To this day, on what would have been his 80th birthday (and nearly two decades after his passing), many people still recall the sonorous voice of the late astronomer Carl Sagan when hearing the phrase "Billions and Billions." In fact, as a good-natured nod to those who ribbed him for years for the way he spoke, he titled his final and posthumously-published book, "Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium."
Sagan had a way with words that has often been described as elegant. Even when writing about esoteric subject matter that might be difficult for a non-scientist to digest, his writing style helped to ensure that he could be understood by anyone. Not just a Cornell University professor, he was, in a real sense, a teacher to all, given his frequent and popular appearances as a guest on the "Tonight Show." Available at the Manatee County Library, his book "Billions and Billions" is a collection of essays that cover a wide range of topics -everything from life on Mars to global warming, and the nature of governments to the meaning of morality.
If you enjoyed the TV series "Cosmos," hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson this past spring, you may be aware that it was a remake of the enormously-popular original, written and hosted by Carl Sagan in 1980. Since nearly three and a half decades had elapsed since that magnificent series first aired, there was a desire to not simply re-narrate the script, but to include many discoveries that had been made in the years' since. The jury is out as to whether the new version was as successful, but you can see for yourself by checking out both the original series on DVD as well as the companion book.
In his book, "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space," Sagan stresses the importance of not just exploring, but populating other worlds, suggesting that our very survival as a species hinges on colonizing distant planets. Given that we haven't ventured more than a few hundred miles from the Earth's surface since we last set foot on the moon over 40 years ago, his dream of reaching for the stars (even if it becomes a necessity) seems farther away than ever.
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Sagan didn't devote a lot of time to writing fiction, but when he did, he certainly did it well. His novel "Contact" might be about extraterrestrials, but it's not your run-of-the-mill "creepy aliens" tale. We are introduced to Ellie Arroway, a young radio astronomer who spends countless hours at a remote outpost listening to the random background
noise of outer space. Until ... a signal is received that turns out to be unquestionably -- intelligent. Sagan's writing is brilliant in that he avoids venturing into the absurd. When the signal is first received, every effort is made to determine its true origin. It's clearly coming from a nearby star, but buried deep in the signal, a very grainy video begins to emerge.
Read the book (or check out the film version, starring Jodie Foster) to learn why the team of scientists is completely flummoxed when the images and sounds in the signal turn out not to be alien, but rather, something chillingly familiar.
If you would like to learn a bit more about the man himself, the library offers a couple of biographies including William Poundstone's "Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos" and Keay Davidson's "Carl Sagan: A Life." Both provide a good synopsis of how he came to be the man we all knew, although Davidson's seems to devote a lot of ink focusing on his failures rather than his accomplishments.
The library offers monthly email newsletters, called NextReads, with a selection of genres to choose from; each lists several books, new and classics, as well as library events. Sign up from the library website, mymanatee.org/library.
Speaking Volumes, written by Manatee County Public Library System staff members, is published each Sunday. Jonathan Sabin is the information specialist for library system.