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.