"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Monday, November 26, 2012

Wisdom by Way of 'Billions and Billions'

Billions and BillionsBillions and Billions by Carl Sagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The hard-liners on each side encourage one another. They owe their credibility and their power to one another. They need one another. They are locked in a deadly embrace.”
Dr. Carl Sagan wrote this in a piece dual-published by prominent magazines in the United States and the then Soviet Union. But it could just as easily describe the current toxicity of American politics, any given regional feud, or even big-box stores competing for sales on a day purportedly dedicated to thanksgiving. The above quote is just one of dozens I underlined, starred, or wrote notes next to in my now beloved copy of Billions and Billions.

As with similar books I’ve read by Dr. Sagan, or other scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, this is more a collection than a single work. It is at once marvelous and troubling to see how relevant this book remains, published in 1997 in the wake of Carl’s death, and including material written during the final stages of the Cold War. Trends come and go. Wisdom proves itself with a longer shelf life.

For devotees of Sagan, this book is a must read. It includes highly personal reflections about the illness that was beginning to take his life. Especially in Part III, “Where Hearts and Minds Collide”, it contains some of his most impassioned and courageous statements. I admire the way he takes everyone to task, including scientists.

Within the scientific discourse, transcending the facts and figures, can be found Sagan’s deep love for our species, and his abiding hope that we can grow up, can survive, and can improve. A great deal of the material is highly inspirational, but mingled with some healthy scolding of our favored institutions and ourselves. I maintain that the best place to begin an exploration of Carl Sagan’s work is through his TV series Cosmos. However, Billions and Billions is not to be missed. It contains many treasures for the thoughtful reader.

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