Essay Library Quotations Sagan

Carl Edward Sagan (9 November1934 – 20 December1996) was an American astronomer and popular science writer.


  • 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. There are atomic nuclei a few miles across which rotate thirty times a second. There are tiny grains between the stars, with the size and atomic composition of bacteria. There are stars leaving the Milky Way, and immense gas clouds falling into it. There are turbulent plasmas writhing with X- and gamma-rays and mighty stellar explosions. There are, perhaps, places which are outside our universe. The universe is vast and awesome, and for the first time we are becoming a part of it.
    • Planetary Exploration (University of Oregon Books, Eugene, Oregon, 1970), page 15
  • It is easy to create an interstellar radio message which can be recognized as emanating unambiguously from intelligent beings. A modulated signal (‘beep,’ ‘beep-beep,’ . . . ) comprising the numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, for example, consists exclusively of the first 12 prime numbers—that is, numbers that can be divided only by 1, or by themselves. A signal of this kind, based on a simple mathematical concept, could only have a biological origin. . . . But by far the most promising method is to send pictures.
    • Smithsonian magazine, May 1978, pp. 43, 44. Quoted in Awake! magazine, 1978, 8/22.
  • Imagine, a room, awash in gasoline. And there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches. The other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger. Well, that's the kind of situation we are actually in. The amount of weapons that are available to the United States and the Soviet Union are so bloated, so grossly in excess of what's needed to dissuade the other that if it weren't so tragic, it would be laughable.
  • 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 … 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.
  • In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
    • Keynote address at CSICOP conference (1987), as quoted in Do Science and the Bible Conflict? (2003) by Judson Poling, p. 30
  • We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster.
  • Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you're in love, you want to tell the world.
  • We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces. Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?
  • I know that science and technology are not just cornucopias pouring good deeds out into the world. Scientists not only conceived nuclear weapons; they also took political leaders by the lapels, arguing that their nation — whichever it happened to be — had to have one first. … There’s a reason people are nervous about science and technology.
    And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our world—from Dr. Faust to Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning children’s television. (All this doesn’t inspire budding scientists.) But there’s no way back. We can’t just conclude that science puts too much power into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power-crazed politicians and decide to get rid of it. Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history. Advances in transportation, communication, and entertainment have transformed the world. The sword of science is double-edged. Rather, its awesome power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibility — more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming too expensive.
    • "Why We Need To Understand Science" in The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 14, Issue 3 (Spring 1990)
  • Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.
    • "Why We Need To Understand Science" in The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 14, Issue 3 (Spring 1990)
  • Science is [...] a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”
  • The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
    • As quoted in "Scientists & Their Gods" in U.S. News & World Report Vol. 111 (1991)
  • Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals — have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain. A sharp distinction between humans and 'animals' is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.
    • "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" (1992) (co-written with Ann Druyan)
  • In fact, the thickness of the Earth's atmosphere, compared with the size of the Earth, is in about the same ratio as the thickness of a coat of shellac on a schoolroom globe is to the diameter of the globe. That's the air that nurtures us and almost all other life on Earth, that protects us from deadly ultraviolet light from the sun, that through the greenhouse effect brings the surface temperature above the freezing point. (Without the greenhouse effect, the entire Earth would plunge below the freezing point of water and we'd all be dead.) Now that atmosphere, so thin and fragile, is under assault by our technology. We are pumping all kinds of stuff into it. You know about the concern that chlorofluorocarbons are depleting the ozone layer; and that carbon dioxide and methane and other greenhouse gases are producing global warming, a steady trend amidst fluctuations produced by volcanic eruptions and other sources. Who knows what other challenges we are posing to this vulnerable layer of air that we haven't been wise enough to foresee?
    • In Wonder and Skepticism, Skeptical Enquirer (Jan-Feb 1995), 19, No. 1.
  • The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.
  • If you take a look at science in its everyday function, of course you find that scientists run the gamut of human emotions and personalities and character and so on. But there’s one thing that is really striking to the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism that is considered acceptable or even desirable. The poor graduate student at his or her Ph.D. oral exam is subjected to a withering crossfire of questions that sometimes seem hostile or contemptuous; this from the professors who have the candidate’s future in their grasp. The students naturally are nervous; who wouldn’t be? True, they’ve prepared for it for years. But they understand that at that critical moment they really have to be able to answer questions. So in preparing to defend their theses, they must anticipate questions; they have to think, “Where in my thesis is there a weakness that someone else might find — because I sure better find it before they do, because if they find it and I'm not prepared, I'm in deep trouble."
  • Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.
  • I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
    The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
    • "In the Valley of the Shadow", Parade, 10 March 1996 
  • That kind of skeptical, questioning, "don't accept what authority tells you" attitude of science — is also nearly identical to the attitude of mind necessary for a functioning democracy. Science and democracy have very consonant values and approaches, and I don't think you can have one without the other.
    • Talk of the Nation (3 May 1996)
  • Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever it has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?
  • 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 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.
  • All of the books in the world contain no more information than is broadcast as video in a single large American city in a single year. Not all bits have equal value.

