What Carl Sagan means to me

Yesterday I blogged about my 11th-grade math teacher, Mr. Arrigo, one of my greatest teachers ever. But any list of my greatest teachers must include Carl Sagan, even though he wasn’t “my” teacher any more than he was everyone else’s in the whole world.

Sagan’s famous Tonight Show appearances happened right around the time I was old enough to stay up and see them. Early on I remember being annoyed by his criticisms of Star Wars (to wit: that spaceships don’t make whooshing noises in space, that Chewbacca deserved a medal at the end too, etc). But then my mom, who I think had a bit of a crush on him, urged me to read Broca’s Brain, and I was hooked on his brand of science education.

Then came Cosmos, which was eagerly anticipated in our household. We counted down to its premiere for weeks. When it finally aired, the cheesy new-age music and Sagan’s, er, limited acting abilities — the camera lingered forever on what was supposed to be his awestruck face as he sailed through the universe in his kinda lame “ship of the imagination” — left us at first unenthused. But then came his story of Eratosthenes and I got another one of those emotional learning moments that I wrote about yesterday. The following is from Cosmos, the companion book to the PBS series:

[Eratosthenes] was the director of the great library of Alexandria, where one day he read in a papyrus book that in the southern frontier outpost of Syene, near the first cataract of the Nile, at noon on June 21 vertical sticks cast no shadows. On the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, as the hours crept toward midday, the shadows of temple columns grew shorter. At noon, they were gone. A reflection of the Sun could be seen in the water at the bottom of a deep well. The Sun was directly overhead. […]

Eratosthenes asked himself how, at the same moment, a stick in Syene could cast no shadow and a stick in Alexandria, far to the north, could cast a pronounced shadow. […]

The only possible answer, he saw, was that the surface of the Earth is curved. Not only that: the greater the curvature, the greater the difference in shadow lengths. […] For the observed difference in the shadow lengths, the distance between Alexandria and Syene had to be about seven degrees along the circumference of the Earth [which] is something like one-fiftieth of three hundred and sixty degrees, the full circumference of the Earth. Eratosthenes knew that the distance between Alexandria and Syene was approximately 800 kilometers, because he hired a man to pace it out. Eight hundred kilometers times 50 is 40,000 kilometers: so that must be the circumference of the Earth.

This is the right answer. Eratosthenes’ only tools were sticks, eyes, feet, and brains, plus a taste for experiment. With them he deduced the circumference of the Earth with an error of only a few percent […] He was the first person accurately to measure the size of a planet.

In the TV show, when Sagan said matter-of-factly, “This is the right answer,” I got a lump in my throat. At once I was propelled farther down the paths of learning, teaching, science, and, of course, Carl Sagan fanhood.

It is more than just a shame that Sagan died before his time of a rare disease, ten years ago today. (This blog post is participating in a Carl Sagan “blog-a-thon” to commemorate the occasion.) There is no doubt that if he were alive today, he would never have permitted science to be debased by politics to the extent that it has in recent years. Sagan knew that we ignore science at our peril and excelled at conveying that message. He saved the world once before, by popularizing the nuclear winter theory of the aftermath of even small nuclear wars, assuring those insane enough to consider such wars that they could never avoid spelling their own doom as well as their enemy’s. Who will take up his mantle and bring the Promethean fire of science back to light a world darkened by his absence?

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

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A good day

An orderly transfer of power? No tanks rolling down city streets? Republicans in tears? Donald Rumsfeld facing war-crimes charges? Dennis Hastert finished? Katherine Harris ruined?

Good ol’ Constitution, maybe the last bit of life hadn’t been wrung out of you yet after all. Good ol’ voters, knowing when the country is in real trouble and needs your help.

Maybe I won’t have to flee to Amsterdam with my family.

Maybe we actually can restore our rights. Maybe we can heal the planet. Maybe we can get some accountability. Maybe we can govern with compassion.

Maybe we can wipe the smirk off George Bush’s face. Maybe we can tell Dick Cheney to go fuck himself. Maybe we can give them two years of heartburn and sleepless nights.

Maybe it’s OK now to take my family to Disneyland.

Big oil’s last-ditch deception

I just received the following e-mail from MoveOn.org‘s Wes Boyd and am passing it along. Please pass it along too if you can.

Don’t be fooled

Big Oil paid for
this bogus voting guide.
Spread the word.

I just received an election ballot slate card in the mail called “Information Guide for Democrats.” I’ll bet you have too. Look for it. Then throw it away. It’s pure deception. And then get mad. Pretending to be a Democratic slate, this mailer recommends against Propositions 87 and 89, the Clean Energy and Clean Money Initiatives. There’s a picture of this mailer in the sidebar to the right, so you can identify it.

Corporate interests are spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat these two initiatives. And they don’t mind lying and cheating to get what they want. We have to fight this with the simple truth. And with word of mouth. Please pass this email on to all your friends and relatives in California. We’ve got to get out to vote and defeat these guys.

Here’s the slate of endorsements made by MoveOn members themselves:

(based on member votes)

This is a REAL progressive slate. We’ve included a copy of this slate designed for printing and taking to the polls, after this email below. Or go online and check out the endorsements of any public interest organization.

