Carl Sagan: Scaling Heaven

Callum Sutherland is at it again. Just see if you can resist watching this:

A scientific colleague tells me about a recent trip to the New Guinea highlands where she visited a stone age culture hardly contacted by Western civilization. They were ignorant of wristwatches, soft drinks, and frozen food. But they knew about Apollo 11. They knew that humans had walked on the Moon. They knew the names of Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins. They wanted to know who was visiting the Moon these days.

Answering that question had to have been awkward.

Many more at Milky Way Musings!

Isaac Asimov on Libraries

Early-1971, in an effort to attract as many youngsters to the premises as possible, Marguerite Hart — children’s librarian at the newly-opened public library in Troy, Michigan — wrote to a number of notable people with a request: to reply with a congratulatory letter, addressed to the children of Troy, in which the benefits of visiting such a library were explained in some form. It’s heartening to know that an impressive 97 people did exactly that.

Here’s Isaac Asimov’s reply:


16 March 1971

Dear Boys and Girls,

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you—and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.

(Signed, ‘Isaac Asimov’)

Isaac Asimov

More replies from other authors at Letters of Note and the City of Troy.

via Letters of Note Source: City of Troy

Let Us All Unite

I already posted Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator, but I thought this new “remix”, set to music by Hans Zimmer from the movie Inception, was too good to pass up:

Credit: andersonenvy via reddit

Harold Camping is Nothing More Than a Raving Lunatic

Andrew Skegg puts into words exactly how I feel about Harold Camping and his stinking pile of doomsday nonsense, and adds that this day actually will ruin the lives of many gullible people.

Thanks, Andrew.

Ann Druyan Answers Reddit's Questions - Part 1

Just now, the first set of answers to questions posed by the Reddit community to Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, were posted! The original thread is here, but here are the questions and answers for good measure:

Part 1

Dear Reader,

Delighted to be asked to answer these wonderful questions. (Please note that the first question was actually several.) I am currently writing under a couple of pressing deadlines. Want to answer each and every question. So, if it’s okay with you guys, I’d like to respond in installments. Here’s the first. More coming soon.

With best regards, Ann

Where do you see the future of humanity in 100 years? 1,000 years? 100,000 years?

The most wonderful and terrible thing about life is its inherent unpredictability. Too many variables for human brains to crunch and then extrapolate conditions in the distant future– until, perhaps, someday our computers will have evolved sufficiently to do so. Until then, attempts at prophecy of where we’ll be in ten years, let alone 100 or more, are probably exercises in futility. History doesn’t move in a straight line. It meanders. And there’s so much we never see coming.

Do you think humans need to change their way of doing things to survive long enough to explore the cosmos?

No limb to go out on here: Yes.

In what ways/steps should we change things to fit this proposition?

Start taking the revelations of science to heart. Give up the infantile notion of our centrality to the vastness of space and time. Take seriously the fragility of our environment and treat it as if it were more precious to us than diamonds, because of course it is. Awaken to the urgency of our need to change our ways. Stop living as if everything were disposable. . .as if heaven was somewhere and somewhen else. Question authority, but don’t stop there. Reflect on what great big liars we all are. Next time you hear someone with an investment in, say, nuclear power, tell you that the plant can withstand the worst kind of tsunami, or the country I am itching to invade has weapons of mass destruction, be skeptical. Remember you are a link in a chain of life that stretches all the way across some 4 billion years to its origin on this planet and possibly forward to the stars. Think long term. Remember I, you, all of us, might be wrong.

Do you think it would help humanity focus on more important things if we discovered there was intelligent extraterrestrial life? If yes, then in what way?

Not necessarily. I don’t believe that the existence of extra-terrestrial microbes would change our culture in the short term. I believe it would be more like the influence of the Copernican system. Those alert to the implications, in that case, the founders of the modern scientific revolution embraced it relatively quickly. But because, science was then and, tragically, is now, a compartmentalized subset of society, it took centuries for this pivotal insight to penetrate the broader culture. I believe microbial life from another world would take quite some time to have an impact on us generally. Eventually and inexorably it leads to the unraveling of traditional belief systems that hold a central place for us in space and time. But that takes awhile.

Now, really big guys with the power to push us around showing up on our doorstep would be another story. We are primates, evolved to respond to hierarchy. This latter scenario would likely be a much more sobering event, commanding our immediate attention.

The middle scenario: an enigmatic message detected by a radio-telescope from a world, too far away to actually do anything to us — would create a sensation, and undoubtedly lead to a whole new set of spiritual doctrines for some of us, but I warrant it would be business as usual for most of us not too long after its receipt.

Do you think that the qualities Carl embodied - selflessness, a sense of social justice, a deep appreciation for science - are lost on today’s youth/young adults?

No, not at all. The younger people I know and those who write to me and blog and tweet from around the world are admittedly still too small and self-selected a sample to qualify as anything but anecdotal, but it doesn’t surprise me that we are still as good and bad as we ever were.

If anything, Carl’s vision and values harken back to our much longer hunter/gatherer past, say a million years of sharing and cooperating, than to our more recent struggles with post-agricultural and post-Copernican stress syndrome. If the surviving remnants of hunter-gatherer societies are any indication of how we behaved for most of human history when we lived in small wandering bands, Carl would have fit right in beautifully. Perhaps, at some earlier time in his life he was concerned with rising to the top of a dominance hierarchy, but not during the twenty years we were together.