Essay as "Mr. X" (1969)[edit]

Essay as Mr. X (and here), written in 1969 for Marihuana Reconsidered (1971) by Lester Grinspoon
  • I had become friendly with a group of people who occasionally smoked cannabis, irregularly, but with evident pleasure. Initially I was unwilling to partake, but the apparent euphoria that cannabis produced and the fact that there was no physiological addiction to the plant eventually persuaded me to try. My initial experiences were entirely disappointing; there was no effect at all, and I began to entertain a variety of hypotheses about cannabis being a placebo which worked by expectation and hyperventilation rather than by chemistry. After about five or six unsuccessful attempts, however, it happened.
  • There's a part of me making, creating the perceptions which in everyday life would be bizarre; there's another part of me which is a kind of observer. About half of the pleasure comes from the observer-part appreciating the work of the creator-part. I smile, or sometimes even laugh out loud at the pictures on the insides of my eyelids. In this sense, I suppose cannabis is psychotomimetic, but I find none of the panic or terror that accompanies some psychoses. Possibly this is because I know it's my own trip, and that I can come down rapidly any time I want to.
  • The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I'm down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights — I don't know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate.
  • Cannabis also enhances the enjoyment of sex — on the one hand it gives an exquisite sensitivity, but on the other hand it postpones orgasm: in part by distracting me with the profusion of image passing before my eyes. The actual duration of orgasm seems to lengthen greatly, but this may be the usual experience of time expansion which comes with cannabis smoking.
  • I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I've had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds. A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word "crazy" to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: "did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy."
  • When I'm high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won't attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.
    There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day.
  • Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.
    I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for.
  • I can remember the night that I suddenly realized what it was like to be crazy, or nights when my feelings and perceptions were of a religious nature. I had a very accurate sense that these feelings and perceptions, written down casually, would not stand the usual critical scrutiny that is my stock in trade as a scientist. If I find in the morning a message from myself the night before informing me that there is a world around us which we barely sense, or that we can become one with the universe, or even that certain politicians are desperately frightened men, I may tend to disbelieve; but when I'm high I know about this disbelief. And so I have a tape in which I exhort myself to take such remarks seriously. I say "Listen closely, you sonofabitch of the morning! This stuff is real!" I try to show that my mind is working clearly; I recall the name of a high school acquaintance I have not thought of in thirty years; I describe the color, typography, and format of a book in another room and these memories do pass critical scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs. Such a remark applies not only to self-awareness and to intellectual pursuits, but also to perceptions of real people, a vastly enhanced sensitivity to facial expression, intonations, and choice of words which sometimes yields a rapport so close it's as if two people are reading each other's minds.
  • My high is always reflective, peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable, unlike most alcohol highs, and there is never a hangover. Through the years I find that slightly smaller amounts of cannabis suffice to produce the same degree of high, and in one movie theater recently I found I could get high just by inhaling the cannabis smoke which permeated the theater.
    There is a very nice self-titering aspect to cannabis. Each puff is a very small dose; the time lag between inhaling a puff and sensing its effect is small; and there is no desire for more after the high is there.
  • I think the ratio, R, of the time to sense the dose taken to the time required to take an excessive dose is an important quantity. R is very large for LSD (which I've never taken) and reasonably short for cannabis. Small values of R should be one measure of the safety of psychedelic drugs. When cannabis is legalized, I hope to see this ratio as one of the parameters printed on the pack. I hope that time isn't too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.

