Inspired by: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
By Sarah O'Sullivan
Sarah O'Sullivan is a 24-year old graduate student at Montclair State University, East Hanover, New Jersey.
Although he has been dead for over a decade, Dr. Carl Sagan was primarily responsible for my scientific awakening as an adult. His TV series, Cosmos, enthralled me. His books have opened my eyes to dreams beyond my imagination—not just thoughts, but ways of thinking. He has inspired me, above all, to ask questions. Children ask so many questions; somehow, as adults, we forget them. But I have been moved anew to wonder about my surroundings, to probe deeper into the things around me, to experience the joy that comes with acquiring new knowledge. If it were not for Dr. Sagan, I probably would not have visited the NASA web page. If it were not for Dr. Sagan, I would not be entering this essay contest.
In Cosmos, he calls us "starstuff contemplating the stars." It cannot help but fill us with awe and exhilaration: we are made of the same materials as the universe! We share the building blocks of DNA with every living thing, but at the molecular level, we are made of the same things as the stars. We are connected to what we see in the sky in the most elementary way. Billions of years ago, organic particles from the Cosmos came together to form what would one day become us. It's wonderful to contemplate.
Dr. Sagan was alive for the very beginnings of the space program. How he would have loved to see the Mars rovers! How thrilled he would have been to see the first pictures of asteroids colliding, and the Cassini spacecraft's view of spring on Titan. In spite of tough economic times and a thin budget, NASA spacecraft are still exploring, still seeking, their eyes seeing for all of us the wonders of the solar system. The legacy lives on. The human needs for wandering and exploration are being met, although not enough people know it. It must feel sometimes as though hardly anyone appreciates your work. The major news networks rarely talk about your discoveries. There are no TV shows like Cosmos to share with the public the joys and magnificence of the space program. The lonely song of space exploration is being lost among all the other noise generated by today's politicians, pundits, and pop stars. This is a great shame, and hints at one of the dangers Dr. Sagan discussed not long ago: the danger of a scientifically illiterate populace.
In his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as A Candle in the Dark, Dr. Sagan wrote, "Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works." This is truer than ever today. Technology is outpacing us. The environment is still being ravaged; the measures taken by the U.S. and other countries have ameliorated matters, but not enough. Nuclear weapons are still a huge part of the arsenals of all the developed worlds, and they are currently being built by countries which may soon use them for war. To be valid citizens, to be able to cast a knowledgeable vote, to know which candidates and which issues are important, we must be scientifically literate. Science is affecting our lives all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. And Dr. Sagan was right: science can serve as "a candle in the dark." It opens our minds to new ideas, increases our ability to learn, and pushes us away from racism, sexism, nationalism (the unhealthy kind, at least), and superstition. All of these things are holding us back as we work towards becoming a global leader in education, business, and democracy. You cannot have a real democracy if the general public—the ones who vote, the ones who are supposed to choose our future leaders—does not know enough about the matters facing our country in the world today. And to do that, we must have a working knowledge of science.
Do not despair, NASA. There will always be U.S. citizens out there rooting for you, following your journeys, hoping one day to be a part of your work. Those of us who are scientifically literate (or those of us hoping to achieve literacy, like myself) will work to spread science, so everyone, especially children, can experience the joys of learning it. Maybe someday soon another person—or a group of people—will arise, who, like Carl Sagan, and like all of you at NASA, have a gift not only for doing science, but for sharing it with others. As Dr. Sagan says in Cosmos, "A still more glorious dawn awaits…"