More than two decades after his untimely passing, Carl Sagan's life and work continue to resonate. The famous documentary series Cosmos, which helped to make him the best-known scientist of his time, was revised and updated just a couple of years ago, introducing him to a new generation that might not even have been born when he passed away. Yet in reading Billions & Billions, a posthumously published collection of his essays from 1997 which I encountered earlier this year, I found myself struck by just how much this particular set of his work remains surprisingly relevant today.
Billions & Billions collects nearly twenty of the late scientist's essays into three separate but distinct sections. The first section features six essays that cover material familiar to anyone who has read virtually any of Sagan's works before as they look at our on universe and humanities place within it. It makes for interesting reading as Sagan, more than fifteen years after Cosmos aired, goes about revisiting some of the same topics and ideas (such as dealing with the phrase that gives the book its title and how he actually never said it). The last essay of this opening section sees him looking ahead to further exploration of our solar system with probes and discoveries which have only come to pass in the years after his death, making it a particularly insightful piece.
The second section deals with a set of issues that are even more hotly debated now than it was even at the end of Sagan's life: the environment and the reality/threat of climate change. This section of the book should be required reading and doubly so for those whom at least one of the essays is aimed at: the doubters and deniers who only seem to have grown more powerful and vocal in the years since. In this set of seven powerful and accessible essays, Sagan explores how we got to where we were in the mid-1990s, potential solutions to these crises, and expresses (as he often did) his optimism in our ability to use our vast intelligence to make sure things will indeed be better. Reading these essays in 2017, I found myself as a reader wishing that his thoughts had been heeded already and hope, as he would have done, that there may still be time to do so.
It is the last section and the final six essays presented within that Sagan is at his most insightful. His pieces on the peril of massive defense spending at the expense of other causes and the threat of nuclear war might once upon a time have been deemed dated at best and unfounded at worst yet recent months have shown the importance of the arguments that Sagan made so succinctly in these essays already decades old. The essay that he co-wrote with his wife Ann Druyan on the ongoing abortion debate (originally published in Parade magazine) is one of Sagan's best-known essays and re-reading it within this volumes convinces me that it remains perhaps the single most sensible and thoughtful pieces ever written on this decisive issue, making it perhaps the standout piece from the collection.
Last but not least is Sagan, towards the end of his own time on this Earth, looking at the illness that would ultimately claim his life in late 1996. What one might expect to be a gloomy, depressing piece is instead written with a poignancy that shows once again that this most famous of scientists was capable of having a heart and that meeting the end does mean giving into despair but in being grateful for those around us. It is, along with Dryuan's own epilogue, a surprisingly uplifting and moving conclusion and not what one might have expected from a man who would leave this world all too early.
Billions & Billions stands as both a testament to and from the most remarkable mind of Carl Sagan. Sadly virtually all of the topics covered in the numerous essays remain all too relevant twenty years after the collection was first released, leaving one to wonder what Sagan would make of the rise of both Radical Islamic terrorism and the likes of political movements such as Brexit or the populism that led to the rise of Donald Trump as America's president. Yet it is Sagan's hope, apparent throughout so much of what he wrote both here and elsewhere, that we as human beings can overcome our collective demons as a species and rise up to be something better with science and logic acting as a light in the darkness that acts as a beacon even now.
It is that belief, as much as the words he wrote down, that remains Sagan's legacy and one that the collection highlights beautifully.