Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Whenever he spoke on TV or at an event, an audience member would beg Carl Sagan just to say it, please! But his use of the phrase ‘Billions and billions’ was a misquotation, he insists early on in this collection of essays and articles. Ever the scientist, he’s sure he would never say something so vague or unspecific (what does it even mean? Four billion? Four hundred billion?). But like many other famous misquotations before him – ‘Play it again, Sam’; ‘Elementary my dear Watson’; ‘You dirty rat’ – it stuck. Probably because when he did use the word (in a more accurate context, of course) he made an effort to pronounce it with an “explosive” ‘b’, he says, so as not to confuse it with its poorer cousin, millions.

There’s an old joke, Sagan tells us, in which a lecturer explains that the sun is predicted to expand and consume the earth in around five billion years. A nervous audience member raises their hand and asks, ‘Excuse me, did you say the sun will burn up the earth in five billion years?’

‘More or less,’ replies the lecturer.

Phew,’ the audience member sighs with relief. ‘I thought for a minute you said five million years.’

Like it’d make any difference to us.

The content of this book is vast – it covers everything from climate change, to the nuclear arms race, abortion and finally Sagan’s own encounter with painful death as a result of a rare blood disease; myelodysplasia. His final essay is written from his hospital bed, followed by a heartbreaking, posthumous epilogue written by his wife that set my bottom lip trembling.

Each chapter could be read on its own and provides great conversation starters – but I relished (and therefore recommend) reading this cover to cover, especially if you’re new to Carl Sagan’s writing, as I was. It felt like an opportunity to get to know one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century after which his death at the end, while expected, arrived like a bit of a sucker punch. But it’s inspiring to think that his words and ideas are enduringly relevant and inspiring today as they were in the 80s and 90s, and will continue to be so far into the future. Possibly even when the Voyager Golden Record a spectacular project in which he was closely involved – is hopefully discovered by extra-terrestrial life some time in the next billion years.

Lying by Sam Harris

discoodoni by Flickr

Is it ever okay to lie? Even those tiny white lies we’ve all told at some point (and probably tell every other day). No, your bum doesn’t look big in that. Sorry, I can’t make it, I have something else on that night. Thanks, I love it; I’ve always wanted one these…

What about with Nazis knocking at the door and Anne Frank in the basement?

This is the premise of author (The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape) and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ recent e-book titled simply, Lying. His answer is given loud and clear: No, it’s not okay.

Harris first came to this conclusion after attending a Stanford seminar in which the lecturer (Ronald A. Howard) asked the very same question of his students. The result was an epiphany for Sam Harris – the seminar affected him, he said, “in ways that college courses seldom do: It made me a better person.”

Of course, the bold statement that even lies to protect another’s feelings are wrong requires some disclaimer – truthful intent versus absolute truth being an important one. As for the infamous Do I look fat in this? If you are sure that there is, in fact, a subtext to the question, Harris says, and the questioner is really asking for assurance that you love the asker, then it is not untruthful to answer in the affirmative. But don’t take that as the easy way out if the truth is that the person is, in fact, fat. A more truthful answer might be, ‘I love you no matter how you look.’ But, if the questioner really is overweight, you are certainly not doing them or their future health prospects any favours by giving them false assurance – you are, more likely, protecting yourself from an awkward or confrontational situation. It is, in effect, a cowardly way out.

This is a short book (58 pages including notes and acknowledgements), so I won’t go into its content too deeply as it has already been presented so clearly and succinctly by Harris himself. Simply put, Lying is a thought-provoking read and a great conversation starter well worth its $3 asking price.

It’s easy enough to say ‘thou shalt not lie’, or ‘white lies are okay’, but have you really thought about the moral implications of your words and actions? This is your chance.