I think a partial reason for the phenomenally enduring success of Cosmos is that it is not a series of lectures by someone who is trying to impress us with how much more he knows than we do, but, rather a shamanistic experience, one that might happen around a campfire, where a member of our now much larger human tribe is telling us the great story of how, over 40,000 generations, we began to find our coordinates in space and time.

Carl saw human civilization as an organism in the process of becoming conscious, of becoming an inter-communicating whole. If he had lived to witness our degree of connectedness, he would have loved it. I know Carl, with his complete honesty, openness, generosity of spirit as well as his prodigious knowledge and prophetic intelligence and wisdom, will be remembered and appreciated by generations to come.

How can we reconnect with the profound statements that you both made in works like Cosmos and Demon-Haunted World in a society where many are too lost in their digital devices and the pursuit of money to care about the bigger picture?

I don’t see it that way. From my point of view at 61, we have accomplished so much since I was a child. Think of the racism, sexism and repression, disdain for the physically challenged, that was the rule back then. Deep-seated ancient prejudices have given way to a kind of enlightenment. Not everywhere, but sooner or later those pockets of ignorance and resentment will give way. I see those digital devices as a distribution network for binding up the planet and over-riding the efforts of tyrants and other dominance hierarchy hangers on.

Overall, do you worry about the state of science education in the United States, and our lack of dedication towards pursuing technological, medical, and other science-based initiatives?

Yes, of course. But, the zeitgeist tends to move in the arc of a pendulum. Us baby boomers came of age when the military-industrial complex had plenty of cash and needed engineers and scientists to perfect our weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. There were many horrendous by-products of the nuclear arms race as well as great ones — our mythic journeys to the moon, Mars and our reconnaissance of the outer solar system. You can not artificially create a golden age of science. It has to be woven into the social and economic fabric. We may be due for another one about now because we all recognize the danger of losing our competitive edge.

What can a person do to spread the joy of science and the universe to the people?

When a child asks you a question that stumps you, instead of being irritated and embarrassed, thank them, take them by the hand and go with them in search of the answer. Carl’s mother, Rachel, did that for him and look where it led.

Learn everything you possibly can about a subject that truly interests you. As Carl used to say, “When you’re in love you want to tell the world.” You can’t fake it. But if you really feel it, chances are you will infect someone else with the passion to know more.

Don’t lie to children. Don’t doom them to perpetual infancy. Nature is wondrous enough as it is. Our pathetic fantasies are not supernatural — they are sub-natural. Lying to your children only really communicates that reality is not good enough. I’m convinced that’s how we end up with leaders who tell us that “trees cause pollution” or that “Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.” They destroy untold lives and are never held accountable for the damage they do because we are inured to lying from childhood.

What I’m saying is you can’t expect to have a science based society when science is compartmentalized into a boring 45 minutes of class time a couple of days a week, while in our inner lives, we cherish a collection of baseless ideas. Science is a way of thinking. If we instilled the wonder of life, the glory of nature from day one and abjured magical, non-sensical thinking — not humorlessness, mind you, there’s plenty of room for that and nobody had a better, fuller, greater laugh than Carl — but if we could bring ourselves to actually take the revelations of science to heart, we might begin to change in the ways we need to in order to get our species, and many others, through this current phase of our technological adolescence.

When do you believe the federal laws against marijuana will be repealed?

I am probably the wrong person to ask this question, having foolishly believed for decades that sane national drug policy was just around the corner. You know when Pat Robertson starts asking “Why are we locking people up for having a couple of joints?” that national drug policy is way behind the curve.

What is the best thing an individual activist can do to help your cause other than writing congressional leaders?

Join and support NORML (, working tirelessly for you for forty years.

Many feel that the idea of starting with medicinal marijuana is not the way to go about legalization. Some people want to see marijuana treated as a recreational drug, similar to alcohol, as procuring a prescription drug without a prescription is a crime. What are your thoughts on the matter of legal medicinal versus legal recreational?

Our most immediate concern must be with those who are suffering from illnesses and treatments (chemotherapy, radiation) that marijuana has demonstrated efficacy to relieve. Beyond that, I do not believe that the government has the right, nor is it in society’s longterm interest to punish people for victimless crimes.

Given the stigma surrounding marijuana, how do you begin to re-shape the general public’s view?

It would be good for people to be generally more honest about their usage. If you only discover someone’s use of marijuana in the context of an arrest, the negative association for people who have no experience with marijuana is a natural one. Lying and hypocrisy are what’s shameful. I thought Lady Gaga handled the question recently on “60 Minutes” with exemplary candor.

Do you support the legalization and/or decriminalization of any other drugs besides marijuana? If not, what makes marijuana unique? If so, what drugs and why?

If governments and schools would disseminate information that scrupulously reflected scientific understanding rather than half-truths and scare tactics, more people, including the young, would take what they have to say seriously. Not everyone, of course, but a much higher percentage. We have failed at teaching people which drugs should truly be avoided and which drugs are least harmful, nor anything regarding the sacramental nature of healthy drug usage along the lines of our ancestors’ practices for perhaps the last couple of hundred thousand years. Drug use is bound up with lying, secrecy, fear, hypocrisy, shame–all the things that eat away at human relationships. Just as in the days of alcohol prohibition there has been a parting of the ways between public conduct and government policy. Solid citizens are criminalized and respect for law is systematically undermined. Right now I think the abuse of legal prescription drugs poses a far greater threat to our society, and especially our kids, than those which are forbidden.