February 23, 2007

Carl Sagan’s Lectures Updated, Re-released

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If you were not one of the few students lucky enough to see the late Carl Sagan, David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell, lecture on the expansive nature of our solar system, you still have the chance to absorb some of his wisdom through a different medium. In the recently published book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow and collaborator, provides an updated and edited collection of Sagan’s 1985 Gifford Lectures.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience marks the 10th anniversary of Sagan’s death. According to the New York Times, “It was Ms. Druyan’s impatience with religious fundamentalism that led her to resurrect Dr. Sagan’s lectures, which were part of the Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series about natural theology that has been going on since the 19th century.”

Emphasizing the relationship between science and religion, it provides the reader with an outline of Sagan’s views on topics ranging from the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets and the dangers of nuclear annihilation to the history of cosmology.

Sagan’s appreciation for awe-inspiring nature of the universe is highlighted in the first chapter, entitled “Nature and Wonder,” which includes several pictures of stars, galaxies and other cosmological elements. One can get a sense of Sagan’s scientific background, as he addresses every piece of information, every supposed proof of God’s existence and every report of a UFO sighting, through a lens of skeptical scrutiny.

Also, his sense of spirituality enables science to emerge as a type of religion.

“I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship,” he wrote.

Indeed, Sagan’s own view of God comes close to those of Spinoza and Einstein, who considered God to be the sum total of the laws of physics. Prof. Yervant Terzian, chairman of the Astronomy and Space Sciences Department when Sagan was at Cornell and current David C. Duncan Professor, said, “Scientists have no problem if God is synonymous with the laws of nature — that’s what I say, that’s what Carl would say, and that’s what most scientists would say.”

Sagan played a definitive role in shaping Cornell’s Astronomy and Space Sciences Department, as shown through his pioneering involvement with missions of planetary explorations.

“He started a tradition that carries on to this day,” said Prof. Steven Squyres Ph.D. ’82, astronomy, a former student of Sagan, in reference to the Mars Rover. Squyres said that Sagan also left his mark by establishing a standard for excellence in teaching.

Sagan, however, shared his information with an audience far greater than his lecture-attendees at Cornell. His popular science books and his award-winning PBS series “Cosmos” reached a much wider audience.

“Carl was one of the most gifted and influential science communicators of the last century. He opened a lot of doors in terms of scientists being able to share their passion for science with the public,” Squyres said.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience adds to Sagan’s important legacy of sharing his knowledge and his ideas with the public.

“Carl’s book reflects his deep humanity and his care for human beings, their well being, and their prosperous future, with or without religion,” Terzian said.