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Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium [Paperback]

Carl Sagan
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 12 1998
In the final book of his astonishing career, Carl Sagan brilliantly examines the burning questions of our lives, our world, and the universe around us. These luminous, entertaining essays travel both the vastness of the cosmos and the intimacy of the human mind, posing such fascinating questions as how did the universe originate and how will it end, and how can we meld science and compassion to meet the challenges of the coming century? Here, too, is a rare, private glimpse of Sagan's thoughts about love, death, and God as he struggled with fatal disease. Ever forward-looking and vibrant with the sparkle of his unquenchable curiosity, Billions & Billions is a testament to one of the great scientific minds of our day.

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Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium + Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark + Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
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From Library Journal

It is doubtful that there is anyone unfamiliar with noted astronomer and science writer Sagan's ability to convey the wonder, excitement, and joy of science. This book is a wonderful, if eclectic, collection of essays, some reprinted from magazines of national prominence, covering a wide range of topics: the invention of chess, life on Mars, global warming, abortion, international affairs, the nature of government, and the meaning of morality. Writing with clarity and an understanding of human nature, Sagan offers hope for humanity's future as he illuminates our ability to understand ourselves and to change the world for the better. The last chapter is an account of his struggle with myelodysplasia, the illness that finally took his life in December 1996. An epilog written by his wife is a personal account of the man rather than the scientist admired by so many. This last book is a fitting capstone to a distinguished career. Enthusiastically recommended.
-?James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Booklist

