Carl Sagan’s Influence on My Life

Carl Sagan. 1934-1996My friend and forum co-admin, Phil Plait, reminded me that today marks 10 years without Carl Sagan. His son, Nick Sagan has been organizing an online memorial to commemorate his life and influence on science.

Carl Sagan’s influence on me has been profound, and it would be an understatement to say that Universe Today wouldn’t exist without Carl Sagan’s thoughts, ideas and enthusiasm. In fact, Carl Sagan influenced me three times in my life.

When I was a teenager, I was voraciously reading science fiction, and someone recommended that I read Contact, the book that later became the movie. Although I’d always been interested in astronomy, this was a chance to learn how a real astronomer worked, and had passion for her career. I nearly took astronomy when I went to university, but I took that safe route and went with engineering instead.
Carl reached out to me a second time when I was in my mid-twenties. I was working at a web design agency in Vancouver, helping large corporate clients develop their web presence. Although I had some experience, I always felt my consulting was a bit of a sham. I didn’t have the “rubber meets the road” personal experience of maintaining a website every day. I couldn’t provide suggestions that came from personal experience, it was all too academic.

I’d resolved to start doing a website on the side, to build up my understanding, but I couldn’t think of a topic. Over the Christmas holidays in 1998, I was visiting my family on Hornby Island, and I brought a couple of space-related books to read: the Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin, and Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan. Both were inspiring, but Pale Blue Dot affected me deeply – here was a powerful proposal for human colonization of the Solar System. By the end of the Christmas holidays, I had my idea for a website: Universe Today.

Universe Today would both be a way for me to gain personal experience maintaining a website, to provide my clients with better advice. But also a way to reconnect with my passion for astronomy and space exploration. I would teach myself every aspect of space and astronomy by helping to explain it to others. The first issue of Universe Today went live on March 22, 1999.

The third, and most important influence of Carl Sagan was when I read Demon Haunted World. I picked up the book, not actually knowing what it was about. I figured, I’m enjoying Carl Sagan books, let’s read this one too. For those who haven’t read it, Demon Haunted World is one of the most powerful books for reason and skepticism. I’m ashamed for my educational system that it was Carl Sagan who finally explained the concept of the scientific method to me.

He showed me how the scientific method helps us look at the world as it truly is, without preconceived notions, without distortions, and without faith. Sometimes nature will reveal truths which we find uncomfortable and unlikely, but we’re still better off knowing. Sometimes reality refuses to match our expectations, and is impossible for our brains to grasp (like quantum theory), but the evidence just continues to mount. I’ll go with the evidence every time.

Thanks to Demon Haunted World, I’ve become a skeptic. And I’ve made some great friends in the skeptical community. As I mentioned before, Phil Plait and I run, one of the largest space-related discussion forums on the Internet. One of our goals is to bring reason and evidence to bear on some of the conspiracy theories, astrology and pseudoscience breaking out across the Internet; to light our candle in that darkness.

Like Carl Sagan, I have tremendous enthusiasm for the world (and Universe) we live in. I’m amazed and delighted by the discoveries made in science. I look forward to the future discoveries with great anticipation and a deeper understanding, thanks to Carl.

I just wish he could be here to experience them to. And I wish I could have met him.

One Reply to “Carl Sagan’s Influence on My Life”

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