In this book, his last, Carl Sagan shows once again his extraordinary ability to interpret the mysteries of life and the majesty of the universe for the general reader. In Billions and Billions Sagan applies what we know about science, mathematics, and space to everyday life as well as to the exploration of many essential questions concerning the environment and our future. Ranging far and wide in subject matter, he takes his readers on a soaring journey, from the invention of chess to the possibility of life on Mars, from Monday Night Football to the relationship between the United States and Russia, from global warming to the abortion debate. And, on a more intimate note, we are given a rare glimpse of the author himself as he movingly describes his valiant fight for his life, his love for his family, and his personal beliefs about death and God.
The most poignant of the essays in this collection was his last, "In the Valley of the Shadow," an emotional account of his struggles with the illness, myelodysplasia, that would ultimately take his life. Through all the bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy treatments, Sagan still manages to sustain his usual wit and optimism that we have all come to know and love. Sadly the treatments didn't work and we lost one of the greatest popularize of science we have ever known.
Ann Druyan, Sagan’s loving wife, adds a moving epilogue in which she describes Sagan’s last days and the courage Sagan exhibits while facing death without the comfort of faith in a world beyond our own.
But I'll admit I let him get away with some things I wouldn't tolerate in other writers. He occasionally engages in bad poetic science, political correctness, and romanticizing. Most of it I can overlook because Sagan was such a passionate advocate for science, truth, and a better future for our species, but he does tend to smooth over the rough spots. This book also feels a bit more dated and repetitive than his others. I still enjoyed it, but I can't recommend it over the titles I mentioned earlier.
I do, however, recommend Carl Sagan to anyone who isn't typically interested in science or nonfiction. You just might develop a lifelong fascination with our incredible universe.
His other views on nuclear weapons, abortion, and his own mortality redeem the book. If he never deviated from global warming and the hole in the ozone layer, I would've given it less than 3 stars.
This falls into the Books I Should Have Read Already category, although it could also be in the Small Stacks of Found Books one because I did find it at a used bookstore while looking for something else.
Sagan covered a lot, in his very accessible way, and a reader might get an impression that he ran out of time, which of course, he did. I’ll not summarize here but I will share a few notes I made and observations I flagged...
On language and communication Ethnocentrism - the idea that our little group, no matter which one it is, is better than any other - and xenophobia - a “shoot first, ask questions later” fear of strangers -are deeply built into us. They are by no means peculiarly human; all our monkey and ape cousins behave similarly, as do many other mammals. These attitudes are at east aided and abetted by the short distance over which speech is possible.Some humans, and human mimics, have a hard time with that simple fact that we are genetically still rather primitive. Aggression and fear of others is sadly normal.
On the environmentThe worse the catastrophe is, the harder it is to keep our balance. We want so badly to either ignore it utterly or to devote all our resources to circumventing it.Hard truth boiled down to a simple dichotomy. And on the predictions of climate change, for the ignorant “ideologically driven radio talk-show hosts [and wrongwing politicians and media] who insist that the greenhouse effect is a ‘hoax.’”To roughly quote Richard Dawkins, it’s science b*itches! He notes “Considering hw contentious the scientific community is, it is notable that not a single paper is offered claiming that depletion of the ozone layer or global warming are snares and delusions or that global warming is considerably less than the estimated 1 to 4 C for a doubling in the carbon dioxide abundance.” Well, no legitimate scientific peer-reviewed paper - there is a host of cottage industry trolls masquerading as scientists that have cropped up since Sagan’s death spewing gibberish that is eaten up by the wrongwing.
I’d forgotten that the first truly horrendous president of my adulthood, Reagan, had the solar-thermal converter take off the White House roof. Sagan observes “It was somehow ideologically offensive.” Idiot (not Sagan, of course.) And now the administration of 2017 is bent on rolling back all environmental progress of the last 100 years. Ideological offense has something to do with it, as does lining the pockets of the billionaire cronies.
