Thoughts on Carl Sagan Day 2015

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These are some thoughts pulled out of a presentation I wrote a long time ago now, on the subject of Signal and what I was thinking when I made it.

Carl Sagan is an old favourite when it comes to science presenters, and people often cite the sense of wonder and awe that he manages to impart in his work, and the way he melded this with a sense of responsibility and moral obligation. He gave you the facts and ideas that leave you in awe, but then he gave them a meaning and made them feel relevant. There’s no better example of this than a particular passage in one of the last pieces he produced “Pale Blue Dot”…

By reading and watching Sagan’s work, along with other scientists and philosophers, I’ve come to understand that we all read meaning into information that we’re given, whether we’re directed to or not, and this is why information and knowledge is so potent – it has the ability to challenge us, to change us. We stumble through a miraculous and terrifying age, where a huge percentage of the sum total of human understanding, ignorance, impulse, whimsy and curiosity comes to life on little black monoliths at the touch of our fingertips.

Individually, we’re not well equipped to deal with the gigantic, the cosmological, the chaotic global-social tides that pull us and push us invisibly. We take in knowledge on a personal level, we come to understand it through the lens of our cultures, our hopes and fears. Through Carl Sagan and others like him, I’ve come to see science as a tool for navigating the chaos. It helps us seek knowledge, and confirm knowledge on tenuous ground. It maps and charts regions I can only grasp at as an individual, creating guides of ever increasing accuracy and application that it passes on to society at large.

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I see a scientific experiment as a question addressed to the universe instead of to other human beings. We listen to the answers the universe gives in the form of results, and when we turn to these results, we don’t stand on the shoulders of giants, we stand atop a monumental structure made up of the surviving records of every person who sought to ask questions in this way.

Each and every one of you with a glowing hand-monolith has access to this giant made of people and curiosity and time. But as Carl Sagan must have realised, the manner in which this information is presented is vital. It can turn a blue pixel into a profound statement about responsibility, or equally a symbol of nihilism, or just a nice colour for your living room wall.

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The way that Sagan spoke about the Universe went beyond morals. What I think he excelled at was taking scientific information and giving it spiritual import. He made me realise that what I feel in its presence is best described as numinous. Something beyond my full comprehension.

If you can force yourself to look directly into its brilliant, penetrating light, it strips away the ego bubble that protects us from the things we fear, leaving us with no choice but to see that human beings create and assign meaning, and are responsible for our own morals. That we are interdependent apes on a tiny blue dot, and our beliefs are sticks thrown at the cosmos.

All we can hope to do is make sure that we don’t close our eyes and shrink away from the pain of knowing how meaningless it all is.

All we can hope to understand is that if we perceive our true size in the void, we cannot pale into insignificance, because we may be the only things inside it that recognise the concept of significance at all.

We may be the sole curators of the universe’s meaning.

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