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This book by scientist, professor, and author Dr. Carl Sagan is his last of thirty books that was published posthumously. It is a compilation of selected previously published articles (some of them revised) that he wrote for the publication "Parade" (which is one of the most widely circulated publications in the United States).
This book is foremost an expression of Sagan's "thoughts" (a word in the book's subtitle). What he does is express his thoughts on various social, political, religious, and scientific issues.
These selected articles are divided into three parts that make up nineteen chapters. The epilogue makes up the fourth part. Below I shall state the "nuclei" of each chapter or article (as I see it) and give for selected articles a sample thought in quotation marks.
(I) (6 chapters)
(1) The meaning of big numbers and their importance when dealing with complex issues.
(2) Exponentials and their relation to complex issues.
(3) The human hunting instinct, a remnant from our past.
"[I]f we're stranded a few hundred centuries from when we long to be--if...we find ourselves, in an age of environmental pollution, social hierarchy, economic inequality, nuclear weapons...with [ancient] emotions but without [ancient] social safeguards--perhaps we can be excused for [liking rough, contact sports] like...football."
(4) The physics of waves, sound waves & human communication, and light waves & human sight.
"[T]he elegant machinery of the evolutionary process...has brought us into ...superb harmony with our physical environment."
(5) Four cosmic questions. Sagan explains the details behind these questions that are as follows:
(i) Was there ever life on Mars? (ii) Is Titan a laboratory for the origin of life? (iii) Is there intelligent life elsewhere (iv) What is the origin and fate of the universe?
(6) Expresses the idea that because there are so many stars or suns in the universe, then there are probably many planets.
(II) (7 chapters)
(7) Draws a parallel between a shrimp's world in an aquarium and our world.
"With acid rain, ozone depletion, chemical pollution, radioactivity...and a dozen other assaults on the environment, we are pushing and pulling our little world in poorly understood directions. Our...advanced civilization may be changing the delicate ecological balance that has...evolved over the 4-billion-year period of life on Earth."
(8) Environmental concerns.
"Nearly all our [environmental] problems are made by humans and can be solved by humans."
(9) The job of the policymaker.
"[P]olicymakers need--more than ever before--to understand science and technology."
(10) Thinning of the ozone layer.
"It's hard to understand how "conservatives" could oppose safeguarding the environment that all of us--including conservatives and their children--depend on for our very lives. What exactly is it conservatives are conserving?"
(11) Global warming.
(12) Solving the global warming crisis.
(13) An alliance between science and religion to solve the environmental crisis.
(III) (6 articles)
(14) The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Illustrates "the common enemy."
(15) Abortion (co-written with his third wife, Ann Druyan). An excellent article that considers the science involved.
(16) Looks at codes of ethics. Sagan asks, "[C]an we explore the matter scientifically?"
(17) Examines the technological advances in the art of mass murder from the projectiles used at Gettysburg to the nuclear weapons we have today. Co-written with A. Druyan.
"Today , the United States and the Soviet Union have booby-trapped our planet with almost 60,000 nuclear weapons...[that] could destroy the global civilization and possibly even the human species...nuclear weapons remain our greatest danger."
(18) Examines the twentieth century in three categories: (i) Saving, prolonging, and enhancing human life (ii) Totalitarian and military technology and (iii) The revelations of science.
"Only in the twentieth century has technology made killing on...a [large] scale practical...Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the twentieth century will be the most profound challenge of the twenty-first."
(19) An account by Sagan of his bone marrow disease. I admired him for looking at "Death in the eye." The postscript of optimism for this chapter he wrote in October 1996 was probably his last published words.
(IV) Epilogue by A. Druyan (Feb. 1997). She gives an account of Sagan's fight with complications due to his disease that he succumbed too in late Dec. 1996.
There are more than fifteen illustrations in this book. I found most of them quite helpful and informative.
A problem I had with this book is that many times it does not seem to flow from chapter to chapter. The reason for this is that the chapters are actually articles that Sagan wrote at various times for the publication "Parade." I feel he should have let the reader know this at the beginning of the book (in order to prepare the reader). Instead he leaves this explanation until the end of the book (in the acknowledgements).
