Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.
In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,
“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”
He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.
Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.
Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)
Read and enjoy.
About the Book:
Title: Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
Author: Carl Sagan
Genre: Non-Fiction, Compilation, Essays, Science, Philosophy
First Published: 1997 (published posthumously)
On the Earth’s Limited Resources and how we can address “Exponential Population Growth”
“There is a well-documented worldwide correlation between poverty and high birthrates… exponential population growth slows down or stops when grinding poverty disappears.”
In the second chapter of the book, entitled The Persian Chessboard, Sagan discusses the power of exponentials. Apart from explaining how exponentials are used to calculate economic inflation, compound interests of investments, nuclear fission, radioactive decay, and carbon dating, Sagan also talks about the issue of exponential population growth.
He touches on Thomas Malthus’s population growth theory, (the Malthusian Catastrophe), which argues that any increase in the world’s food supply will be eliminated by the subsequent geometrical progression of population growth. Now, the current doubling rate of the world’s population is estimated to be at every 40 years. At this rate, mankind is going through the Earth’s very finite resources at an alarming speed. Sagan believes that the solution to this problem is attaining demographic transition worldwide. In his words,
“It is the urgent long-term interest of the human species that every place on Earth achieves this demographic transition. This is why helping other countries to become self-sufficient is not only elementary human decency, but also in the self-interest of those richer nations able to help. One of the central issues in the world population crisis is poverty.”
“…Because of the power of this exponential increase, dealing with global poverty now will be much cheaper and much more humane, it seems, than whatever solutions will be available to us many decades hence.”
On Man’s Perception of Color and how “All Humans are Black…”
“As different as ‘black and white’ is a conceptual error. Black and white are fundamentally the same thing. The difference is only in the relative amounts of light reflected, not in their color.”
In Chapter Four: The Gaze of God and the Dripping Faucet, Sagan offers a brief discussion of Wave-Particle Duality, or how light is perceived through both waves—with visible light manifesting through “constructive” interference (what light touches) and “destructive” interference (what we see as darkness)—and “a stream of little bullets,” which are called photons.
Now, the gift of our sight or vision, is one that has offered us countless advantages when it comes to ensuring our species’ survival. Through it, our ancestors were able to craft tools, communicate, and ascertain allies from threats. In today’s everyday setting, man is still heavily reliant on this particular sense. However, it also appears to be the core of the massive wedge between men. There is no denying the role played by our sight when it comes to furthering or maintaining the unsavory concept of the basest form of ethnocentrism—racism. As Carl Sagan puts it,
“Ethnocentrism—the idea that our little group, no matter which one it is, is better than any other—and xenophobia—a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ fear of strangers—are deeply built into us. They are by no means peculiarly human; all our monkey and ape cousins behave similarly, as do many other mammals. Those attitudes are at least aided and abetted by short distances over which speed (of sound or light) is possible.”
And yet, as Sagan explains, our very idea of ‘color,’ or skin color in this example, is one that’s greatly skewed by our limited understanding of light in the electromagnetic spectrum. He points out that “every color corresponds to a frequency,” but that visible light is just one aspect of this spectrum. You also have gamma rays, ultraviolet light, x-rays, infrared light, and radio waves to consider. And according to Sagan,
“Only at visible and immediately adjacent frequencies are any significant differences in skin reflectively manifest. People of North European ancestry and people of Central African ancestry are equally black in the ultraviolet and in the infrared, where nearly all organic molecules, not just melanin, absorb light. Over most of the spectrum, all humans are black.”
On How Mankind Can Stand to Learn from the Some of the Humblest Species on Earth
“Our purportedly advanced civilization may be changing the delicate ecological balance that has tortuously evolved over the 4 billion-year period of life on Earth.”
In Part II of Billions and Billions, entitled What are Conservatives Conserving?, Sagan stresses the importance of working together in ensuring the survival of not just our species, but of all life on Earth. In this section’s opening chapter, The World that Came in the Mail, the author reflects on a parcel he had received, which contained a miniature self-sustaining ecosystem. It was a transparent sphere with the number 4210 on its base. In it were algae and maybe six or eight small shrimp. Sagan explains that he didn’t have to feed the shrimp. In fact, all he had to do was store the sphere in a room where temperature levels stayed within the 40- to 85-degree Fahrenheit range.
As he watched the inhabitants coexist and eventually expire, he was struck by how similar our Earth was with this aquarium.