Cosmos (1980)[edit]

Cosmos. New York: Random House. 1980. LCCQB44.2.S235. ISBN 0394502949. 
  • In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Annie.
  • 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 size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
  • Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.
  • We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it's forever.
  • The fossil record implies trial and error, an inability to anticipate the future, features inconsistent with an efficient Great Designer.
  • If a marker were to be erected today, it might read, in homage to his scientific courage: “He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions.”
  • It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.
  • The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion and politics, but it is not the path to knowledge; it has no place in the endeavor of science.
  • With insufficient data it is easy to go wrong.
  • Our intelligence and our technology have given us the power to affect the climate. How will we use this power? Are we willing to tolerate ignorance and complacency in matters that affect the entire human family? Do we value short-term advantages above the welfare of the Earth? Or will we think on longer time scales, with concern for our children and our grandchildren, to understand and protect the complex life-support systems of our planet? The Earth is a tiny and fragile world. It needs to be cherished.
  • Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.
  • For a long time the human instinct to understand was thwarted by facile religious explanations.
  • They (i. e., the Pythagoreans) did not advocate the free confrontation of conflicting points of view. Instead, like all orthodox religions, they practised a rigidity that prevented them from correcting their errors.
  • The Platonists and their Christian successors held the peculiar notion that the Earth was tainted and somehow nasty, while the heavens were perfect and divine. The fundamental idea that the Earth is a planet, that we are citizens of the Universe, was rejected and forgotten.
  • For as long as there been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. This perspective is a courageous continuation of our penchant for constructing and testing mental models of the skies; the Sun as a red-hot stone, the stars as a celestial flame, the Galaxy as the backbone of night.
  • If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
  • We embarked on our journey to the stars with a question first framed in the childhood of our species and in each generation asked anew with undiminished wonder: What are the stars? Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.
  • Astronomically, the U. S. S. R. and the United States are the same place.
  • Relativity does set limits on what humans can ultimately do. But the universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human aspirations.
  • I have...a terrible need...shall I say the word?...of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.
  • If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
  • Matter is composed chiefly of nothing.
  • A googolplex is precisely as far from infinity as is the number 1... no matter what number you have in mind, infinity is larger still.
  • The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent to the concerns of such puny creatures as we are.
  • Nobody listens to mathematicians.
  • The neurochemistry of the brain is astonishingly busy, the circuitry of a machine more wonderful than any devised by humans. But there is no evidence that its functioning is due to anything more than the 1014 neural connections that build an elegant architecture of consciousness.
  • Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.
  • Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid.
  • The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars. Travel is broadening.
  • We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?
  • Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.
  • There is no other species on the Earth that does science. It is, so far, entirely a human invention, evolved by natural selection in the cerebral cortex for one simple reason: it works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be.
  • Humanhistory can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
  • 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.
  • We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to selfawareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.

Contact (1985)[edit]

