Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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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.

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Coping with Quarter-Life Crisis: The Importance of “ME time”.

Coffee Break

All too often, we get caught up in the stress of the everyday. Your to-do list keeps getting longer, as the hours for leisure become shorter. You’re spread too thin, and understandably, you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. At this point, every task feels insurmountable.

Here’s the thing—most people would probably tell you to keep your head down and soldier on. That usually works, until you’ve reached your breaking point. When you’re on the verge of a meltdown, soldiering on won’t do the trick. Trust me, you simply won’t have the focus to continue the task at hand. It’ll take you a while to claw your way out of an anxiety attack—and that ‘while’ may just be time that you don’t have.

If you’re like me and most other people, you don’t have the luxury of taking the next few days off to ‘recuperate’—in the spiritual sense, at least. Sick Leaves don’t cover soul maladies—they should, in my humble opinion, but preserving your mental health is hardly your company’s main priority. So instead of ‘nurturing’ or at least tolerating the presence of an impending meltdown, I’d say just prevent its onset.

One practice that has significantly lowered my stress levels in the last few months is this: I always set aside at least 15 minutes of “ME time” everyday. A little peace and quiet may not seem like much, but it’s actually a great way for you to ‘regroup’ in times of immense stress. It also feels incredibly nice to not have to think of anyone else. You know, to put yourself and your needs first, at least once a day.

It doesn’t matter what you do during your “ME time”, as long as you spend it quietly. Whether it’s having a quick cup of joe in the pantry or enjoying a hot bath, the objective is to find time to relax your mind and your body. Look at your “ME time” as a type of sanity break. You know, something that will keep the office meltdowns at bay.

As a general rule, I don’t like bringing work stress into my home life. So back when I still had an office job, I used to spend a lot of time in my car—not driving, just sitting in the dark, ignition turned off, and breathing. I’d close my eyes, and in my mind I was releasing whatever pent-up stress or ill feelings I’d accumulated at work.

I also see my bath time as ‘sacred.’ I love hot baths and long showers—simply because I get to be alone with my thoughts. Most of my ideas for poetry and prose come to me while I’m shampooing my hair or brushing my teeth. If you have more time in your hands, try meditating, praying, grounding, or chanting.

So, there you have it. “ME time” works wonders for me, hopefully, it’ll work for you too.

image: wikipedia.org

Book #6: The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

THE LAST LECTURE

Author: Randy Pausch, former professor of Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction in Carnegie Mellon; The book was written with the help of author and journalist, Jeffrey Zaslow.

Genre: Non-Fiction

First Published: 2008

Status: Read

Pages: 224

Rating: A

“Enlightening and heartbreaking, The Last Lecture is Randy Pausch’s final attempt to leave a lasting legacy—46-years’ worth of life lessons squeezed into one lecture. In this book, Pausch inspires his readers to realize their dreams through living a life of integrity, hard work, gratitude, and fortitude.”

RANDY PAUSCH has made no secret of it—The Last Lecture wasn’t written for commercial purposes or for public consumption, it was written for his kids. The book was based on a 2007 lecture Pausch gave for Carnegie Mellon University. The lecture was called “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. It was a part of a series of lectures where top academics were asked to give ‘hypothetical last lectures’ and to share what was really important to them.

In Pausch’s case, there was nothing hypothetical about this final lecture. It was the last one he’d make in front of his students and colleagues—it was also the finest legacy he could ever leave to his family. The book starts off with Pausch ‘introducing the elephant in the room.’ In his words:

“I have an engineering problem. While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I have only a few months left to live.”

Although pressed for time—time which his wife, Jai, believed he could spend with his family—Pausch insisted on doing the lecture. He believed that this was the best thing he could leave his children, a glimpse of who their father was. According to Pausch: “If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured.”

These straightforward, unflinching admissions set the tone for the rest of the book. Pausch doesn’t ask the reader to feel sorry for him; instead, he does the opposite. He tries to impart optimism to his readers by talking about the joy of living. Through his personal anecdotes, he encourages the reader to set achievable goals and to take pride in these achievements.

As a child, Pausch was a dreamer. There were a lot of things he wanted to do with his life. But what set him apart from other kids was how specific his life goals were. These dreams included: (1) being in zero gravity; (2) playing in the NFL; (3) writing an article for the World Book Encyclopedia; (4) becoming Captain Kirk; (5) winning a number of stuffed animals; and (6) becoming a Disney Imagineer. Out of all these dreams, the only one Pausch didn’t accomplish was to play for the NFL—everything else he got by working hard, working smart, and most importantly, having the right attitude.

Of course, he had a bit of help from his friends and family too. In the book, Pausch talks about winning the “parent lottery”. His parents helped shape his personality by encouraging him to dream but keeping his feet on the ground by teaching him the importance of humility. Throughout the book, he speaks of his parents with admiration and respect, but is also quick to point out the importance of compromise between the parents and the child.

Another important figure in Pausch’s life was his kiddie football coach, Jim Graham. Coach Graham could be hard on the kids, but to Pausch, that was the coach’s way of teaching the children the importance of perseverance and learning the fundamentals. Through the coach, Pausch learned more about giving and taking ‘head fakes’ or indirect learning.

Then there’s Pausch’s immediate family. Now, his children may have been the reason for the lecture, but it was his wife, Jai, who made the lecture possible. Falling in love with Jai changed Pausch. In a way, she softened him by balancing out his strong-willed nature with her own quiet strength and fortitude. Her strength also served as a comfort to Pausch, especially after learning about his terminal illness. In the lecture, Pausch speaks about being confident that his kids will grow up right because they have a strong and loving mother to guide them. The love Pausch felt for Jai is so palpable in this book. Just the way he speaks about her–the undertones of reverence and gratitude–it makes it impossible for anyone not to feel touched, hopeful, and a little heartbroken after reading about their story.

While reading this book, you can also tell right away that Pausch–though not perfect–was actually a really great man. Beyond working to achieve his dreams, he also strived to help others attain theirs. As a professor, Pausch didn’t just teach his students the subject matter, he inspired them to set goals, aim high, work hard, and most importantly, to help each other in achieving their dreams. Now, four years after his death, Pausch continues to inspire millions through this beautiful book.

All in all, I give this book an A. It’s the type of book that will motivate you to do something with your life. It’s honest, heartfelt, and touching.  The only thing that would make this book better is if Pausch and Zaslow expounded on some of the ideas more. Other than that, this book is the perfect read for anyone looking for a bit of guidance.

Favorite Quotes:

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.””

“No job is beneath you.”