I discovered the works of Carl Sagan when I was still in high school, probably around 1980 or so. PBS was airing Cosmos, and it absolutely blew me away. I even went out and bought the Vangelis soundtrack (on vinyl; I still have it). At the time, I was in the middle of that messy divorce from the Xtianity that had so dominated and stifled my childhood, and I wanted nothing in the world but to spend my life studying the genuine mysteries of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And, along with Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan gave me the road map I needed. After the wonders of Cosmos, I backtracked and read Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (1974) and The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence (1978). Contact came along in 1985 and pleased me immensely, as it articulated so many of my hopes and curiosities. Only recently have I read Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), published only a month or so before his death, and I still haven't gotten around to the posthumous volume, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996).
Sagan's work — as a scientist, as a humanist, as a rationalist, as an enemy of ignorance and superstition, a peace-activist, and freethinker — had such a profound and far-reaching effect upon me that I cannot possibly hope to sum them up here. He showed me that there's good reason to believe that life is common in the universe, and that even our own solar system may harbour it in places other than the Earth. He helped me to see the beauty of Nature and that there is no greater wonder. He helped me learn the difference between science and pseudoscience. Very few men or women have had such a tremendous influence upon the path my life has taken. Ultimately, I think the best I can do here is to provide a few of my favorite quotes from Sagan. He will always speak for himself better than anyone else might speak for him:
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. We have a method, and that method helps us to reach not absolute truth, only asymptotic approaches to the truth — never there, just closer and closer, always finding vast new oceans of undiscovered possibilities. Cleverly designed experiments are the key.
from "Wonder and Skepticism", Skeptical Enquirer Volume 19, Issue 1, (January-February 1995)
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and, I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)
The choice is with us still, but the civilization now in jeopardy is all humanity. As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure of this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatic ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars. There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestial intelligence, and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours rush inevitably headlong to self-destruction. I dream about it, and sometimes they're bad dreams.
from Cosmos (1980)
Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.
from Cosmos (1980)
That says a lot. More wonderful things than I shall likely say in all the years of my life. And I just want people to remember this man who was worth remembering, who showed me that we really are, all of us, star stuff.