Dr. Fred Bortz

Billions and Billions: Thoughts of Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

by Carl Sagan

(Random House, 1997)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Sagan, Facing Death, Confronts Life in Final Book
by Fred Bortz

In a collection of previously published essays, updated and supplemented with new material, astronomer Carl Sagan, best known for his book and television series Cosmos, turns his gaze towards life on this fragile planet Earth. Addressing issues as profound as the origin and fate of the universe, and as seemingly mundane as why men like Monday Night Football (more serious when its echoes are heard in the international arms race), Sagan's science-based prose is clear, eloquent, and persuasive.

Sagan enunciates the central question of this book in the text of a speech delivered at Gettysburg on July 3, 1988, the 125th anniversary of the great Civil War battle there. He asks "whether the fundamental unit of [human] identification will expand to embrace the planet and the species, or whether we will destroy ourselves first. I'm afraid it's going to be very close." Though the Cold War has since ended, Sagan insists in an update to that address "that nuclear weapons remain our greatest danger--even though substantial, even stunning, improvements in human safety have transpired. . . . It could all change overnight."

Elsewhere, Sagan notes that ominous changes to the planet have recently occurred overnight--not literally, but in a geologic wink of the eye. In our million years of existence as a species and our first several thousand years of civilization, human activities impacted the environment only locally. Twentieth-century technology changed that. Even technologies developed with benign intent, such as freon-based refrigeration, automotive engines, and electric power plants, now threaten global catastrophe.

In a remarkable sequence of seven essays collected under the section heading "What are Conservatives Conserving?", Sagan discusses the dual threats of depleted stratospheric ozone and increased amounts of so-called "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere. He contrasts the rapid and environment-saving international response to the Antarctic "ozone hole" to the possibly devastating delays, driven by economic and political factors, in world reaction to danger of global warming.

"We have become predators on the biosphere--full of arrogant entitlement, always taking and never giving back," he writes in the concluding chapter of that section. "There is plenty of blame to share. . . . Many [scientists] didn't even bother to think about the long term consequences of our inventions. . . . In too many cases we have lacked a moral compass. . . .The religious tribe has also played a central role. Western sects held that just as we must submit to God, so the rest of Nature must submit to us."

Yet the situation is not hopeless. Both science and religion have changed, Sagan notes, purifying one another from superstition and false absolutes. "Nowhere is this more clear than in the current environmental crisis. . . . (T)here's no way out of it without understanding the dangers and their mechanisms, and without a deep devotion to the long-term well-being of our species and our planet--that is, pretty closely, without the central involvement of both science and religion."

Did his impending death make scientist Sagan a religious man? No, but neither did it affect the respect he held for those who sought truth through religion. The author's widow, Ann Druyan, describes Sagan's death in her epilogue: "For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven from turning away from the reality of the situation, Carl was unflinching." So should we be, says this book, whether we view life through the lens of science or religion. The survival of our species on this delicately balanced planet may depend on it.

Fred Bortz is physicist and freelance writer. His interview-based To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science (Franklin Watts, 1997) profiles a distinguished group of living U.S. scientists for readers age 12-up.