Monday, November 9, 2009

Happy Birthday Carl!

Today is Carl Sagan's 75th birthday. May his spirit live on. A real world Spock, Carl Sagan represents so much to anyone lucky enough to catch even a little of his infectious enthusiasm. My fascination with Carl did not begin, as it should have, when I watched Cosmos in middle-school earth science class, but rather when I spent a year of weekends in Ithaca, NY talking to people that had lived around him and knew the man. His existence like the existence of so many bright stars shined through the smiles of people's faces when you asked about him. He is legend for his passion. Inspiring countless scientists to pursue their own passion for critical thinking and skepticism while balancing these things with a sense of wonder and fantastic speculation. Dragons of Eden was a transformative book for me having the same kind of effect as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha. Recommended to me by one of my first scientific mentors this walk through the human mind was unparalleled for me in clarity and intrigue. Attempting to explain and rationalize the seemingly impenetrable world of emotions by suggesting biochemical origins and charting out evolutionary pathways the brain's systems may have arisen through brought a sense of possibility. Thinking it possible that someday humans might understand their own physico-chemical make up well enough to predict and prevent suffering made it seem worth pursuing science as a life's goal.

For me his reach went further than Ithaca, eventually following me to Fort Collins, Colorado. Here in my second year of graduate school I was lucky enough to meet and discuss some big ideas in biology with Lynn Marguilis, once married to Carl. She was visiting as a Monfort Scholar and gave two lectures, one on the Gaia Theory and one on the current state of endosymbiont thought. The most striking of the information presented there still echos in my memories. She talked about green worms that had actually incorporated photosynthsizing algae under their skin to provide food for themselves in-house! The first inklings of a plant-animal hybrid. After her second lecture she gave an extra discussion session which only a handful opted to attend. Here we were able to discuss the rise of the eukaryotes for hours almost one on one. While we talked I was tempted to ask her about Carl but kept the conversation centered on science. As the first person to really communicate broadly the endosymbiont theory she and I speculated on the origins of histones and their role in keeping distinctions between the eukaryotes and their helpful passengers - the mitochondria and the chloroplasts. The smile she had on her face as she let her biological wisdom flow into open ears came from herself, yes, but I could not help but think Carl's spirit and the synergistic conversations they must have had. Their son Dorian Sagan continues in his father's path telling the world about amazing science as it happens. If you have not experienced Carl please let him speak for himself.

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