Sam Harrelson

In Memory of Carl Sagan



Today is the 11th anniversary of the death of my hero Carl Sagan (thanks to Bad Astronomy for the reminder).  Personally, it has been an emotionally trying year with the birth of our first child and soon thereafter the death of my childhood best friend and cousin (more like brother) in Afghanistan. I find wisdom in Dr. Sagan’s words about life, the cosmos and humanity today.

Echoing my post from a year ago, here’s the passage from Cosmos which I’ve read at the end of every class I’ve ever taught… whether science or religion bound:

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest conemplations 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 ourspecies is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millenia we hav emad 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 on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

Those explorations required skepticism and imagination both. Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never where. But without it, we go nowhere. Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations. The Cosmos is rich beyond measure – in elegant facts, in exquisite interrelationships, in the subtle machinery of awe.

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. These aspirations are not, I think, irreverent, although they may trouble whatever gods may be.”

And here’s the video version:

This being my first year with a child, I can only hope that I pass on to her the wisdom, confidence and humbleness to always look up at the night sky. 

Thank you, Carl Sagan.



Posted: 12.20.2007

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