Contact : a novel. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1985. LCCPS3569.A287 C6 1985. ISBN 0671434004. 
For quotes from the motion picture based on this novel, see: Contact (film)
All page numbers from the mass market paperback edition published by Pocket Books
  • I wish to propose a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion became common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.
  • Humans are good, she knew, at discerning subtle patterns that are really there, but equally so at imagining them when they are altogether absent.
  • We could not guess how different from us they (extraterrestrials) might be. It was hard enough to guess the intentions of our elected representatives in Washington.
  • If we like them, they’re freedom fighters, she thought. If we don’t like them, they’re terrorists. In the unlikely case we can’t make up our minds, they’re temporarily only guerrillas.
  • If the press descended, the science would surely suffer.
  • It’s hard to kill a creature once it lets you see its consciousness.
  • “Let’s see if I’ve got this straight,” he returned. It was a phrase of hers that he had adopted “It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there’s this couple lying naked in bed reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Resurrection. Do they know how to have a good time or don’t they?”
  • Do we, holding that the gods exist,
    deceive ourselves with insubstantial dreams
    and lies, while random careless chance and
    change alone control the world?
  • The major religions on the Earth contradict each other left and right. You can’t all be correct. And what if all of you are wrong? It’s a possibility, you know. You must care about the truth, right? Well, the way to winnow through all the differing contentions is to be skeptical. I’m not any more skeptical about your religious beliefs than I am about every new scientific idea I hear about. But in my line of work, they’re called hypotheses, not inspiration and not revelation.
  • What I’m saying is, if God wanted to send us a message, and ancient writings were the only way he could think of doing it, he could have done a better job.
  • Anything you don’t understand, Mr. Rankin, you attribute to God. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it.
  • Jingoistic rhetoric and puerile self-congratulatory nationalism.
  • Many harebrained interpretations were also widely available, especially in weekly newspapers.
  • Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer; there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.
    • Chapter 14 (p. 231, quoting George Santayana)
  • A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism.
  • The chiliasts made an atheist out of me.
  • You see, the religious people — most of them — really think this planet is an experiment. That’s what their beliefs come down to. Some god or other is always fixing and poking, messing around with tradesmen’s wives, giving tablets on mountains, commanding you to mutilate your children, telling people what words they can say and what words they can’t say, making people feel guilty about enjoying themselves, and like that. Why can’t the gods leave well enough alone? All this intervention speaks of incompetence. If God didn’t want Lot’s wife to look back, why didn’t he make her obedient, so she’d do what her husband told her? Or if he hadn’t made Lot such a shithead, maybe she would’ve listened to him more. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why didn’t he start the universe out in the first place so it would come out the way he wants? Why’s he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there’s one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution. He’d be out of business if there was any competition.
  • In Mozambique, the story goes, monkeys do not talk, because they know if they utter even a single word some man will come and put them to work.
  • “Do you understand what’s going on?”
    “Not at all,” he shouted back. “I can almost prove this can’t be happening.”
  • Humans are very good at dreaming, although you’d never know it from your television.
  • In the long run, the aggressive civilizations destroy themselves, almost always. It’s their nature. They can’t help it.
  • This planet is run by crazy people. Remember what they have to do to get where they are. Their perspective is so narrow, so...brief. A few years. In the best of them a few decades. They care only about the time they are in power.
  • She too had found the experience transforming. How could she not? A demon had been exorcised. Several. And just when she felt more capable of love than she had ever been, she found herself alone.
  • For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
  • The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle — another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. There would be richer messages farther in. It doesn't matter what you look like, or what you're made of, or where you come from. As long as you live in this universe, and have a modest talent for mathematics, sooner or later you'll find it. It's already here. It's inside everything. You don't have to leave your planet to find it. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a greatwork of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1990 Update)[edit]

The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean [Episode 1][edit]

  • For the first time, we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger, but our species is young, and curious, and brave. It shows much promise.
  • We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads — but to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths; of exquisite interrelationships; of the awesome machinery of nature. The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we've learned most of what we know. Recently we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
  • The cosmic calendar compresses the local history of the universe into a single year. If the universe began on January 1st it was not until May that the Milky Way formed. Other planetary systems may have appeared in June, July and August, but our Sun and Earth not until mid-September. Life arose soon after.
  • We humans appear on the cosmic calendar so recently that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
  • We on Earth have just awakened to the great oceans of space and time from which we have emerged. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution. We have a choice: We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence and our knowledge of the cosmos.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue [Episode 2][edit]

  • All my life, I've wondered about life beyond the earth. On those countless other planets that we think circle other suns, is there also life? Might the beings of other worlds resemble us, or would they be astonishingly different? What would they be made of? In the vast Milky Way galaxy, how common is what we call life? The nature of life on earth and the quest for life elsewhere are the two sides of the same question: the search for who we are.

The Harmony of the Worlds [Episode 3][edit]

  • As a boy Kepler had been captured by a vision of cosmic splendour, a harmony of the worlds which he sought so tirelessly all his life. Harmony in this world eluded him. His three laws of planetary motion represent, we now know, a real harmony of the worlds, but to Kepler they were only incidental to his quest for a cosmic system based on the Perfect Solids, a system which, it turns out, existed only in his mind. Yet from his work, we have found that scientific laws pervade all of nature, that the same rules apply on Earth as in the skies, that we can find a resonance, a harmony, between the way we think and the way the world works.
    When he found that his long cherished beliefs did not agree with the most precise observations, he accepted the uncomfortable facts, he preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions. That is the heart of science.

Heaven and Hell [Episode 4][edit]

  • There are many hypotheses in science that are wrong. That's perfectly alright; it's the aperture to finding out what's right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny. The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts; rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky's ideas. The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge and there is no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system, and the history of our study of the solar system shows clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources.

Blues For a Red Planet [Episode 5][edit]

  • The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.Information distilled over 4 billion years of biological evolution. Incidentally, all the organisms on the Earth are made essentially of that stuff. An eyedropper full of that liquid could be used to make a caterpillar or a petunia if only we knew how to put the components together.

