Dec. 20, 1996: Science Loses Its Most Visible Public Champion
Calling Carl Sagan a scientist is a little like calling the Beatles a rock band. Sagan was certainly a scientist (an astronomer, biologist and astrophysicist, to be precise). But he was also science’s most visible public advocate, a secular humanist, a fervent believer in extraterrestrial life, a teacher, an author, a television host and a political activist.
While accurately fixing the surface temperature of Venus and positing the presence of seas on Jovian and Saturnian moons are among his practical contributions to the field of astronomy, his lasting contribution to humanity was to popularize the natural sciences for hundreds of millions of people.
Sagan was an agnostic and secular humanist. I love this quote from his widow, from the Skeptical Inquirer:
When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me—it still sometimes happens—and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl.
I don't know if there's an afterlife, if we reincarnate, or if there's just the shadowy existence favoured by the Greeks. As I've gotten older, I've decided I don't so much care...what matters is what we do with our lives, whether that be one or plural. But some of the things I learned from Carl Sagan were that the universe is full of all sorts of things to try to understand, and our lives should be spent in this wondrous playground learning and growing, being responsible for how we affect our environment and understanding how it affects us, and keeping an open mind yet meeting the world with scientific enquiry.
The truth of the matter is no matter what happened with his death, like the Greeks, Sagan's immortality comes from the way he touched others, influenced their thoughts and beliefs, inspired their lives, and helped them understand the universe a little better. He lives on in their memories, including mine.