“She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
— Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan was the space sage. The comic cosmonaut. He may have never gone to space, but it sure seemed like he lived there most days.
He was an astrophysicist, astronomer, cosmologist, and renowned author. However, he is likely most known as being a science communicator and science popularizer. He got us excited about space, about life, about humanity, and about the infinite potential we have ahead of us.
He wrote thrilling books, starred in feature TV series, and produced scientific papers with ease. He was a down-to-earth, head-in-the-sky, big-picture thinker, and humanity owes him a collective debt.
He was also part of the team who sent the Aricebo message, a radio communication blasted out into space with information about Earth and its inhabitants.
An active cannabis and space activist, the man had a lot to say, and he said it well. In his honor, we’ve pulled together some of his best thoughts. These Carl Sagan quotes cover everything from the smallest atoms to the further stars.
Buckle in, and blast off.
SPACE & SCIENCE
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
“We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
“Who is more humble? The scientist who looks at the universe with an open mind and accepts whatever the universe has to teach us, or somebody who says everything in this book must be considered the literal truth and never mind the fallibility of all the human beings involved?”
“The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It’s not that there’s something new in our way of thinking – it’s that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it was never before.”
“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”
“I consider it an extremely dangerous doctrine, because the more likely we are to assume that the solution comes from the outside, the less likely we are to solve our problems ourselves.”
“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”
“Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
LIFE & SOCIETY
“There is a wide, yawning black infinity. In every direction, the extension is endless; the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce.”
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
“We hunger to understand, so we invent myths about how we imagine the world is constructed – and they’re, of course, based upon what we know, which is ourselves and other animals. So we make up stories about how the world was hatched from a cosmic egg or created after the mating of cosmic deities or by some fiat of a powerful being.”
“Today, we’re still loaded down – and, to some extent, embarrassed – by ancient myths, but we respect them as part of the same impulse that has led to the modern, scientific kind of myth. But we now have the opportunity to discover, for the first time, the way the universe is in fact constructed as opposed to how we would wish it to be constructed.”
“We start out a million years ago in a small community on some grassy plain; we hunt animals, have children, and develop a rich social, sexual, and intellectual life, but we know almost nothing about our surroundings.”
“You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”
“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
“It is of interest to note that while some dolphins are reported to have learned English – up to fifty words used in correct context – no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”
“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
MIND & MEANING
“The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.”
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”
“We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s ‘Pensees’ and read, ‘I am the great silent spaces between worlds.’”
Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan
If you want to keep going, we highly recommend checking out this book by Carl Sagan. Endlessly quotable, this book will change your mind on how we might explore and inhabit space, and also how we can better explore and inhabit Earth.