Carl Sagan always used to say that when he was trying to explain something to someone, he would go back to that time when he didn’t understand it, and then he would retrace his thought steps so that he could make it absolutely clear, and that’s one of the infinite number of things I learned from him.Ann Druyan
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.Carl Sagan – Pale Blue Dot
In 1989, Voyager 1 was about to leave our Solar System. Dr. Sagan, who was a member of the mission’s imaging team, pleaded with NASA officials to turn the camera around and take one last look back at Earth before the spaceship left our solar system.
He then presented that grainy image of the pale blue dot to the world in this press conference.
Editor’s note. I ran across a story a few months ago that reminded me of this photograph, and while I was digging up the image at the Planetary Society website I realized that the image would be thirty years old today.
Rather than quote a story written for the twenty-sixth anniversary I wrote the above quick piece and scheduled it for the thirtieth anniversary date. NASA had been planning for this date longer than I had, though. They had been working on an updated image, and they had scheduled the release of the image for the day before the actual date so that news of it would make headlines on papers and websites well in advance of the anniversary. That’s the kind of impression you can make when you wield the manpower and economic force of a national agency.
The August 8, 2018 episode of On The Media included a little trip down memory lane for me.
In 1983, 100 million Americans watched an ABC made-for-tv movie called The Day After, depicting the immediate fallout from a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. Tensions between the two powers were high, with President Ronald Reagan calling the USSR an “evil empire” and building up the country’s nuclear stockpile. Just weeks before The Day After, NATO war exercises were nearly mistaken by Soviets for a real attack.
The movie wasn’t very good, but what it showed was so horrifying that it inspired a national conversation about US policy. Following the broadcast, Ted Koppel hosted a panel debate on deterrence and disarmament with prominent thinkers like Carl Sagan and Robert McNamara. Schools organized discussions for classes, ABC distributed a viewer’s guide, and psychologists warned that children under 12 shouldn’t even watch the movie. Marsha Gordon, professor of film studies at North Carolina State University, wrote about The Day After for the website The Conversation in January. In February, she and Brooke spoke about the public debate sparked by the movie, and what it might mean for a new generation to see a remake.
The Day After (1983)
So who else remembers watching The Day After with the family? I remember watching it quite well, even if I can’t remember much of the film itself. I remember it was depressing. I remember the reassurance from Koppel afterwards that none of this was real. ABC was anxious to not start any panics, so they went to great lengths to make sure everyone knew this was a staged event.
Their care in making sure that audiences knew the show was a fake stands in stark contrast to today’s reality TV programs, where the very same people working in the media today fake everything in front of the camera and then proceed to tell the audience all of what they saw was real. Try explaining the false sense of surety that comes from seeing something happen to your pre-teen children. No, dear. It isn’t real. It’s Youtube. Nothing on Youtube is real. I know this because they still use cameras to focus your attention where they want it. Try explaining to a stormtrumper that the guy on The Apprentice wasn’t really Donald Trump. Let me know how that works out for you.
I also remember discussing The Day After with the Wife a few years later, and her insisting we watch Threads so that she could show me what a nuclear holocaust was really like. After watching Threads I had to admit that they soft-pedaled the effects of nuclear war in The Day After. I don’t blame them for soft-pedaling the harsh reality of nuclear winter. Watching Threads made me want to die.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Powaqqatsi (1988)
Later that same year another friend insisted I watch Koyaanisqatsi and later Powaqqatsi in an attempt to show me that nuclear winter was a walk in the park compared to what some humans endure today. After watching those two films, I wondered if nuclear winter might actually be a blessing in disguise. So, you know. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The Cuban missile crisis occurred about a year before I was born. I can only imagine what my mother’s state of mind must have been like back in those days. Stationed on an air base in Britain with her husband. Knowing that everything could have come to an end at any moment if things didn’t go right.
The threat of nuclear holocaust probably inspired my existence and not only hung over my head for my entire life like a doom that I could not escape. It wasn’t until discovering our other methods of destroying ourselves, environmental destruction, that I realized that we could kill ourselves with something else while worrying about killing ourselves with weapons of mass destruction. In the end, dead is dead and you can’t get any deader than dead.
Now, children, come on over here. I’m going to tell you a bedtime story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, there lived a magnificent race of animals that dominated the world through age after age. They ran, they swam, and they fought and they flew, until suddenly, quite recently, they disappeared. Nature just gave up and started again. We weren’t even apes then. We were just these smart little rodents hiding in the rocks. And when we go, nature will start over. With the bees, probably. Nature knows when to give up, David.Stephen Falken
Does it? Or do we deserve to live on? Who can say aside from us? We are a natural force. Will we destroy ourselves in our own ignorance or will we save ourselves from ourselves? I wonder.