“Like it or not, we humans are bound with our fellows and with the other plants and animals all over the world. Our lives are intertwined.”
Sagan warns his readers about the Earth’s indivisible nature and how the actions of each individual and each nation can affect and disrupt the delicate balance of our ecosystem. It is a lesson that the humblest of animals understand and respect, so why is it a concept that’s so hard for us to grasp, or at the very least, practice? In Sagan’s words,
“It is probably too much to hope that some great Ecosystem keeper in the sky will reach down and put right our environmental abuses. It is up to us. It should not be impossibly difficult. Birds – whose intelligence we tend to malign – know not to foul the nest. Shrimps with brains the size of lint particles know it. Algae know it. One-celled microorganisms know it. It’s time for us to know it too.”
On the Razor-Sharp and Double-Edged Sword that We Call Technology
“The twentieth century will be remembered for three broad innovations: unprecedented means to save, prolong, and enhance life; unprecedented means to destroy life, including for the first time putting our global civilization at risk; and unprecedented insights into the nature of ourselves and the Universe. All three of these developments have been brought forth by science and technology, a sword with two razor-sharp edges.”
Our ape-like ancestors began their bipedal journey in Africa about six million years ago. Two million years ago, their descendants, the modern human forerunners called the Homo ergaster, began using tools for hunting down large prey. About 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, the Homo sapiens began their journey out of Africa and started settling down in communities. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and mankind’s pursuit for survival has been replaced by the pursuit of convenience and a curiosity for and the means (albeit limited) to explore the Cosmos.
Technology has made life so much easier for our species. For many of the residents of the developed and developing countries around the globe, it is seldom a matter of ticking off all the boxes in a list of basic needs (food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, healthcare, and education), and more an issue of maintaining and even improving a certain lifestyle.
While it’s true that the list of underdeveloped countries greatly outnumber their ‘developed’ counterparts, for the privileged few, the fight for survival just doesn’t seem as vital and imminent as it was, and is, for our ancestors and the rest of the nations still struggling to address the basic living requirements of their constituents. But the latter, is of course, for another discussion.
Billions and Billions talks of a danger that was brought on by men and affects all of mankind. It is the danger brought on by technology.
“Our civilization runs by burning the remains of humble creatures who inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years, before the first humans came on the scene. Like some ghastly cannibal cult, we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives.”
In Chapter Eleven: The Warming of the World, Carl Sagan discusses man’s reliance on fossil fuels, (petroleum, natural gas, and coal), and the problems this reliance poses. See, right now, fossil fuels are our primary source of energy. We use them to power our electricity plants, to heat our homes, to fuel our automobiles and airplanes, and to make a myriad of items that we use every day, like plastic, medicine, synthetic fabrics, and so on and so forth. But fossil fuels present two distinct problems.
The first one is that they’re non-renewable. As the worldwide population grows (exponentially), mankind’s demand for fossil fuel also increases significantly. But because it takes millions of years for the Earth to come up with fossil fuel reserves, scarcity becomes a very real issue. As with other commodities, the rarer the item is the higher its value becomes—hence petroleum’s nickname, which is liquid gold. Enter, the expensive and bloody oil wars.
Now, the second problem with fossil fuels is that burning them cause serious damage to the environment. You see, fossil fuel combustion spurs a chemical reaction that produces carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide, like water vapor, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide, is a type of greenhouse gas or infrared absorbing gas. Now, contrary to popular belief, greenhouse gases (GHG) aren’t necessarily bad. After all, the Earth does need greenhouse gases to absorb and reflect the sun’s heat. Without these gases, the Earth’s average surface temperature could go down to -20 degrees Celsius below freezing level.
However, the problem lies with the amount of greenhouse gases or infrared absorbing gases that we already have in the atmosphere. As Sagan explains,
“As there get to be more and more humans on earth, and as our technological powers grow still greater, we are pumping more and more infrared absorbing gases into the atmosphere. There are natural mechanisms that take these gases out of the air, but we are producing them at such a rate that we are overwhelming the removal mechanisms.”
So, essentially, the thick blanket of greenhouse gases is causing the Earth’s average temperature to rise beyond what’s considered safe. This is what we call global warming or climate change. And as we all know, global warming brings with it a world of problems that could very well help wipe out life on Earth. We’re talking unpredictable and destructive weather, various flora and fauna extinction, and rising sea levels that could swallow entire islands and waterfront towns and cities.
