made were born in stars that exploded
long ago. He observed that "We are made of star-stuff."
He certainly was.
CARL LEAVES US...
By James Randi
My heroes are few. Martin Gardner, Dick Feynman, Isaac Asimov,
Carl Sagan. With all that brilliance, my starry zodiac was more
than adequate. Dick, Isaac, and now Carl are gone.
I'm glad that I last saw him in person in Seattle, looking well,
and to all appearances recovering from his ailment. We sat and
spoke for a long time. The last time.
Up until the end, he was confident, cheery, optimistic. Despite
the ravages of his illness and the obvious, visible effects of
the therapy he was undergoing, he made every public appearance
he could in his last weeks. He was brave in the face of his demise,
and went like the warrior he was.
I remember his joy at seeing the first photos to come in from
the surface of Mars, his exuberance standing before a night sky
in Cosmos, and the broad grin he unleashed when the stunning
pictures from Jupiter began to crawl across a computer monitor.
I urge you, if you have not yet read his last book, The Demon-Haunted
World, please do so. Many months ago, I received a bound
galley of that book, with a cautionary note not to prepare a review
based closely upon it, since there were many planned changes due.
When I eventually received the final draft, I noted many instances
where Carl had strengthened his language, upgraded and fortified
his adjectives, and in general hardened his language. I had the
chilling thought that perhaps he felt this might be his last statement
about the pseudoscience, crackpots, frauds, and quacks that he
so resented. Now I'm more convinced of that possibility.
He had the ability to captivate with his words, spoken or written;
the Cosmos series was seen by 400 million people worldwide.
His students at Cornell worshiped him, and though his colleagues
were often pedantically annoyed at his high public profile and
expressed opinions that he should return to pure research, he
managed to ignore that pressure-happily for us-and continued to
be the great teacher of critical thinking that the world came
to know and respect. The academic pressure was so great when he
taught at Harvard, that he was "passed over" for tenure,
and Harvard's stupid loss was Cornell's gain.
Carl came up against the Reagan Star Wars fiasco, and became so
involved as an advocate of rationality that he was publicly arrested.
He championed the SETI program - with Frank Drake - and in all
respects he supported science and the simple process of thinking.
A giant has fallen. We can only celebrate his life and continue
to listen to him through his writings. I miss him, and I feel
AN AWFUL HOLE, A WONDERFUL LIFE
By Michael Shermer
December 20, 1996, as I was sitting in the Skeptics Society's
office this morning working on final edits of this issue and my
forthcoming book, my partner Pat Linse came in. I bid her good
morning and inquired if there was anything important happening
that I needed to know. "Yes," she said with an ashen
look in her face. "Carl Sagan is dead." The news came
like a blow to the gut. Just last week I saw him on Nightline,
telling Ted Koppel that the prospects for his future health were
excellent. Just last month Carl and I had communicated by e-mail
about doing an interview for Skeptic magazine. And just
like that he is gone.
How fleeting is our tenure on planet Earth, Sagan might have said.
We must make the most of it. Carl certainly did. Born November
9, 1934, in New York City, he obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy and
astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1960. From 1962
to 1968, he worked at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
>From 1972 to 1981 he was Associate Director of the Center for
Radio Physics and Space Research at Cornell University. Up until
his death he was David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space
Science there. Throughout this time he worked closely with NASA
and JPL on many space probes, and he co-founded and served as
President of the Planetary Society. As if that wasn't enough,
Sagan won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden,
following that up with such classic works as Broca's Brain,
The Cosmic Connection, Intelligent Life in the Universe, Shadows
of Forgotten Ancestors, Pale Blue Dot, and The Demon-Haunted
World. Sagan is best known to the general public as the writer
and host of the most-watched documentary series in history, Cosmos,
for his regular appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show,
and for his column in Parade magazine.
Among Sagan's plethora of awards were NASA's Apollo Achievement
Award, the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award from the American
Astronautical Society, the Masursky Award from the American Astronomical
Society, the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Medal from the Soviet Cosmonauts
Federation, the 1981 Humanist of the Year Award from the American
Humanist Association, and honorary degrees from 22 universities.
The film version of his novel Contact, about the first
communication between humans and an alien intelligence, is scheduled
for release in the summer of 1997. It stars Jodie Foster and is
directed by Robert Zemeckis, who did Back to the Future.
What a full life it has been.
It was a gloomy day here at the office. As I write Carl is on
the television screen discussing the long historical chain from
genes to brains to books, as Cosmos plays in the background-our
own small tribute to one of the finest human beings of our age.
