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.
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.
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.
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.