“In any case, it’s pretty clear that the faster the climate is changing, the more difficult it is for whatever homeostatic systems there are to catch up and stabilize.”
On How the World Must Come Together in the Fight against “the Common Enemy”
“If only, said the American President to the Soviet General Secretary, extraterrestrials were about to invade—then our two countries could unite against the common enemy.”
In 1988, Carl Sagan received two very important invitations.
The first was to write a piece on the relationship between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. The article, entitled “The Common Enemy” was published more or less at the same time in two of those countries’ most popular publications—Parade and Ogonyok magazines. In the article, Sagan spoke about how both nations were faced with an even more formidable enemy than each other. It is an invisible enemy created by man, and one with a power to wipe out all men from the face of the Earth.
“We are at risk. We do not need alien invaders. We have all by ourselves generated sufficient dangers. But they are unseen dangers, seemingly far removed from everyday life, requiring careful thought to understand, and involving transparent gases, invisible radiation, nuclear weapons that no one has actually witnessed in use—not a foreign army intent on plunder, slavery, rape, and murder. Our common enemies are harder to personify, more difficult to hate than Shahanshah, a Khan, or a Führer. And joining forces against these new enemies requires us to make courageous efforts at self-knowledge, because we ourselves – all the nations on Earth, but especially the United States and the Soviet Union – bear responsibility for the perils we now face.”
Now, the second invitation that Sagan received that year was to speak at the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. In this instance, as well, Sagan took the opportunity to address the possibility of worldwide destruction brought on by the expensive and irrational nuclear weapons race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Today, the United States and the Soviet Union have booby-trapped our planet with almost 60,000 nuclear weapons. Sixty thousand nuclear weapons! Even a small fraction of the strategic arsenals could without question annihilate the two contending superpowers, probably destroy the global civilization, and possibly render the human species extinct. No nation, no man should have such power. We distribute these instruments of apocalypse over our fragile world, and justify it on the grounds that it has made us safe. We have made a fool’s bargain.”
We have made a fool’s bargain. Sagan had asserted multiple times in his speech—and having read both pieces, this reader is inclined to agree. The beauty of Sagan’s writings is that it doesn’t matter if you’re reading these works 21 years or 29 years too late. While history’s wheels may have taken us some ways away from the nuclear arms race—at the very least, we’ve seen the dissolution of the Soviet Union—the fact remains the same that nations today remain preoccupied with battling each other when a bigger enemy is afoot. As Sagan puts it,
“Our challenge is to reconcile, not after the carnage and the mass murder, but instead of the carnage and the mass murder. It is time to fly into one another’s arms. It is time to act.”
On Science and Religion Working Hand-in-Hand in Preserving God’s Creation
“We have become predators on the biosphere—full of arrogant entitlement, always taking and never giving back. And so, we are now a danger to ourselves and the other beings with whom we share the planet.”
By all reports, Carl Sagan was not a religious man. He was, however, profoundly aware of the importance that religion played in influencing its believers. In Chapter Thirteen: Religion and Science: An Alliance, he speaks of how philosophy, science, and religion have all contributed to furthering the idea that man had dominion over the environment and all its lifeforms. Religious texts, being open to interpretation and consequently misinterpretation, has often been believed to affirm man’s place as master of the Earth. But Sagan asserts that there is another lesson to be learned from these texts, and that is that we are all stewards of God’s creation.
“Nevertheless, there is a clear religious counterpoint: The natural world is a creation of God, put here for purposes separate from the glorification of “Man” and deserving, therefore, of respect and care in its own right, and not just because of its utility for us.”
He also says that despite the differences in the beliefs held by the scientific and religious communities, these groups have a very good reason to come together.
“Science and religion may differ about how the Earth was made, but we can agree that protecting it merits our profound attention and loving care.”
On Defeating the Common Enemy
“We’ve benefitted from our global civilization; can’t we modify our behavior slightly to preserve it?”
Beyond bringing the reader’s attention to the dangers created and faced by mankind, in Billions and Billions, Sagan also offers possible steps we can undertake to help defeat mankind’s common enemy.
The Role of the People and the Government
“We created a range of new evils: hard to see, hard to understand, problems that cannot be readily cured – certainly not without challenging those already in power.”
The first solution involves getting political. Sagan points out that due to the sheer magnitude of our environmental problems, to attain change, we’re going to have to push our policymakers to commit to long-term solutions that will go beyond their terms in office. This is easier said than done. After all, many of the world’s policymakers are inclined to think short-term and to fight only for programs that can benefit them while they’re in power. So, how do we get our politicians to think long-term?