Like so many others my life was deeply affected by Sagan. His
book, The Dragons of Eden, got me thinking about the
evolutionary aspects of human behavior when I was a graduate student
in psychology, and provided material for a number of lectures
in my introductory psychology course when I was a professor. Cosmos
showed me how important the history of science is to our
understanding of how science works and its impact on our culture.
Most significantly, in the Fall of 1987, Sagan delivered a lecture
I attended in Pasadena, California, entitled "The Burden
of Skepticism." It came at a crossroads in my life when I
was trying to find my intellectual moorings. After reminding us
of the joys and responsibilities of science and skepticism, Sagan
concluded: "If we teach school children the habit of being
skeptical perhaps they will not restrict their skepticism to aspirin
commercials and 35,000 year old channelers. Maybe they will start
asking awkward questions about economic or social or political
or religious institutions, and then where will we be? Skepticism
is dangerous. In fact, it is the business of skepticism to be
dangerous. That is exactly its function."
It is not only what Sagan said, but how he said
it that signaled to me what I needed to do. His forceful presence,
deliberate style (with that sonorous voice), carefully-chosen
humor, and most of all his pure class radiated that night. I wanted
to be a part of the business of skepticism and start asking awkward
questions of any and all institutions and beliefs. It was a defining
moment. I wanted to be a skeptic.
Immediately after the lecture I applied to the Claremont Graduate
School, earned a Ph.D. in the history of science, and within six
months of graduating in 1991 founded the Skeptics Society. In
a way, the Society was born at that 1987 lecture, at which Carl
stated what I think is the essential tension between skepticism
and credulity, and serves as a beacon toward which we may steer
whenever we lose our intellectual moorings.
It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite
balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny
of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time
a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then
no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything
new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense
is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support
On the other hand, if you are open to the point of
gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then
you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.
If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then,
it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.
No one is grieving today more than Carl's family. But on another
level we are all grieving because Sagan transcended self and science,
reaching through the intellectual, cultural, and political boundaries
to all peoples. To quote George Bailey's guardian angel, Clarence
Oddbody, from It's a Wonderful Life: "Strange, isn't
it? Each man's life touches so many other lives, and when he isn't
around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
You see, Carl, you really had a wonderful life.
IN HIS OWN WORDS...
ON THE COSMOS:
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our
feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us-there is a tingling
in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a
distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching
the greatest of mysteries."
-"The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean," Cosmos,
ON EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE:
"There are some hundred billion (1011) galaxies, each with,
on the average, a hundred billion stars. In all the galaxies,
there are perhaps as many planets as stars, 1011 x 1011 = 1022,
ten billion trillion. In the face of such overpowering numbers,
what is the likelihood that only one ordinary star, the Sun, is
accompanied by an inhabited planet? Why should we, tucked away
in some forgotten corner of the Cosmos, be so fortunate? To me,
it seems far more likely that the universe is brimming over with
life. But we humans do not yet know. We are just beginning our
explorations. The only planet we are sure is inhabited is a tiny
speck of rock and metal, shining feebly by reflected sunlight,
and at this distance utterly lost."
-"The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean," Cosmos,
ON DISCOVERING EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCES:
"The receipt of a message from an advanced civilization will
show that there are advanced civilizations, that there
are methods of avoiding the self-destruction that seems so real
a danger of our present technological adolescence. ...Finding
a solution to a problem is helped enormously by the certain knowledge
that a solution exists. This is one of many curious connections
between the existence of intelligent life elsewhere and the existence
of intelligent life on Earth."
-"Knowledge is Our Destiny," The Dragons of Eden,
ON EXPLORING THE COSMOS:
"This is the time when humans have begun to sail the sea
of space. The modern ships that ply the Keplerian trajectories
to the planets are unmanned. They are beautifully constructed,
semi-intelligent robots exploring unknown worlds."
-"Travelers' Tales," Cosmos, p. 138.
ON THE VIEW OF EARTH FROM 3.7 BILLION MILES AWAY AS A PALE
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home, That's
us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever
heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident
religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and
forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of
civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love,
every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer,
every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,'
every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history
of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
... There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human
conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it
underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another,
and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've
-"You Are Here," Pale Blue Dot, pp. 8-9.
"Comets approach the Sun, flicker a few hundred times, and
die like moths around a flame. But a vast repository of them waits
at the periphery of the Solar System. When the present configuration
of continents is unrecognizably altered, when the Earth is engulfed
by the expanding Sun, when, in its dotage, our star feebly illuminates
the charred remains of this planet - then, even then, the skies
will still be brightened as young comets, newly arrived from the
interstellar dark, make their wild perihelion passages. When the
rest of the solar system is dead, and the descendants of humans
long ago emigrated or extinct, the comets will still be here."
