Carl Sagan warmed the universe.
His cosmos was not cold and dark and impenetrable. He believed the universe was surely filled with life, intelligent life, innumerable civilizations unseen. In his younger, dreamier days, he thought advanced extraterrestrials might know how to cruise the galaxies in ramjets -- spaceships with massive openings that scoop up hydrogen atoms from interstellar dust clouds and use them for fuel. In Sagan's crowded cosmos, even empty space wasn't empty.
He told The Washington Post earlier this year: "Organic matter, the stuff of life, is absolutely everywhere. Comets are made one-quarter of organic matter. Many worlds in the outer solar system are coated with dark organic matter. On Titan, organic matter is falling from the skies like manna from Heaven. The cold diffuse interstellar gas is loaded with organic matter. There doesn't seem to be an impediment about the stuff of life."
The world needed Sagan, who died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 62. We have needed Sagan ever since Copernicus removed us from the center of the universe. It is a perplexing fact of human life that we live on a rock that orbits an ordinary star on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy in a universe that is indescribably large. Sagan knew how to describe it, to convey our humble position without demeaning us. With Sagan we felt in the right place.
Sagan said, "Everybody starts out as a scientist." Every child has the scientist's sense of wonder and awe. Too often we beat it out of the kid. "The job of a science popularizer," Sagan said, "is to penetrate through the teachings that tell people they're too stupid to understand science."
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Joel Achenbach has blog-a-thon post in his Washington Post blog today. Check it out, it also links to a post he did on Sagan earlier this year. Here's what he posted today - his Style Section excerpt from December '96.