I’m listening to Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World on Audible right now (a hat/tip is due for the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe here) I remembered reading this commentary on the celebration of stupidity somewhere online before deciding I needed to at least read the book once. The Facebook memories for today included a paragraph or two on the subject. Ah, memory hole plugged. I knew I’d read that somewhere before.
I started that status entry with:
It is a point of pride to me that I couldn’t sit through Dumb and Dumber. I never bothered to watch Beavis and Butthead; as in, ever watch. I know one joke from that series. I remember it only because I am unable to forget it.
I am unable to forget that one joke from Beavis and Butthead because a family member loved the show back in the day, and he and a friend enjoyed pretending they were Beavis and Butthead and would do that skit repeatedly until I gave up and laughed at them. Gave up and laughed, against my better judgement.
Stupidity is not funny. Stupidity is dangerous. Ignorance gets people killed. All. The. Time. Not knowing that your pool is the most dangerous place in your yard is what kills children every year. I stood outside on the deck in my backyard waiting for my now-crawling son to fall in the pool, and after he did fall in the pool I jumped in fully clothed to pull him back out. This was the third person I had saved from drowning in my life, the only time I knew that what was about to happen would happen. I knew that the baby would explore his world. I knew he would not know what to think of this thing called water and edge and pool. I knew he would probably fall in, and I watched to see if he did. When he did I was prepared to pull him out immediately, and the scare kept him from ever going near the pool again unless we were present and teaching him to swim. He swam like a fish at two or three, I don’t remember when exactly he took to water, but he was probably swimming better than he could walk for most of his childhood.
Knowing he would fall in allowed me to save his life and turn the unknown danger into a teaching moment that he carries with him to this day. Knowledge is power.
I don’t find stupid people amusing, I find stupid people threatening, and for very good reasons. Stupid drivers get other people killed. I see it pretty much every time I drive. Stupid people on their way to painful, deadly futures in their cars, and they’ll probably take someone else with them when they do that one stupid thing that gets them killed. Stupid voters elect poor leaders. It is not for nothing that MAGA=Misguided Appallingly Gullible Americans, this assertion is demonstrable, repeatedly. Stupid voters elected Donald Trump. Trump himself acknowledges this with his damning with faint praise comment “I love the poorly educated.” Stupid leaders destroy entire nations. Trump and his willful ignorance, his flock of the willfully ignorant in tow, are burning this country to the ground as I type this out right now. The idiots will not know they’ve destroyed the country until it is too late to save it from them, but they might as well be covering everything in gasoline and lighting the match themselves. Destruction is just about that certain.
I will not laugh at Donald Trump or his followers, unless I can’t help but do it. They aren’t funny. They are threatening my life and the lives of my children, and I won’t allow those threats to go unanswered. There will be consequences for the damage that Trump’s rule creates, one way or another. The stupid who voted for him need to feel this pain themselves, like discovering you are immersed in a liquid that you didn’t know was there, and no one told you how to swim before you fell in. They need to recognize danger and avoid it in the future. How will this lesson be taught? That is a very good question.
Here is a link to the Facebook status that I have now radically expanded. Laughter is a Suicide Pact is a paraphrasing of Niven’s puppeteer Nessus from Ringworld. I would never have found the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe if it hadn’t been for one of the other members of the long-dead Dan Carlin forums. A fellow skeptic who, seeing how I struggled to defend myself on the Atheism is not a Belief System thread, suggested that I give that podcast a chance to inform me. I have listened to every episode of the podcast now. I love the show. (another version of the Asimov meme quote)
Every house with a key rack has a unknown shrine to Theodorus of Samos.
…a 6th-century BC ancient Greek sculptor and architect from the Greek island of Samos. Along with Rhoecus, he was often credited with the invention of ore smelting and, according to Pausanias, the craft of casting. He is also credited with inventing a water level, a carpenter’s square, and, according to Pliny, a lock and key and the turning lathe. According to Vitruvius (vii, introduction), Theodorus is the architect of the Doric Order temple Heraion of Samos temple. In some texts he is described, above all, as a great artist and in some statues he is depicted as a great inventor.Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The things you learn when you watch the real Cosmos instead of the fake Cosmos that Christianists want to sell you.
