Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Book: Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: Applying scientific thinking to late 20th century issues.
Billions and Billions is the last book to be written by Carl Sagan. Not that this has stopped publishers from publishing stuff of his afterwards, it's just that when B&B was finished Sagan was in his deathbed (finishing touches were added by his wife).
B&B is actually a collection of articles more than a conventional book, with the articles grouped by their themes. The first batch discusses the importance of quantification when trying to assess everything around us. Essentially, it's vintage Sagan with his smooth style talking about the virtues of scientific thinking.
The second batch, entitled "what are the conservatives conserving", applies the scientific thinking preached in the previous articles and shows exactly how they relate to our modern lives through discussions concerning the ozone layer and global warming. In fact, the chapters on global warming often feel as though they are carbon copies of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, which made me ask myself who among the two really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and how dumb we humans are to have ignored the call to arms on global warming for so long.
Next come further discussions where scientific thinking is applied to major political and social issues of our times: nuclear arms, abortions, and others more. Take the issue of abortions as an example: Sagan quickly disintegrates the common arguments from both sides of the fence. The pro-life arguments seem particularly silly when you analyze their history and the reasons why they were brought up in the first place, but the pro-choice arguments lack foundations just the same. Sagan then comes up with his own line of arguments which he thoroughly explains, arguments that by relying on facts are that much more compelling.
The book ends with the exciting yet sad story of Sagan's fight for his life. The story is both touching and interesting but not in the tabloid kind of way; here is a man that is about to die sharing with us his vision for our future. Reading it I found myself in tears (which was a bit of a problem given that most of my reading is now done during train rides).
Looking back at my own blog's recent posts on the role of astronomy in life and about death, I find it interesting to see just how similar my views are to Sagan's. Now I am not saying here that my writing is as good as his or that I am as much of an intellectual as he was; what I am saying is that Sagan has had a profound influence on the way I view this world. And for that I will be forever thankful.
Overall: Simple elegance. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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