-"A Mote of Dust," Comet, p. 372.
"As soon as I was old enough, my parents gave me my first
library card. I think the library was on 85th Street, an alien
land. Immediately, I asked the librarian for something on stars.
She returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and
women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained,
and for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another
book - the right kind of book. I opened it breathlessly and read
until I found it. The book said something astonishing, a very
big thought. It said that the stars were suns, only very far away.
The Sun was a star, but close up."
-"The Backbone of Night," Cosmos, p. 168.
ON CHILDHOOD DREAMS OF BEING AN ASTRONOMER:
"When I was twelve, my grandfather asked me-through a translator
(he had never learned much English)-what I wanted to be when I
grew up. I answered, 'An astronomer,' which, after a while, was
also translated. 'Yes,' he replied, 'but how will you make a living?'
I had supposed that, like all the adult men I knew, I would be
consigned to a dull, repetitive, and uncreative job; astronomy
would be done on weekends. It was not until my second year in
high school that I discovered that some astronomers were paid
to pursue their passion. I was overwhelmed with joy; I could pursue
my interest full-time."
-"Preface," The Cosmic Connection, p. vii.
ON THE BRAIN:
"The human brain seems to be in a state of uneasy truce,
with occasional skirmishes and rare battles. The existence of
brain components with predispositions to certain behavior is not
an invitation to fatalism or despair: we have substantial control
over the relative importance of each component. Anatomy is not
destiny, but it is not irrelevant either."
-"The Future Evolution of the Brain," The Dragons
of Eden, p. 189.
ON GENES, BRAINS, AND BOOKS:
"When our genes could not store all the information necessary
for survival, we slowly invented brains. But then the time came,
perhaps ten thousand years ago, when we needed to know more than
could conveniently be contained in brains. So we learned to stockpile
enormous quantities of information outside our bodies. We are
the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented
a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains.
The warehouse of that memory is called the library.
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible
parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented
squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another
person-perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the
millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside
your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of
human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant
epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of
time, proof that humans can work magic."
-"The Persistence of Memory," Cosmos, p. 281.
"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 agonize 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."
-"Science and Hope," The Demon-Haunted World,
WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE NONSENSE:
"Such reports persist and proliferate because they sell.
And they sell, I think, because there are so many of us who want
so badly to be jolted out of our humdrum lives, to rekindle that
sense of wonder we remember from childhood, and also, for a few
of the stories, to be able, really and truly, to believe-in Someone
older, smarter, and wiser who is looking out for us. Faith is
clearly not enough for many people. They crave hard evidence,
scientific proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval,
but are unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence
that impart credibility to that seal."
-"The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars," The
Demon-Haunted World, p. 58.
ON SCIENCE LITERACY:
"All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There
is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions.
But I do not see how we can deal with the universe-both the outside
and the inside universe-without studying it. The best way to avoid
abuses is for the populace in general to be scientifically literate,
to understand the implications of such investigations. In exchange
for freedom of inquiry, scientists are obliged to explain their
work. If science is considered a closed priesthood, too difficult
and arcane for the average person to understand, the dangers of
abuse are greater. But if science is a topic of general interest
and concern - if both its delights and its social consequences
are discussed regularly and competently in the schools, the press,
and at the dinner table - we have greatly improved our prospects
for learning how the world really is and for improving both it
-"Broca's Brain," Broca's Brain, p. 12.
ON SCIENCE AND UNCERTAINTY:
"We will always be mired in error. The most each generation
can hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add
to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is
a pervasive, visible self-assessment of the reliability of our
knowledge. You can often see error bars in public opinion polls...Imagine
a society in which every speech in the Congressional Record,
every television commercial, every sermon had an accompanying
error bar or its equivalent."
-"Science and Hope," The Demon-Haunted World,
ON HUMANS AND ANIMALS:
"We must stop pretending we're something we are not. Somewhere
between romantic, uncritical anthropomorphizing of the animals
and an anxious, obdurate refusal to recognize our kinship with
them - the latter made tellingly clear in the still-widespread
notion of 'special' creation - there is a broad middle ground
on which we humans can take our stand."
-"Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors," Shadows of Forgotten
Ancestors, p. 413.
"In the entire Velikovsky affair, the only aspect worse than
the shoddy, ignorant and doctrinaire approach of Velikovsky and
many of his supporters was the disgraceful attempt by some who
called themselves scientists to suppress his writings. For this,
the entire scientific enterprise has suffered. Velikovsky makes
no serious claim of objectivity or falsifiability. There is at
least nothing hypocritical in his rigid rejection of the immense
body of data that contradicts his arguments. But scientists are
supposed to know better, to realize that ideas will be judged
on their merits if we permit free inquiry and vigorous debate."
