By DENNIS OVERBYE
It’s been a long 10 years since we’ve heard Carl Sagan beckoning us to consider the possibilities inherent in the “billions” of stars peppering the sky and in the “billions” of neuronal connections spiderwebbing our brains.
In the day, the Cornell astronomer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books like “The Dragons of Eden,” “Contact,” “Pale Blue Dot” and “The Demon-Haunted World,” impresario of the PBS program “Cosmos” and Johnny Carson regular was one of the world’s most famous and eloquent unbelievers, an apostle of cosmic wonder, critic of nuclear arms and a champion of science’s duty to probe and question without limit, including the claims of religion. He died of pneumonia after a series of bone marrow transplants in December 1996.
In his absence, the public discourse on his favorite issues — the fate of the planet, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos — has not fared well. The teaching of evolution in public schools has become a bitter bone of contention; NASA tried to abandon the Hubble Space Telescope and censor talk of climate change; and of course, religious fanatics crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center, leading to a war in the Middle East that has awakened memories in some corners of the Crusades.
Now, however, Dr. Sagan has rejoined the cosmic debate from the grave. The occasion is the publication last month of “The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God” (Penguin). The book is based on a series of lectures exploring the boundary between science and religion that Dr. Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985, and it was edited by Ann Druyan, his widow and collaborator.
Reading Dr. Sagan’s new book is like running into an old friend at a noisy party, discovering he still has all his hair, and repairing to the den for a quiet, congenial drink.
“I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship,” he writes at the beginning of a discussion that includes the history of cosmology, a travel guide to the solar system, the reason there are hallucinogen receptors in the brain, and the meaning of the potential discovery — or lack thereof — of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Never afraid to venture into global politics, Dr. Sagan warns at one point of the danger that a leader under the sway of religious fundamentalism might not try too hard to avoid nuclear Armageddon, reasoning that it was God’s plan.
“He might be interested to see what that would be like,” Dr. Sagan wrote. “Why slow it down?”
Almost in the same breath, Dr. Sagan acknowledges that religion can engender hope and speak truth to power, as in the civil rights movement in the United States, but that it rarely does.
It’s curious, he says, that no allegedly Christian nation has adopted the Golden Rule as a basis for foreign policy. Rather, in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction was the policy of choice. “Christianity says that you should love your enemy. It certainly doesn’t say that you should vaporize his children.”
When Saddam Hussein was hanged in December, those words had a haunting resonance.
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.
Ms. Druyan, who co-wrote “Cosmos” and produced the movie “Contact,” based on her husband’s novel, runs Cosmos Studio and was a leader in the aborted effort by the Planetary Society to launch a solar sail from a Russian submarine two years ago. Among her lesser-known achievements is a kiss on the cheek of the science writer Timothy Ferris, which was recorded and included on a record of the sounds of Earth that is part of the Voyager spacecraft now flying out of the solar system. She and Dr. Sagan had planned to use his Gifford lectures as the basis for a new television show called “Ethos,” a sequel to “Cosmos,” about the spiritual implications of the scientific revolution. “I know of no other force that can wean us from our infantile belief that we are the center of the universe,” she said.
But “Ethos” never happened, and the lectures disappeared.
In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in this country, she said, a tacit truce between science and religion that has existed since the time of Galileo started breaking down. “A lot of scientists were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore,” Ms. Druyan said over lunch recently.
Some of the books that resulted, such as Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion,” have been criticized as shrill, but Ms. Druyan said: “People like Carl and Dawkins are more serious about God than people who just go through the motions. They are real seekers.”
About a year ago, Ms. Druyan went looking for Dr. Sagan’s lectures, eventually finding them filed under “Ethos” in his archive at Cornell, which occupies 1,000 filing cabinets and includes things like his baby pictures and report cards.
Rereading them, she said, “I couldn’t believe how prophetic they were.”
It took about a day for her editor at Penguin to decide to publish them, she said.
She retitled the book — Dr. Sagan had named his lectures “The Search for Who We Are” — as a nod to William James, whose Gifford lectures in 1901 and 1902 became the basis for his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”
Ever the questioner, Dr. Sagan asks at one point in his lectures why the God of the Scriptures seems to betray no apparent knowledge of the wider universe that “He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is” allegedly created. Why not a commandment, for instance, that thou shalt not exceed the speed of light? Or why not engrave the Ten Commandments on the Moon in such a way that they would not be discovered until now, à la the slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey”?
If such an inscription were found, people would ask how it had gotten there, Dr. Sagan writes. “And then there would be various hypotheses, most of which would be very interesting,” he adds dryly.
Near the end of his book, Dr. Sagan parses the difference between belief and science this way: “I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
The search for who we are does not lead to complacency or arrogance, he explains. “It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.”
Dr. Sagan was many things, but shrill was not one of them.
The last word may as well go to Dr. Dawkins himself, who in a 1996 book nominated Dr. Sagan as the ideal spokesman for Earth. In a blurb for the new book, Dr. Dawkins said that the astronomer was more than religious, having left behind the priests and mullahs.
“He left them behind, because he had so much more to be religious about,” Dr. Dawkins wrote. “They have their Bronze Age myths, medieval superstitions and childish wishful thinking. He had the universe.”