28 November 2012

Carl Sagan’s last interview

I’m too young to be part of the generation that watched the TV series Cosmos when it first aired, but the legacy of its presenter Carl Sagan is so potent that you can’t avoid reading quotes attributed to him on various science blogs, websites, forums, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. The American astronomer, astrophysicist, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and science populariser died in 1996, but he would have turned 78 years old earlier this month, on the 9th, if he hadn’t succumbed to pneumonia caused by a rare blood disorder.

Jerry Coyne wrote a post commemorating the great scientist who played a huge role in educating and inspiring people through his many books (30 in all) and popular 1980 television show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Coyne’s post includes three videos of Carl Sagan’s last interview with Charlie Rose, conducted just seven months before Sagan’s death. In the interview Sagan addressed the pernicious effects of pseudoscience, superstition, mysticism and religious extremism while giving a passionate defense of science, arguing for the importance of scientific literacy among the general public. Below are a few quotes from the first part of the interview that capture the gist of Sagan’s views.

Science is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.

The thing about science is, first of all, it’s after the way the universe really is, and not what makes us feel good, and a lot of the competing doctrines are after what feels good, and not what’s true.

And here is Sagan’s response to the common charge from religionists that scientists are arrogant and overconfident about their knowledge and abilities.

Who is more humble, the scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this [holy] book must be considered the literal truth and nevermind the fallibility of all the human beings involved in the writing of this book?

The first video of the 3-part interview (part 2 here, and part 3 here):

Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan gave a very moving description of her relationship with her late husband, and how he faced his impending death with “unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions.”

Carl Sagan was a torchbearer for science, for its beauty, wonder and power of discovery. He made our “pale blue dot” world a more enlightened place.



  1. It's really too bad you missed Cosmos the first time around, Darrick. Carl Sagan was the astrophysics rockstar before Neil deGrasse Tyson assumed the mantle. He's even found his way into pop culture, with his signature "billions and billions" for some astronomically large number.

    Pete Moulton

  2. I love the fact that Bill Nye the Science Guy was a student of Sagan's at Cornell.