-"Venus and Dr. Velikovsky," Broca's Brain,
BIOLOGY AND HISTORY:
"Biology is much more like language and history than it is
like physics and chemistry. ...Now you might say that where the
subject is simple, as in physics, we can figure out the underlying
laws and apply them everywhere in the Universe; but where the
subject is difficult, as in language, history, and biology, governing
laws of Nature may well exist, but our intelligence may be too
feeble to recognize their presence - especially if what is being
studied is complex and chaotic, exquisitely sensitive to remote
and inaccessible initial conditions. And so we invent formulations
about "contingent reality" to disguise our ignorance.
There may well be some truth to this point of view, but it is
nothing like the whole truth, because history and biology remember
in a way that physics does not. Humans share a culture, recall
and act on what they've been taught. Life reproduced the adaptations
of previous generations, and retains functioning DNA sequences
that reach billions of years back into the past. We understand
enough about biology and history to recognize a powerful stochastic
component, the accidents preserved by high-fidelity reproduction."
-"Life is Just a Three-Letter Word," Shadows of
Forgotten Ancestors, p. 92.
"Because the word 'God' means many things to many people,
I frequently reply [to people who ask 'Do you believe in God?']
by asking what the questioner means by 'God.' To my surprise,
this response is often considered puzzling or unexpected: 'Oh,
you know, God. Everyone knows who God is.' Or 'Well, kind of a
force that is stronger than we are and that exists everywhere
in the universe.' There are a number of such forces. One of them
is called gravity, but it is not often identified with God. And
not everyone does know what is meant by 'God.'...Whether we believe
in God depends very much on what we mean by God.
My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional
sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such
a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable
to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passion
to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such
a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence
are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case,
the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and
religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species."
-"A Sunday Sermon," Broca's Brain, p. 291.
ON THEISM AND ATHEISM:
"Those who raise questions about the God hypothesis and the
soul hypothesis are by no means all atheists. An atheist is someone
who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling
evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling
evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places
and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more
about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God
exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain
of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes
in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire
very little confidence indeed. A wide range of intermediate positions
seems admissible, and considering the enormous emotional energies
with which the subject is invested, a questioning, courageous
and open mind seems to be the essential tool for narrowing the
range of our collective ignorance on the subject of the existence
-"The Amniotic Universe," Broca's Brain, p.
ON A PLEA FOR TOLERANCE:
"We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society
that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow
strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the
negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish.
And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations
merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial
visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their
societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the
similarities. The Cosmos may be densely populated with intelligent
beings. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans
elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare
as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic
perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him
live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."
-"Who Speaks for Earth?," Cosmos, p. 339.
ON THE TRANSIENCE OF LIFE:
"Each of us is a tiny being, permitted to ride on the outermost
skin of one of the smaller planets for a few dozen trips around
the local star. ...The longest-lived organisms on Earth endure
for about a millionth of the age of our planet. A bacterium lives
for one hundred-trillionth of that time. So of course the individual
organisms see nothing of the overall pattern-continents, climate,
evolution. They barely set foot on the world stage and are promptly
snuffed out-yesterday a drop of semen, as the Roman Emperor Marcus
Aurelius wrote, tomorrow a handful of ashes. If the Earth were
as old as a person, a typical organism would be born, live, and
die in a sliver of a second. We are fleeting, transitional creatures,
snowflakes fallen on the hearth fire. That we understand even
a little of our origins is one of the great triumphs of human
insight and courage."
-"Snowflakes Fallen on the Hearth," Shadows of Forgotten
Ancestors, pp. 30-31.
ON LIFE AND DEATH:
"Most people would rather be alive than dead. But why? It's
hard to give a coherent answer. An enigmatic "will to live"
or "life force" is often cited. But what does that explain?
Even victims of atrocious brutality and intractable pain may retain
a longing, sometimes even a zest, for life. Why, in the cosmic
scheme of things, one individual should be alive and not another
is a difficult question, an impossible question, perhaps even
a meaningless question. Life is a gift that, of the immense number
of possible but unrealized beings, only the tiniest fraction are
privileged to experience. Except in the most hopeless of circumstances,
hardly anyone is willing to give it up voluntarily - at least
until very old age is reached."
-"What Thin Partitions...," Shadows of Forgotten
Ancestors, p. 159.