on December 23, 2003
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 !
on March 30, 2002
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. His arguments are ingenious and interesting to read as one observes how hard he is working to persuade us to take care of ourselves and our planet home. He compares the warnings of modern science with those of Cassandra who had the gift of prophesy but the curse of never being believed, science becoming in this sense both Cassandra and the Oracle at Delphi, misunderstood and misinterpreted by our policy makers, whom he likens to Croesus, the rich king who salivated at the prospect of a mighty empire being destroyed only to find that it was his own. As Pogo observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." One senses too that Sagan is projecting his concern that he himself is in danger of becoming a Cassandra.
Certainly, in reading this book, one senses the personality of Carl Sagan come to life. His wide knowledge as a scientist, and his influence as a public spokesperson for science and for the environment and for all the life on this planet, are manifest. His tendency to preach and guide, his absolute desire to use his celebrity for the common good (and to scold) are evident. He mingles hope with despair; he loves humankind, yet despises what humankind does. He sees our capacity to love and help one another as our saving grace, but cannot help but recall and recount the horrors we have visited upon one another and on our fellow creatures. He sees the planet as one, as Gaia (although he does not use that word) with its organisms cooperating with one another for mutual survival. He writes, "The inclination to cooperate has been painfully extracted through the evolutionary process. Those organisms that did not cooperate, that did not work with one another, died. Cooperation is encoded in the survivors' genes." (p. 67) (Incidentally, this is a clear statement for the idea of group selection in evolution. Dawkins, et al., take note.) His writing reveals a man who always tried to do his best, and was perhaps his own sternest critic. He recalls for all of us, "wincing recollections of past faux pas" in the chapter on the environment where he tries to persuade us to take a stance "Somewhere between cheerful dolts and nervous worrywarts..." (p. 75)
I hear the man and identify with his concerns, and I know myself that I cannot make up my mind on whether to be cheerful about our prospects or to despair. I "solve" this problem by realizing that all species eventually go extinct, and that somebody or something "better" than us might follow, or to understand that we are just a tiny phase in the cosmic process of Becoming.
More to the point, I would hope to be just one fraction as worthwhile to my fellow humans as was, and is, and will continue to be, Carl Sagan, a brilliant man of great humanity who is sorely missed. To read him is to experience the best of humanity. He, like science, is a candle in the dark.
on March 13, 2002
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.
on February 19, 2002
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.
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. There is no doubt in my mind that the most significant point in the book is the one he makes about the true price of oil.
The United States currently pays a substantial price for oil far in excess of the amount spent up front for each barrel. The extensive military presence that is maintained in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other middle Eastern nations has cost many American lives, to say nothing of the expense of extricating Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Were it not for the black gold, these nations would rarely if ever make the evening news. Other less obvious costs are the environmental destruction, which in combination could send the total costs to over eighty dollars a barrel. His points about renewable energy currently being cheaper than oil are sound, but still largely unheeded. However, it is possible that the current energy crisis in the Western states may make it more attractive again.
Sagan writes with great skill and clarity. As he was dying, he continued to write about what was the real passion in his life, the future of humans and how fragile we are in our strength. I read this book with sadness, hope and a sense of frustration. A great man was lost when he died. However, let us hope that his prophesies of environmental danger prove to be wrong, as we show that we can construct solutions to the problems we have created.
on January 13, 2001
I found this book to be simply stunning. In fact it is really the book that set me, both physically and mentally in motion. It awakened in me a curiousity and zeal for knowledge that I hadn't remembered since my early childhood. So anyway I am now nearly finished with my undergraduate work and planning grad school. Ah the excitment of being a biologist. In billions and billions Sagan tackles many issues thoughtfully and as honestly as they can be. One reiviewer who thought the novel terrible and couldn't give it as a gift thought Sagan's ideas on the environment were cursory at best was, I think, completely off base. Sagan hits all the major points of our environmental problems and I think offers excellent solutions for them. Easily demolished? Only if you are a Rush Limbaugh fan who can easily dismiss obvious data. What I notice most about the reviews of this book that find it awful, or drivel, or plain bad is that it isn't that Sagan was short or a bad writer or any real and valid complaint, but rather that they simply disagree with his position on matters not of science. Sagan was an athiest but he was always respectful of religion. He felt his postion strong enough to stand in oposition to the popular one. I think the dismissiveness of the critics betrays their own fears that ideas like God, and religion aren't so strong, aren't so ready to be challenged. My quiestion is if they aren't, then what good are they? If we dismiss with out serious investigation then how strong are our ideas?
on April 28, 2000
I'm a big fan of Carl Sagan. I loved the 'Cosmos' series, I thought 'The Demon Haunted World' was an outstanding treatise on really important subject, and I really dug the movie 'Contact'. I have only respect for his views the role and value of science and rational thought in everyone's daily life. So I looked forward to 'Billions and Billions', his last work before his sad death a couple of years ago.
Well, while much of the book is true to form, in parts I was a little disappointed. For the first time, and maybe exactly because of his own dreadful circumstances, Sagan allows himself to stray from his stock material, - matters scientific and logical, where he's pretty unarguably right - to matters where, to my mind, he isn't - matters moral and political. So his chapters on the crises facing the world, all of which start out nicely enough, start introducing solutions which have a cloying, left wing, aroma to them.