Carl Sagan died last December, and as a result, these essays exude a feeling of interrupted eloquence. The celebrity planetary astronomer possibly had more books to write that could have compared favorably with his Cosmos (1980) or Pale Blue Dot (1994), but disappointingly, this collection does not bloom like those dependable library perennials. Perhaps expectations are overly inflated with a new Sagan exposition in hand--but here, expectations rapidly deflate upon seeing that the contents comprise much reprinted material, such as nonscience articles he and his wife and coauthor, Ann Druyan, wrote for a Sunday newspaper supplement. One Parade piece, advancing their argument in favor of legal abortion, sourly criticizes televangelist Pat Robertson for using his influence to mobilize opposition to the 1990 article, a point that skates over the sway the authors themselves were trying to exert in the abortion controversy by means of their article. In other chapters, the subjects are flat--an explanation of the origin of Sagan's brand-name cliche"billions and billions" --or the subjects are rudimentary. Blemishes apart, this collection offers some worthwhile essays: his account of battling cancer or summaries of the enviro-political issues that he weighed in on, such as ozone depletion and the fossil fuels^-atmospheric warming nexus. However uneven and eclectic, this tome still flashes with Sagan's curiosity, wonder, and humanity concerning the scientific enterprise. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling read Dec 23 2003
Format:Paperback
This is the first book by Sagan that I've read. Simply said, it's written brilliantly ! I was amazed when I read the chapter on abortion. Sagan leads you to start thinking about issues in a different plane altogether. His systematic, analytical & scientific approach to solving problems would help anyone with a little logical bent of mind. The chapter on '20th century' seemed to cover environmental issues (again !) though Sagan had dealt with those exhaustively in earlier chapters.
All in all, definitely worth reading. Pity that we don't have him around to share his views on what is going on in today's world !
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Final thoughts March 30 2002
Format:Paperback
Published not long after his death, this--Sagan's last book--is a collection of essays on a variety of subjects having in common a palpable urgency traceable to both the state of the planet and the state of Sagan's health, both perceived as perilous. Besides Sagan's distinctive blend of stark optimism and stern alarm, and his splendid rationality, one is struck by a kind of anger in his tone, as though he has grown impatient with the stupidities of humankind. Thus one reads in the essay on abortion these bitter words: "There is no right to life in any society on Earth today... We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for their pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death... What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life." (p. 166)
What he is against in these essays, as his widow, Ann Druyan, notes in her Epilogue on page 228, are "the forces of superstition and fundamentalism." Sagan is preeminently the champion of education and reason as the means to better our life, and the implacable enemy of ignorance. (For "superstition and fundamentalism," read "ignorance," plain and simple.) In some respects this book is a continuation of his volume from the year before, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, but the emphasis here is on the problems confronting us and what can be done about them. In particular, Sagan confronts the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, pollution, the threat of nuclear war, overpopulation, etc. He asks the question (the title of Part II), "What Are Conservatives Conserving?" and gives the answer, their short-sighted bottom line.
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Format:Paperback
This is an unbelievably moving and brilliant book. I wasn't prepared for what an environmentalist Sagan was or how much of his last book would be devoted to those causes, but it was a welcome surprise, especially since he comes to environmentalism from a place, quite simply, of understanding the human being's place in the cosmos. Sagan doesn't believe in man's place being at the top of creation -- on the contrary, he asserts that human beings are a transitional step in evolution, and if we don't destroy ourselves, there are still more strange and fascinating creatues left to evolve from us. What really makes the book a stunning series of insights, though, is the closing essay "In the Shadow of the Valley," Sagan's first-person account of his struggle with cancer. As he continues to fight bravely and, nonetheless, closes in on death, he shows an admirable ability to embrace the rational world he's known so well, rather than fleeing into superstition. His wife, Ann Druyan, made me weep with her inspiring and sad account of Carl's final hours, which serves as an afterword for the book. Truly an amazing achievement, to look in the face of death, without fear, believing that the only afterlife comes in the way people remember you. Magnificent and terrifying.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Sagan, a green proponent Feb. 19 2002
Format:Paperback
This book was admittedly not what I expected, but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised. When first reading this book Sagan essay's offers insight into more mathematical and scientific insights. However, the book began to discuss the power of exponential growth which has led to the fear of overpopulation. Overpopulation led to the discussion of environmentalism and abortion. I never realized what a green proponent Sagan is, and it is heartening to know that a popular scientific mind is touting these issues.
Those of you that watched the Cosmos series and enjoyed his work will also enjoy educating yourself on microbiological ideas and insights. The book is very readable and designed to be read for by a layperson. I hope that people that voted republican this year has a clearer insight on how the Republican Party is for big business and not for the future, nor for your children's well being. What surprises me most is when we vote in a president that is in the back pocket of big oil, and most people that voted for him have little to gain except for a few bucks on tax decreases and whole lot more CFCs.
This book and Sagan's essasys are especially pertinent when Bush and his hacks want to roll back the reductions on CFCs for his coporate buddies in Texas. Read this book, learn from an educated scientific scholar and don't listen to political rhetoric from a greedy elistist like our current president, GW Bush.
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5.0 out of 5 stars His last thoughts were about human problems Feb. 9 2001
By Charles Ashbacher TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
There are two ironies here. Despite Carl Sagan's extraordinary success in science and his consummate skill as a popular writer of science, his greatest name recognition is a consequence of a parody. Sagan was a frequent guest on the Tonight show starring Johnny Carson., and Johnny often did sketches mimicking him where he used the phrase "billions and billions", with particular emphasis on the b's. The second is that even though Carl never uttered the phrase, he chose it to be the title of a book written as he was dying of cancer.
I have read most of his popular works on science and he is one of the best, on the order of Isaac Asimov or Stephen Jay Gould. In looking back at his career, it is easy to overlook his substantial accomplishments in astronomy. The first time I was exposed to his work was from an article in National Geographic where he was cited for his work in exobiology. My second exposure was when I slogged through the book "Intelligent Life in the Universe" that he wrote in collaboration with I. S. Schlokovskii. Heady reading for a middle school student. While I may not have understood the material, I did recognize the quality of the work.
The main theme of this book is the severe environmental problems that this planet currently faces. Despite the reluctance of some to accept the data, there can be little doubt that the planet is heating up and the most logical explanation is human activity. The burning of fossil fuel is pumping enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This gas captures solar energy at a rate far in excess of its true percentage in the atmosphere. In second place is the destruction of the ozone layer, where once again small amounts generate a cascading effect far beyond the amounts.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Environmental eloquence, mediocre musings.
Modesty was a bit difficult for Sagan. The first we learn of the author is that he was a celebrity. Witness the Tonight Show appearances and the Parade Magazine articles (and Sagan... Read more
Published on April 27 2003 by Wesley L. Janssen
4.0 out of 5 stars Open Minds... READ IT.
I think Brett Williams felt attacked by this book. It is certainly true that it challenges a lot of modern ideas about the world and how we all fit into it. Read more
Published on Feb. 14 2003 by ectron
1.0 out of 5 stars Sad ending to an exceptional life
Sagan ushered in a new opportunity for science - to be comprehensible and uplifting to the masses. The power of science was made manifest by Sagan through his ability to write... Read more
Published on July 24 2002 by Brett Williams
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful and readable.
I've used this book in a unique way, being able to site it in just about every paper I wrote for a science class this year. Read more
Published on May 23 2002 by Benjamin Thompson
4.0 out of 5 stars A book with perspective
Carl Sagan was surely a man with perspective. He was involved in great scientific teams and proyects, but he was not only a Scientist doing science in isolation, he had deep... Read more
Published on May 21 2002 by Sergio A. Salazar Lozano
4.0 out of 5 stars on a more philosophical note...
In this work Carl Sagan approaches many of the more philisophical questions that are begged by pondering the nature of the cosmos and the human condidtion. Read more
Published on April 23 2002 by B. P. Hayek
5.0 out of 5 stars I'll get right to the point here...
This book blew my mind. I've read it 3 times, each time learning something new.
This is a complete mind-ride of a book covering a plethora of intriguing topics- explained in... Read more
Published on Oct. 30 2001 by Jeffrey J. Sanders
5.0 out of 5 stars Great variety of subjects...
This is the first nonfiction book I have read by Carl Sagan, although I have read one of his fiction works, Contact. In this book, Dr. Read more
Published on July 21 2001 by "never_wrong"
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book
No doubt Carl Sagan will go down in history as the greatest science writer ever. Who else can compare? Well, probably nobody. The man was science personified! Read more
Published on July 18 2001 by Pellinore
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