How Carl Sagan Changed My Life

Ed Uthman, MD

Diplomate, American Board of Pathology

6 April 2000

[Note: This was my entry into a collection of personal essays about Carl Sagan compiled by Caleb Bloom, the founder of the Carl Sagan Mailing List.]

I am a 48-year-old practicing pathologist living in Houston, Texas. I first encountered the works of Carl Sagan back in 1974, while preparing for a senior symposium I was to give for a biology class at Rhodes College. My topic was the search for life on other planets, and of course, Sagan was pretty much the only exobiology game in town at that time. I was struck with the level of clarity of his writing, as it was not unlike that of another one of my heroes, Isaac Asimov. Although I pursued a career in medicine, where I was exposed to some great physician mentors, Sagan and Asimov have remained the archetypes I have tried to emulate in my reasoning, writing, and teaching. The deaths of Asimov in 1992 and Sagan in 1996 left a huge and perhaps irreparable rift in the battle lines of Reason in its struggle with the forces of Pseudoscience, Mysticism, and general irrationality. Sadly, legitimate scientists have opted out of the fight altogether, tending to their own parochial interests in a progressively more isolated academic world and leaving the general public to stew in the juices of New Age populism. Carl, we need you now more than ever!

I enjoyed the Cosmos TV series when it aired in the early '80s but put my Sagan interest on the back burner until I read the novel Contact in the late 80's. As a somewhat jaded sci-fi fan of many years, I had assumed that Sagan's effort would be anemic at best, as he was not a professional fiction writer. I ended up being overwhelmed by the book, not only for its scientific intelligence, which I expected, but also its strictly novelistic elements, which were crafted with preternatural skill. When I later heard that a movie version was to follow, I was again lukewarm, until I heard that Jody Foster and Bob Zemeckis, as well as Sagan himself, were to be involved. That's probably a combined IQ of over 500 to be applied in the making of the movie. My excitement was severely blunted when I learned of Sagan's death in 1996. This saddened me greatly, and I followed a few days later with a brief written tribute, which is still posted on my Web site. The movie premiered in the summer of 1997, and, as we all know, it was a superb film. I would rate it as my second favorite science fiction movie of all time (following 2001: A Space Odyssey).

About the time that the film Contact came out I was getting more Internet-savvy and I became aware of the huge upsurge in fraudulent health-related claims that the Web facilitates so well. At a local bookstore I picked up a copy of Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Wow! He stated exactly what I had been thinking about the resurgence of pseudoscience, and he stated it with such eloquence! As I have read more of his work over the last few years, my sadness at his untimely death has grown deeper. Most recently, I read the Keay Davidson biography of Sagan and am now reading the one by William Poundstone. I have also begun a collection of Sagan's published works.

I don't wish to give the impression that I am an obsessed fan or that I worship Carl Sagan. I am all too aware of his shortcomings. He was so self-centered that he was a poor father, a poor husband (in at least 2/3 of his marriages), and arguably a poor citizen of the Cornell faculty. As a political moderate, I certainly am no fan of his uncompromisingly left-wing politics, and his relentless trashing of Ronald Reagan was way off-base (Reagan, after all, did win the Cold War with nary a Nuclear Winter). In general, I have little regard for the hypocrisy of "limousine liberals," of which Sagan was probably the most outrageous example outside of Hollywood, the DC Beltway, and the American Trial Lawyers Association. Still, as the ultimate science popularizer and exponent of rationality, this amazingly self-disciplined and creative man will forever be an inspiration to me.

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