The fact is, the Democratic Party, every major Democratic leader in the state, and the most prominent Democrats nationally including President Clinton and Vice President Gore all strongly support the Clean Energy Initiative, Proposition 87. Of course, big oil is absolutely determined to kill it.

And every major civic organization supports the Clean Money initiative, Proposition 89, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. You can check out the endorsements in the links for each proposition above.

Why are big oil and other big money interests working so hard to defeat these progressive initiatives? Because if the truth gets out, they lose. Because if the Clean Money initiative, Proposition 89, passes, they won’t be able to do deceptive mailers like this one. So they’re pulling out all the stops.

We have to counter their lying with truth. We have to counter their money with passion and word of mouth.

Please pass this email on to everyone you know.

And please vote on November 7th.


— Wes Boyd and Joan Blades
November 5, 2006

P.S. Speak Out California has produced an excellent progressive voter guide that summarizes the initiatives and key endorsements:


For a copy of the MoveOn endorsements slate that’s easy to print and take to the polls, you can get a PDF here:


Or just print this:

Total paranoia

An unpopular ruling party is widely expected to be routed in an upcoming election. As voters go to the polls, election observers note numerous voting irregularities all favoring the ruling party. After the votes are counted, contrary to a substantial body of reputable (but unofficial) polling data, the unpopular party retains its grip on power yet again. But this time the anomalies are too blatant, the public does not accept the result. Protests flare up around the country. So the leader of the unpopular party imposes martial law to suppress dissent.

It’s an old story. It’s happened countless times in troubled countries all over the world. But it couldn’t happen here, right? Right? So I guess it’s only a coincidence that (a) the makers of most of America’s voting machines are in the Republicans’ pockets, (b) those machines are trivially easy to hack, and (c) just a week and a half ago, the Republicans snuck through in the dead of night a new law that specifically makes it easier for Bush to declare martial law, upending yet another inconvenient centuries-old tradition.

The Disneyland drumbeat

Andrea has continued beating the drum for planning a family trip to Disneyland soon, and with the kids in the prolonged grip of a combined Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan frenzy I am similarly inclined. There’s just one problem: Disney is the enemy and I will not give them aid or comfort.

They have an excellent chance to redeem themselves by firing the jerk who said that the mainstream media is too liberal and it’s his job to slant news coverage to the right “so conservatives don’t have to be concerned.” That jerk is Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director. (ABC is owned by Disney.)

The major news organizations in this country have forgotten that it’s their job to be adversarial. To promise one group or another that they “don’t have to be concerned” is to abandon the mantle of journalism.

Mark Halperin must go. With that one gesture I would be willing to let bygones be bygones.

Well Disney? The country seems to be getting ready to return from its wandering in the arch-conservative wilderness. Will you get back in touch with the real Main Street U.S.A. or ride the Republican machine over the impending cliff? One family’s vacation plans, and the health of our republic, hang in the balance.

Greatest hits: White House orgy

[Reproduced from e-mail.]

I’m on a mailing list that saw much criticism of George Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In response to a comment about Bush remaining on vacation as the disaster unfolded, one die-hard Bush defender quipped,

All presidents have taken long vacations, but then again, they are “on-call” 24 hours per day […]

With, of course, the notable exception of President Clinton, who preferred have his vacations under his desk.

So I wrote:

New rule: Any president who can keep Americans safe, preserve our liberties, keep joblessness and poverty down, keep the economy growing, keep the international situation stable, heed scientific consensus, avoid burdening our children with debt or depriving them of resources, refrain from unnecessary military adventures and fight the necessary ones effectively, govern on behalf of those who didn’t vote for him as well as those who did, appoint qualified experts to top posts and hold them accountable when they fuck up, admit and correct his own errors, honor the accomplishments of past generations, and exhibit a deep respect for the law is hereby free to gather the entire staff of the White House for a giant orgy in the Oval Office daily at 6pm. With sodomy.

Well, that’s that

The House and the Senate approved the detainee bill. Bush is expected to sign it into law this weekend. At that point, and until it is ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (which is by no means assured, given the partisanship of that body and the technicality that the only ones with the legal “standing” to challenge the new law will be those who have already been isolated from the legal system), America will be a dictatorship, with a head of government empowered to define the “enemy” as he sees fit and make any such person disappear forever with no legal remedy at all.

Thus ends the American Revolution, which began with these words defining the acts of a tyrant:

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

  • For protecting [armed forces], by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States;
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury;
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences;
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

Bush is now that tyrant. We’ve come full circle. Sorry, Mr. Jefferson. Sorry, General Washington. Sorry to all the soldiers and patriots who ever made a sacrifice to preserve the Constitution. It was nice while it lasted.

How much worse will it get before it gets better? History suggests it will get very, very bad. The arrogant thuggishness of the radical right is already tacitly encouraged by the establishment. We’ve seen where this kind of thing can lead before.

I am unaware of any time in history that a society has reached a point like this and then turned back. The one and only thing that’s qualitatively different today from any past slide into despotism is the existence of the Internet. If hope exists, it must lie with the Internet’s ability to keep people informed, communicating, and organized. Would the Internet have forestalled the worst excesses of Nazism? Stalinism? Impossible to say for sure, but maybe. So naturally the Internet is therefore under attack.