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Who Speaks for Earth?

Today, November 9, is Carl Sagan’s birthday – now semi-officially dubbed Carl Sagan Day. He passed away in 1996 at the all-too-young age of 62. He would be 79 today.

Carl Sagan

We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?

That’s the question Carl Sagan asks in Episode 13 of his acclaimed series Cosmos. His answer was simple and not so simple: “We speak for earth. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” His question runs through my head time and time again. When the world looks hopelessly lost, afloat in its own dreck and malady, mired in petty disputes and negligible differences, asking that question – and keeping in mind Carl’s answer – brings light and optimism. If I were forced to point out only a single piece of Sagan’s genius, it would be his ability to “pull back” and always see the larger picture. Often, the larger picture was the size of the universe.

Watching Cosmos now, thirty years later, it seems even more powerful and “rich with prophesy”, as Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan says in the introduction to the remastered DVD set of the series (released in 2001). Cosmos was hopeful and uplifting, but in places it was nightmarish and dark. Carl talked about the beauty of the scientific endeavour and our potential to destroy ourselves in equal measure. By today’s standards the special effects are horrible, the picture quality is spotty, and the whole presentation is more than a bit on the cheesy side. To Carl’s great credit, the content is the true legacy of the series. Carl’s voice, his timbre and cadence, was like that of a caring father – smooth and gentle. His vocal inflections and tone have informed my public reading style to a great extent. Decades on, Cosmos continues to shine.

Sagan and Cosmos are much more than just fond memories of my youth (the original series aired in the early 80’s). Carl’s legacy resonates more powerfully with each passing year, informing me like nothing and nobody else. The Cosmos series was nothing less than a watershed moment – a turning point which spoke to my natural, nascent interest in science and critical thinking. It was like a giant YES delivered at just the right time. I came to his books in my 20’s, and I devoured every one of them. His prose was (and is) passionate and full of all the traits that make for great science writing: clarity, humility, wonder, eloquence, and perhaps more than any other writer I have read, awe. At times he wrote like a big kid, fervently telling us his dreams. He wrote no “Poetry” as far as I know, but his eloquence, humility, and science-informed magnanimity read like pure poetry to me. His vision and scope will forever be my writing model. His writing is what I aspire to, and I will fall forever short.

To say it plain, I miss Carl very much. It sometimes seems as though there is a hole in the world left by his passing. Arguably, no single person has fully filled that space, but many carry his legacy forward with admirable passion: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Carolyn Porco, and of course, Ann Druyan. Neil Tyson is taking on the monumental task of hosting a reboot of the Cosmos Series, due to air on the Fox Network (?!) in early 2014. I have high hopes for the program, and I dearly hope that it turns on another generation of youth to science, reason, wonder, and awe.

Who speaks for Earth? Sagan did, and still does. Happy Birthday, Carl. May your song always be sung.

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