Traveller's Tales [Episode 6][edit]

  • A tiny blue dot set in a sunbeam. Here it is. That's where we live. That's home. We humans are one species and this is our world. It is our responsibility to cherish it. Of all the worlds in our solar system, the only one so far as we know, graced by life.

The Backbone of Night [Episode 7][edit]

  • The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.
  • There can be an infinite number of polygons, but only five regular solids. Four of the solids were associated with earth, fire, air and water. The cube for example represented earth. These four elements, they thought, make up terrestrial matter. So the fifth solid they mystically associated with the Cosmos. Perhaps it was the substance of the heavens. This fifth solid was called the dodecahedron. Its faces are pentagons, twelve of them. Knowledge of the dodecahedron was considered too dangerous for the public. Ordinary people were to be kept ignorant of the dodecahedron. In love with whole numbers, the Pythagoreans believed that all things could be derived from them. Certainly all other numbers.
    So a crisis in doctrine occurred when they discovered that the square root of two was irrational.
We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day.
I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million.
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.
As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky.
Look, all I'm asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision. You know, to just sit back for one minute and look at the big picture...
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths; of exquisite interrelationships; of the awesome machinery of nature.
We have found that scientific laws pervade all of nature, that the same rules apply on Earth as in the skies, that we can find a resonance, a harmony, between the way we think and the way the world works…
The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.
The fifth solid they mystically associated with the Cosmos. Perhaps it was the substance of the heavens. This fifth solid was called the dodecahedron.

We live in Carl Sagan’s universe–awesomely vast, deeply humbling. It’s a universe that, as Sagan reminded us again and again, isn’t about us. We’re a granular element. Our presence may even be ephemeral—a flash of luminescence in a great dark ocean. Or perhaps we are here to stay, somehow finding a way to transcend our worst instincts and ancient hatreds, and eventually become a galactic species. We could even find others out there, the inhabitants of distant, highly advanced civilizations—the Old Ones, as Sagan might put it.

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

Now “Cosmos” is back, thanks largely to Seth MacFarlane, creator of TV’s “Family Guy” and a space buff since he was a kid, and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow. They’re collaborating on a new version premiering on the Fox Network on Sunday March 9. MacFarlane believes that much of what is on television, even on fact-based channels purporting to discuss science, is “fluff.” He says, “That is a symptom of the bizarre fear of science that’s taken hold.” The astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, serves as narrator this time, giving him a chance to make the case that he’s the Sagan of our generation. “‘Cosmos’ is more than Carl Sagan,” Tyson told me. “Our capacity to decode and interpret the cosmos is a gift of the method and tools of science. And that’s what’s being handed down from generation to generation. If I tried to fill his shoes I would just fail. But I can fill my own shoes really well.”

It’s an audacious move, trying to reinvent “Cosmos”; although the original series ran in a single fall season—and on public television!—it had an outsize cultural impact. It was the highest-rated series in PBS history until Ken Burns took on the Civil War a decade later. Druyan loves to tell the story of a porter at Union Station in Washington, D.C. who refused to let Sagan pay him for handling luggage, saying, “You gave me the universe.”

The revival of “Cosmos” roughly coincides with another Sagan milestone: The availability of all his papers at the Library of Congress, which bought the Sagan archive from Druyan with money from MacFarlane. (Officially it’s the Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive.) The files arrived at the library loading dock in 798 boxes—Sagan, it seems, was a pack rat—and after 17 months of curatorial preparation the archive opened to researchers last November.

The Sagan archive gives us a close-up of the celebrity scientist’s frenetic existence and, more important, a documentary record of how Americans thought about science in the second half of the 20th century. We hear the voices of ordinary people in the constant stream of mail coming to Sagan’s office at Cornell. They saw Sagan as the gatekeeper of scientific credibility. They shared their big ideas and fringe theories. They told him about their dreams. They begged him to listen. They needed truth; he was the oracle.

The Sagan files remind us how exploratory the 1960s and ’70s were, how defiant of official wisdom and mainstream authority, and Sagan was in the middle of the intellectual foment. He was a nuanced referee. He knew UFOs weren’t alien spaceships, for example, but he didn’t want to silence the people who believed they were, and so he helped organize a big UFO symposium in 1969, letting all sides have their say.