Well, as history has taught us again and again through various movements and demonstrations, there is strength to be found in numbers. What we need, more than ever, is to promote awareness—to have what Sagan calls a ‘scientifically literate citizenry.’ We need to push for education so that the people can discover for themselves the urgency needed in addressing the multitude of our environmental issues. When we all work together towards the same goal, we have a much bigger chance of being listened to by those in power.
The Search for a More Sustainable and Environmentally Friendly Source of Energy
As we discussed earlier, fossil fuel combustion isn’t sustainable in the long run. It also brings with it a surfeit of environmental ills. Now, while increasing the efficiency with which we procure and use fossil fuels is a good place to start, ultimately this type of change is not going to be enough of a solution in the long run.
The good news is that there are alternatives to fossil fuel. This includes using wind turbines and biomass conversion to generate electricity, setting up more hydroelectric power plants, and of course, investing in solar energy. To a certain extent, the Earth is capable of healing itself, but this is a process that will take time and our participation. When it comes to addressing the increasing temperatures caused by the greenhouse effect, Sagan offers one simple solution:
“The only method of cooling down the greenhouse effect which seems both safe and reliable is to plant trees.”
“Our ancestors came from trees, and we have a natural affinity for them. It is perfectly appropriate for us to plant more.”
On the Beauty of Life and the Goodness of Man: Sagan’s Final Chapter
“Six times now have I looked Death in the face. And six times Death has averted his gaze and let me pass. Eventually, of course, Death will claim me – as he does each of us. It’s only a question of when. And how.”
In October of 1996, Carl Sagan wrote the final chapter of Billions and Billions. He wrote it a couple of months before his passing. In it, he talked about how his wife and collaborator, the brilliant writer and producer Ann Druyan, discovered a bruise on his arm that refused to fade. At her urging, he decided to see a doctor and undergo blood tests. The shocking and devastating diagnosis was myelodysplasia or myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)—a group of cancers that affected his bone marrow’s blood cell production.
Now, in detailing his struggles against the disease, Sagan also talked so poignantly about the beauty of life and the generosity and goodness of man. These are realizations best relayed through Sagan’s own sage words.
“The world is exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
“We all have a tendency to succumb to a state of despair about the destructiveness and shortsightedness of the human species. I’ve certainly done my share (and on grounds I still consider well-based). But one of the discoveries of my illness is the extraordinary community of goodness to which people in my situation owe their lives.”
“When too much cynicism threatens to engulf us, it is buoying to remember how pervasive goodness is.”
***Note: the chapter is followed by a moving and beautifully written Epilogue by Ann Druyan. In it, she talks about how their love story unfolded. She gives us a glimpse of a lifelong love that even death could not touch.
On a personal note…
Reading Billions and Billions was a bit of a challenge for me. Science has always been one of my weak points—along with math and history. It was a slow burn for me. While I loved learning about exponentials, there wasn’t much of an emotional connection at the first part of the book. By Part II, I was hooked. Sagan’s views on the role of man within the environment was not only enlightening, it was also very humbling.
But what really hit home was the book’s last chapter. While reading about how Sagan downed 72 chemo pills to zero out his immune system in preparation for his stem cell transplant, I kept remembering the preparation my father underwent for his own transplant five years ago. Unlike Sagan, my father was given high-dose chemotherapy via an IV line near his clavicle. The end goal is the same—survival. But the process is made different by the continued advancement of technology.
Technology is an invaluable thing. It gives man the power to save and improve lives. That is true. But I also believe what Sagan wrote, which is that:
“We cannot safely continue mindless growth in technology, and wholesale negligence about the consequences of that technology. It is well within our power to guide technology, to direct it to the benefit of everyone on Earth.”
We are all so lucky to be reaping the benefits of technology and at the same time, to still have the chance and the power to help correct the mistakes we’ve made and are making in the pursuit of technological advancement. The time to act is now. I feel the urgency, Mr. Sagan. I see it clearly now.
On another, sadder note:
The same month I had picked up and started reading Billions and Billions, we received news about a family friend’s untimely passing. My parents and I met him and his lovely wife in Singapore where my father is undergoing treatment for another type of blood cancer. Like Sagan, he too had succumbed to MDS. I don’t know why I’m writing this, but it seems relevant somehow. I wish that beyond treatment, there was a cure for all cancers.