An uncomfortable truth, Sagan, after noting the annexations and occupations of the Soviet Union, turned to the United StatesExcluding World Wars and expeditions to suppress piracy or the slave trade, the United States has made [as of 1996] armed invasions and interventions in other countries on more than 130 separate occasions, including China (on 18 separate occasions), Mexico (13), Nicaragua and Panama (9 each), Honduras (7), Columbia and Turkey (6 each), the Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan (5 each), Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, the Kingdom of Hawaii, and Samoa (4 each), Uruguay and Fiji (3 each), Guatemala, Lebanon, the Soviet Union, and Sumatra (2 each), Grenada, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Syria, Iraq, Peru, Formosa, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.Add Iraq again, Afghanistan, Syria again, Somalia, and I don't know how many more. Those data came from records of the House Armed Services Committee. We're not clean and never have been.
He talks about abortion and opens "The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground, You'd think the fight was over." ... well, actually... far from. He'd likely not be surprised, and still somehow remain optimistic.
Ann wrote a heart-tugging epilogue that if you aren't moved after reading, well, you're not human.
I should have read this long ago - I had an unread copy that was lost to a fire. Life's too short to keep making that mistake. I do believe I'll revisit Demon Haunted World this year...we'll see.
Carl Sagan never said "billions and billions," despite Johnny Carson's parody of Dr. Sagan on The Tonight Show (on which Sagan was a guest nearly 30 times).
Sagan begins his final book on this humorous note before delving into a diverse range of topics from human evolution and cultural development to ethnocentrism and xenophobia. He discusses the advancement of communications technology from the telegraph to satellites, and while he touches on astronomy and cosmology, a large portion of the book is spent reviewing the current state (as of the mid-1990s), and pondering the future of, our environment and the dangers we face if we do not cease our reliance on fossil fuels.
Sagan also tackles the controversial and often incendiary topic of abortion and the question of when human life truly begins. He discusses the religious and political points of view on abortion, Roe vs. Wade, and women's reproductive rights.
Although I have this book in paperback at home, I listened to the audiobook over three days at work. The narrator for most of the book is the fabulous Adenrele Ojo. The final chapter was co-written with Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, and describes his diagnosis of, and struggle with, myelodysplasia.
It was a grueling experience for Sagan and his family, involving four trips from his home in Ithaca, NY to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (aka "The Hutch") in Seattle and the bone marrow transplant from his sister, Cari.
Ann narrated the epilogue, which she wrote after Sagan's death. In it, she details the events of the last month of his life and of their final trip to "The Hutch" where he died in December 1996. No, I wasn't choked up at all. Nope, I'm fine...
Where's that damn box of tissues?
Five stars all the way, Carl. I'd give you a billion, if I could.
Part one is perhaps the most eclectic, navigating topics from the evolutionary history of homo sapiens to discoveries of solar systems with potentially life-supporting planets. This part of the book also contains a very accessible but surficial overview of a handful of physical phenomena, such as electromagnetic radiation, and mathematical fundamentals, such as exponents and progressions – concepts that Sagan must have felt were essential to our understanding of the world.
Part two is an exploration of environmental crises facing humanity, with special attention given to ozone depletion and climate change. The information in these chapters, while as relevant today as when first written, will probably generate few surprises for anyone who hasn’t been hiding in a Rush Limbaugh cave in the past few decades.
Part two ends with a chapter discussing the role of organized religion in developing public awareness of environmental issues. A reader in the second decade of the 21st century will probably be jarred by the optimistic tone of this chapter given the frequency with which environmental “debates” in the United States are framed in political and quasi-religious terms. My own brief research into the handful of religiously based organizations, mentioned by Sagan in this chapter, formed with the ostensible purpose of promoting environmental education, leaves the impression that most have faded into irrelevance since the time of the book’s writing.
In the opinion of this reviewer, part three contains some of the most interesting essays in the book. The topics explored include the ethics of abortion, game theory, nuclear war, and finally Sagan’s very personal account of his terminal illness. The chapter on abortion is interesting both for its ethical arguments and the historical information, which describes the evolving views of abortion in the United States over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, paralleled by changing legislation. Sagan also attempts to trace the causes of the changes. Finally, the epilogue by Ann Druyan is moving and adds many fine strokes to the portrait of Sagan himself.
This in short is a book that is easy to read, lucidly argued, and still highly relevant, even if the topics are acutely familiar.