Monday, February 25, 2008

Nigel's Take - Billions and Billions (Carl Sagan)

English books are a rarity here in Japan. My American coworker, a bibliophile, has taken to ordering books via Amazon to feed his habit. He inspired me to make some purchases of my own. I've been saving some links to books I thought interesting, and dusted them off a few weeks ago. When I got back from my vacation to Australia last week, I was delighted to find a big Amazon box waiting for me. My first review will be of one of the books I ordered: Carl Sagan's last book, "Billions & Billions".

"Billions & Billions" is a collection of essays written and compiled by Sagan in the last few years of his life. They cover a broad array of topics and disciplines, but they all focus on causes and ideas that Sagan held in high regard. There are three parts, with each part broken into 6 or 7 chapters.

Part I is "The Power and Beauty of Quantification" and focuses on just that; the endless human quest to classify and quantify; to urge to discover. Sagan meanders through such diverse concepts as the hunter-gatherer nature of professional sports in our modern society to the methods of discovering extrasolar planets.

Part I contains the most "hard" science and math, with a few exercises that help demonstrate the power of mathematics and the scale of the numbers Sagan works with throughout the book. Fret not, mathematophobes, as Sagan does an excellent job of helping the reader through these examples step by step.

Part II is called "What are Conservatives Conserving?" and covers Sagan's thoughts on protecting the world from humans, and humans from themselves. He discusses global climate change from the point of view of an economist as well as a planetary biologist. His examples demonstrate, quite elegantly and simply, the causes and dangers of global warming.

With tact he refutes (and subtly rebukes) claims that global climate change is either a complete sham or not nearly as serious as the scientific community at large believes it to be. This section explores the possibilities of alternative energy, while simultaneously cautioning against the dangers of nuclear energy, especially the utter insanity of nuclear weapons technology and the Cold War arm's race.

Part III is "Where Hearts and Minds Collide" is a collection that deals with mankind. One essay, which was published in both America and Soviet Russia in the midst of the Cold War, seeks to enlighten both sides to the very human nature of their adversaries, rather than propaganda-fueled caricatures. Another article discusses abortion from many different angles, but primarily from the idea of when it is "OK" to abort a fetus.

The final chapter deals with death, specifically the death of Carl Sagan. Sagan relates the discovery of the disease that would eventually claim him, and his struggles against it. He talks of his family, of the treatments, and of both hope and despair. He mulls for a few pages about death, and what dreams may come, or in his case what does not.

The last passage is written by his wife and partner of over 20 years, Ann Druyan. She relates the final struggle of Carl Sagan, against pneumonia. She tells the all-too-human story of their love, and the love their family shared.

This was a very moving book for me. Though I've long known the name Carl Sagan, I have only recently begun to explore his works and philosophy (if it could be called that) in earnest. This book embodies Sagan's core ethos and modus. He was a man who passionately sought enlightenment and betterment through science and education. He, like so very few humans, saw beyond the mundane happenings of our little planet, but, like fewer still, it made him realize the fragility, beauty, and rarity of our existence.

The book is suffused with Sagan's trademark wit, humor, and warmth. His writing style is very conversational and inviting, and never feels elitist or haughty.

"Billions & Billions" should be mandatory reading for anyone who fancies themselves a scientist, no matter what their discipline.

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