I went looking for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on various internet outlets recently. I had the first episode in my sweaty little palms on loan from Netflix, and I was ready to give up and just get a cheap second hand copy of the program. Having found good prices on eBay, I thought I’d compare pricing on Amazon.com.
I went to Amazon, typed in “Cosmos Carl Sagan” and midway down the page I found “Created Cosmos“. Unbelievably, Amazon had allowed creation propaganda to be linked to Carl Sagan’s name and the most famous science series ever produced (if you click the search link in this paragraph, you will notice that this is no longer listed in the results. Thank You Amazon.com!) I felt obliged to review this travesty negatively.
I hate this for one very simple reason. Not that I’ve seen it, it’s religion masquerading as science and not worth my time to investigate. Much like the billboards claiming to care about poor pregnant women, but are actually nothing more than groups set up specifically to scare women away from having an abortion (every street in Texas has one of these billboards) this video exists merely to obfuscate the truth of science and to prop up the dying embers of religion in a scientific age.
No, the reason I hate this video, the presence of this video in my search results, is that I specifically went looking for “Cosmos Carl Sagan”. I didn’t want to get false results for Neil Degrasse Tyson’s new show (not that I don’t love it too) what I wanted was to see the purchasing options for Carl Sagan’s PBS program. Instead of finding a good offering for the real program, I’m offered this schlock in its place.
I missed Cosmos when it was originally broadcast because the backwater of Kansas that I grew up in didn’t have access to public television. We had churches on nearly every street corner, but only one tiny library. Cable was a new invention. By weird coincidence the cable company took over the Kingdom Hall across the street from my home in that small town, which was a great relief to us since the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped at our house every time they went canvassing. While we couldn’t afford to buy cable services, at least we were no longer disturbed by people who wanted to pass on their twisted message of god on a nearly daily basis. There were no computers and no internet back in the days when I grew up. We only had country music radio and two fuzzy TV channels we could pick up with an aerial.
I’m reasonably certain that the idyllic setting I’m describing is something that the liars who created & marketed this program on Amazon including the keywords “Cosmos Carl Sagan” would greatly prefer over the current ability to find accurate information regarding the natural universe and what we really know about it. That they would give up not only blu-rays and Amazon, the current technological marvels of cell phones, electric cars, wind turbines, etc; all of science, medicine and progress. Give it all up and go live in caves clad only in the skins of animals that they had to kill themselves, if only they could be assured that their bronze-age god was real.
To them I say “go find your cave and give up your comfortable cotton clothing. Hand over your cell phones and your comfortable air conditioned houses. You do not deserve to benefit from the achievements of science, since you hold it in so little regard.” Either that, or pull this offering from the marketplace and apologize to the memory of Carl Sagan for ever creating it in the first place, much less placing it on Amazon falsely linked to his name.
I really want to know. Why is this program included in my search results? Why is the Creation museum allowed to key their products with the name “Carl Sagan“? This is disturbing, like finding homeopathic cures, and cigarettes in my pharmacy. Oh wait, that happens too.
Editor’s Note. I borrowed Cosmos on DVD from Netflix.com and watched it, right about the time I was watching the first season of Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s new version of Cosmos. It was everything that I expected it to be, which is quite an achievement in this day and age.
The grandson of Ezra Taft Benson (the former head of the Mormon church) is an Atheist. Gotta love that irony. I can’t say that he’s my favorite political cartoonist (I have a soft spot for local artist Ben Sargent) but he’s definitely good. Steve Benson @ Arizona Republic
Interview with Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, without a doubt the best episode in the 2006 year (but then I am just a bit of a Carl Sagan fan) discussing the volume of his work that she edited and recently released entitled The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
Her recollections of Carl on the program were priceless.
What I do know is that I like his ideas. I like his love of science. I like his faith in humanity. I like how he saw us reaching for things greater than ourselves, because it was in our nature and because it was a fulfillment of our nature. I like how he shared his enthusiasm for the entire universe with everyone, and believed that everyone could share in that enthusiasm. These are things that, in giving them to everyone, he also gave to me, first as an 11-year-old and then continuing on. I’ve accepted them with thanks and made them part of who I am. If I use them well, I may be fortunate enough to share them with you, as they were shared with me.
I made a point to pick up and read Contact when it came out, because Sagan was the author. Like most things he did, it did not disappoint. I remember thinking that he left us too soon when he passed on in 1996. We need someone like him with us today, shedding light on the subject of real science.