As well, I noticed that chapters 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 16, and 18 have no references. As well, chapters 1, 4, and 17 only have one reference each. Anyone familiar with Sagan's works knows that he always extensively references. The major reason for not properly referencing (I think) is that he was so hampered by his disease that he could not properly complete these (which is understandable).
Despite these oversights due to overwhelming circumstances, this book provides much insight into social, political, religious, and scientific issues. This is all done in Sagan's characteristic easy-to-read style.
Finally, before reading this book, I suggest that a potential reader examine a photograph of the Earth as seen from 3.7 billion miles away. (Such a photo is found in Sagan's 1994 book "Pale Blue Dot.") This will increase the impact of what is said in this book.
In conclusion, this is a fascinating and important book. I realized after reading it why the National Science Foundation awarded posthumously Dr. Carl Edward Sagan (Nov. 1934 to Dec. 1996) their highest honor since "his gifts to [humankind] were infinite."
(first published 1997; 3 parts or 19 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 230 pages; acknowledgements; references; index)
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Published not long after his death, this--Sagan's last book--is a collection of essays on a variety of subjects having in common a palpable urgency traceable to both the state of the planet and the state of Sagan's health, both perceived as perilous. Besides Sagan's distinctive blend of stark optimism and stern alarm, and his splendid rationality, one is struck by a kind of anger in his tone, as though he has grown impatient with the stupidities of humankind. Thus one reads in the essay on abortion these bitter words: "There is no right to life in any society on Earth today... We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for their pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death... What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life." (p. 166)
What he is against in these essays, as his widow, Ann Druyan, notes in her Epilogue on page 228, are "the forces of superstition and fundamentalism." Sagan is preeminently the champion of education and reason as the means to better our life, and the implacable enemy of ignorance. (For "superstition and fundamentalism," read "ignorance," plain and simple.) In some respects this book is a continuation of his volume from the year before, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, but the emphasis here is on the problems confronting us and what can be done about them. In particular, Sagan confronts the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, pollution, the threat of nuclear war, overpopulation, etc. He asks the question (the title of Part II), "What Are Conservatives Conserving?" and gives the answer, their short-sighted bottom line. His arguments are ingenious and interesting to read as one observes how hard he is working to persuade us to take care of ourselves and our planet home. He compares the warnings of modern science with those of Cassandra who had the gift of prophesy but the curse of never being believed, science becoming in this sense both Cassandra and the Oracle at Delphi, misunderstood and misinterpreted by our policy makers, whom he likens to Croesus, the rich king who salivated at the prospect of a mighty empire being destroyed only to find that it was his own. As Pogo observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." One senses too that Sagan is projecting his concern that he himself is in danger of becoming a Cassandra.
Certainly, in reading this book, one senses the personality of Carl Sagan come to life. His wide knowledge as a scientist, and his influence as a public spokesperson for science and for the environment and for all the life on this planet, are manifest. His tendency to preach and guide, his absolute desire to use his celebrity for the common good (and to scold) are evident. He mingles hope with despair; he loves humankind, yet despises what humankind does. He sees our capacity to love and help one another as our saving grace, but cannot help but recall and recount the horrors we have visited upon one another and on our fellow creatures. He sees the planet as one, as Gaia (although he does not use that word) with its organisms cooperating with one another for mutual survival. He writes, "The inclination to cooperate has been painfully extracted through the evolutionary process. Those organisms that did not cooperate, that did not work with one another, died. Cooperation is encoded in the survivors' genes." (p. 67) (Incidentally, this is a clear statement for the idea of group selection in evolution. Dawkins, et al., take note.) His writing reveals a man who always tried to do his best, and was perhaps his own sternest critic. He recalls for all of us, "wincing recollections of past faux pas" in the chapter on the environment where he tries to persuade us to take a stance "Somewhere between cheerful dolts and nervous worrywarts..." (p. 75)
I hear the man and identify with his concerns, and I know myself that I cannot make up my mind on whether to be cheerful about our prospects or to despair. I "solve" this problem by realizing that all species eventually go extinct, and that somebody or something "better" than us might follow, or to understand that we are just a tiny phase in the cosmic process of Becoming.
More to the point, I would hope to be just one fraction as worthwhile to my fellow humans as was, and is, and will continue to be, Carl Sagan, a brilliant man of great humanity who is sorely missed. To read him is to experience the best of humanity. He, like science, is a candle in the dark.