To my reading of it, Sagan's basic thesis is that we (the proles) can't sort out the world's problems by ourselves, so we need a panel of wise men to legislate them away for us. That's a pile of old rope. Frankly, I have yards more confidence in the judgment (collectively) of the "man on the Clapham omnibus" than of any politicians (and I don't think the latter in any meaningful way represents the former), so I don't buy Sagan's argument at all.
But what bugs me is the unspoken intellectual imperialism of it. "Not only are there Wise Men who must make critical decisions for you", implies Sagan, "but they are people like Me." Well, sorry, but as anyone who has done a Bachelor's degree will know, the only people worse equipped than politicians to make judgments on behalf of the rest of us are people who spend their lives hanging out at places like Cornell University.
As a result Sagan starts sounding less like the completely dispassionate scientist and more like your common or garden sci-fi writer - his conceptions of how useful an idea government is aren't far off the loopy ones Arthur C Clark used to trundle out in his potboilers: you know, where, in five hundred years, finally the human race will Get It Right and we'll all live happily ever after.
Call me cynical, but it don't work like that. Given the history of science, a scientist of Sagan's calibre ought to know that.
on April 15, 2000
This was the last book Carl Sagan wrote before he died of cancer. I can still remember hearing on the radio of his passing as I was driving along one dark December night. I remember feeling all the air go out of my lungs & how depressed I was.
In the book Sagan details his fight against cancer as well as a retrospective look back over his magnificent life. The book takes us almost to the very end of his life (the final chapter was written only a few months before he lay on his deathbead). He talks about big numbers, big ideas, big questions and big problems faced by the human race.
Two of the biggest issues he tackles in this book are global warming / environmental issues and nuclear war. These are hardly new topics for Sagan - he has discussed both many times in previous books. However, his insights on these matters are always trenchant, fresh & worth reading.
He discusses at great length how politics play far too great a role in environmental protection issues & how politicians always tend to pick the one scientist out of a million who supports their agenda while ignoring all the other scientists who unite in a chorus of admonishments and warnings re: technology vs. environment issues.
He also repeats his earlier warnings against our complacent attitude towards nuclear weapons in the post Cold War era. His appeals to reason are passionate as he contemplates the thought of someone doing the unthinkable. His points on these issues should cause all of us a moment of pause to think them through.
The one thing I did not care for was Sagan's implicit view that science and religion are mutually exclusive. This is why I did not give the book 5 stars. There are many scientists who believe in God, and there are many who do not. Placing an artificial dichotomy between the two is not only incorrect but is rather silly. The Yale physicist Henry Margeneau, for one, has stated that he has not observed this vast bias towards atheism among scientists. Now, some scientists are anti-religion, no doubt. But there are also multitudes out there such as the legendary Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson who would consider themselves agnostics but would also be pro-religion. Now, if Sagan chooses not to believe in God, that is his business. However, to attempt to compel us to believe that his views are representative of every other scientist on the planet is unwarranted. One would expect such an assumption from lesser minds such as Richard Dawkins, but coming from Sagan it is disappointing.
At any rate, I do not want to end on a negative note. That Sagan did a heroic job bringing science into the mainstream and making it "fun" there can be no doubt. I am quite sure that I am only one of millions of people whom he inspired during his lifetime. In fact, he was one of the first personages who spurred in me a yearning interest in science and for that I am in his debt. Read this books along with his others and you will find yourself in Carl Sagan's debt as well.
on December 6, 1998
I had purchased this book as a Christmas present for a friend of mine who was a Sagan fan and science teacher. Before giving the present to him, I decided to read the book.
I never gave the present. I could not, in good conscience, wish the book on anyone. The first few chapters are interesting, as is the chapter on abortion and Ann Druyan's epilogue. Everything else was not just disappointing, but much worse: logically fallacious.
I never thought I would say that about Dr. Sagan's work. He taught me so much about science, logic and reasoning through his works. His chapters on global warming had the potential to be interesting, but instead of focusing on telling us the facts (as he did in Cosmos, for example,) instead, Carl gives us a synopsis of it that could easily have been gleaned from skimming any newsmagazine. He then presents us with what he thinks the appropriate government response should be. All of his arguments for government action (i.e., government controls, restrictions on freedom, etc.,) can be destroyed easily simply by examining them critically. As Carl would've wanted us to do. I became almost physically sick as I read the book; this wasn't a case of bad editing, or bad writing. The ideas that Carl was supporting simply were incorrect. Wrong, if you will.
This is a horrible legacy for Carl. If you have never read anything by him before, please do not buy this work--instead, I strongly recommend Cosmos, Broca's Brain, or A Demon-Haunted World (my personal favorite--his TRUE legacy.)
on June 3, 1998
Since Dr. Sagan died before he had a chance to bring "Billions and Billions" to fruition, there is a slight lack of unity to the overall volume; but the book still illustrates Sagan's virtues as a writer and as a humanist. The book includes chapters on ozone depletion and global warming and potential solutions, both radical and moderate; observations on Monday night football, of all things, and its usefulness as a release of humanity's competitive and aggressive urges; an analysis of the abortion issue; a chapter of historical analyses of the United States and the Soviet Union, published in both countries simultaneously in the late 1980s; and a scientific attempt to define the parameters of morality. (This latter chapter is the only one with which I have a strong complaint, for an inattentive reader is likely to miss the subtleties of the argument and come away with quite mistaken conclusions on Sagan's intentions.) Let no one say that science or rationality or skepticism are "threats" to a human way of life after reading a humanistic author such as Sagan. Overall, an excellent book.