Wisdom in a post : Dr. Carl Sagan

Dr. Carl Sagan would not have featured in this series, had he been only a brilliant scientist. There are many brilliant scientists who have undoubtedly enriched and extended their subjects but they belong more to their profession / area of specialization rather than to collective conscious or unconscious and to the pulsations of their historical time.

Science is Fun : He was able to communicate the fact that science is and can be fun. A generation of young men and women would not have taken in a career in science, had there been no COSMOS TV series. He influenced careers.

Communication is as important as content : He was one of the shining examples of the maxim : it is not only important what you say but how you say it. Before him, billions and billions was a word, a term. He infused it with a human feeling of vastness. His deep, loud and humane voice continues to remain valid in its warning in regulating the impulses of our “limbic” or “reptilian” brain although the immediate context of nuclear war during the era of Cold War is no longer there.

Science as a tool of practicing Virtue : Dr. Sagan in a certain sense was not a narrow specialist. Thank God, he wasn’t ; although some critics attacked him for watering down science for the amusement of lay public. His works have a refreshing, a kind of Keatsian sense of wonder in ambivalence and being uncertain. In his work, he quotes a verse from the Upanishads and celebrates the uncertainty expressed there in terms of contemplating the Cosmic Creation. In answer to his critics in the Mount Olympus, he reminded us of the fact that the attack on Hypatia – one of the leading scientific figures – a woman, was a barometer that the organic connection between the buildings of scientific work and public spaces were severed. Science for Dr. Sagan was a tool of practicing virtue – with and for the common public. For this noble objective, even if he has “watered down”, we thank him for it and successive generations will. Most of these attacks were prompted less by love of rigour than from an envy of lacking the gift of masterly communication.

Science as a Great Romance : I think he had the unique and rare combination of being a scientist, poet, communicator, public speaker, organizer, explorer and romantic. In Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, we find the germs of all the later manifestations : Search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the impact on civilization, the grand (but uncertain) outcome of such an exploration and a childlike curiosity filled with the certainty of wonder and the vastness of space and immensity of time.

On a personal note, after COSMOS TV series, I could never look at a dark night sky in some rural area without hearing Dr. Sagan’s voice of the vastness and immensity. Except a poet of high caliber, no one can drill one’s memory and cortex in such a manner.

In 1995-96, while a graduate student, I translated COSMOS into Bengali for the sheer pleasure of re-reading the book. Although the manuscript was not published but I had read this to my young boys in Bengali and English.

As men belong more and more to their profession, specialization or fetish of benign, trivial or dangerous kind, there are less and less man who belong to a vaster and broader arena of Existence.

Dr. Sagan was one among them and shines all the more brightly in our times when practitioners of science, 2500 years after the Ionian Awakening which Dr. Sagan was so excited and delighted to tell, have turned to be very narrow specialists or silent recluses and the human, meaningful and inclusive communication  between them and the larger public is either faint or unintelligible.

The greatest danger of  scientific thinking – a higher order function of cerebral cortex is not from there being a legacy of reptilian brain  but an unhealthy fixation towards rigour and specialization – a fetish of purity and an unscientific fear.

We need courage like Dr. Sagan from the practitioners of science and a poetic sensibility to express and communicate it.

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