Space itself seemed different then. When Sagan came of age, all things concerning space had a tail wind: There was no boundary on our outer-space aspirations. Through telescopes, robotic probes and Apollo astronauts, the universe was revealing itself at an explosive, fireworks-finale pace.

Things haven’t quite worked out as expected. “Space Age” is now an antiquated phrase. The United States can’t even launch astronauts at the moment. The universe continues to tantalize us, but the notion that we’re about to make contact with other civilizations seems increasingly like stoner talk.

MacFarlane, Tyson, Druyan and other members of Sagan’s family showed up at the Library of Congress in November for the official opening of the Sagan archive. The event was, as you’d expect, highly reverential, bordering on the hagiographic. One moment reminded everyone of Sagan’s astonishing powers of communication: After the speakers finished their presentations, the organizers gave Sagan the last word, playing a tape of him reading from his book Pale Blue Dot.

Recall that in the early 1990s, as Voyager I was heading toward the outer reaches of the solar system, Sagan was among those who persuaded NASA to aim the spacecraft’s camera back toward Earth, by then billions of miles away. In that image, Earth is just a fuzzy dot amid a streak of sunlight. Here’s Sagan, filling the auditorium with his baritone, lingering luxuriantly on his consonants as always:

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives...[E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered 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.”


He started young. In the Sagan papers, there’s an undated, handwritten piece of text—is it a story? an essay?—from the early 1950s in which Sagan, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, sounds very much like the famous scientist-essayist he would come to be:

There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.

This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.

Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, “I am the great silent spaces between worlds.”

Carl Edward Sagan was born in 1934 in Brooklyn, the son of a worshipful, overbearing mother, Rachel, and a hard-working garment industry manager, Samuel, a Ukrainian immigrant. As he entered adolescence he became an avid reader of science fiction, and gobbled up the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about John Carter of Mars. His family moved to New Jersey, and he distinguished himself as the “Class Brain” of Rahway High School. In his papers we find a 1953 questionnaire in which Sagan rated his character traits, giving himself low marks for vigorousness (meaning, liking to play sports), an average rating for emotional stability and the highest ratings for being “dominant” and “reflective.”

The adult Sagan always sounded like the smartest person in the room, but in the papers we encounter this interesting note in a 1981 file, right after “Cosmos” hit it big: “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.”

After earning his doctorate Sagan began teaching at Harvard, and as a young scientist, he earned notice for research indicating that Venus endured a greenhouse effect that roasted the surface—hardly a place congenial for life. Later he would make strides in linking the changing surface features on Mars to planetary dust storms—dashing any hope that the markings were linked to seasonal changes in vegetation. It’s an obvious irony of his career that two of his major hard-science achievements showed the universe less hospitable to life, not more.

His speculative nature—freely discussing the possibility of life beneath the surface of the moon, for example—disturbed some of his colleagues. He seemed a bit reckless, and had a knack for getting quoted in newspaper and magazine articles. He published in the popular press—including writing the “Life” entry for Encyclopaedia Britannica. His own calculations in the early 1960s showed that there could be about one million technological, communicative civilizations in our galaxy alone.

And yet he thought UFOs a case of mass misapprehension. Among his papers is a November 1967 lecture Sagan gave in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Associates program. The very first question from an audience member was: “What do you think of UFOs? Do they exist?”

Though a skeptic about UFOs, Sagan had a tendency to be squishy in his comments about flying saucers, and at first he equivocated, saying there’s no evidence that these objects are alien spacecraft but leaving open the possibility that some “small fraction might be space vehicles from other planets.” But then he launched on a protracted riff about all the ways people get fooled.

“Bright stars. The planet Venus. The aurora borealis. Flights of birds. Lenticular clouds, which are shaped like lenses. An overcast [night], a hill, a car going up the hill, and the two headlights of the car reflect on the clouds—two flying saucers moving at great velocity in parallel! Balloons. Unconventional aircraft. Conventional aircraft with unconventional lighting patterns, like Strategic Air Command refueling operations. The list is enormous.”

Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard in 1968, but was quickly scooped up by Cornell. When not teaching and writing, he helped create plaques for the space probes Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. The plaques notoriously depicted a naked man and woman, with some graphical descriptions of the position of the Earth in the solar system and other scientific information—just in case the spacecraft bumped into alien scientists out there somewhere.

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