Archives For Carl Sagan

Today is the 25th anniversary of the terrorist bombing of PAN AM #103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Elizabeth "Liz" Marek

Elizabeth “Liz” Marek

My friend Elizabeth Marek, Liz, was on that plane. She was killed along with 270 other people that evening when a bomb planted onboard the plane exploded before it crashed into a small Scottish town. Her sudden death left an enormous hole in the lives of my family. She was smart, quick-witted, and loved film and theatre. Her most outstanding quality was her laughter. There are not enough synonyms to describe Liz’s laughter: she chuckled, she chortled, she guffawed, she cackled, she giggled,she tittered, she sniggered, she snickered. She would make us roar/hoot/howl with laughter, crack up, and roll on the floor, Liz supplied the laugh-track of our youth.

That laugh track came to a sudden and uprupt end four days before Christmas. The priest who eulogized her spoke about the “not so silent night” of December 21st, 1988, the night our world became a little quieter.

My world also became a great deal smaller. Suddenly, I knew someone who had been killed by terrorist for a reason that was not clear. Some ideologue had chosen the plane my friend was on to make a statement, to get revenge, or possibly to demonstrate power. Regardless, the bombing connected me and my family to terrorism in a personal way.

Much speculation has been given to level on connection each person has to another in the world. One theory postulated by Frigyes Karinthy is that there are six degrees of separation that separate any two people in the world. This theory suggests that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. The idea was central to a 1990 play by American playwright John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation where one of the characters states:

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.

The accuracy of this theory has been tested using multiple social media platforms, and speculations have been made that there are even fewer than six degrees. In 2011, Facebook’s data team, using 721 million users with 69 billion friendships, averaged the distance of 4.74 between users. With this one social network platform, 1.19 billion monthly users out of a world population of 7.2 billion (as of September 30, 2013) are connected.

Sadly, my connections to other cataclysmic events have also continued. I live less than a five minute drive from Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, site of last year’s (2012) deadly school shooting. My family knew some of the victims there as well. The press coverage touched us all in our respective homes across the United States. We watched film footage of the famous flagpole in the center of town, the familiar Edmond Town Hall, and interviews with people we knew. We again felt the world become even smaller as our connections expanded.

These two horrific incidents are not the only ways that my family and I can measure connections with others in the world, but they illustrate how interconnected we are on our small blue planet in the larger universe. As 2013 comes to a close, the levels of human connection remind me of what author and scientist Carl Sagan had to say about humanity on Earth in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam……To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

On this 25th anniversary of the bombing of PAN AM#103, I imagine that we are more connected to each other than ever before. I know that Liz would agree that we should deal more kindly with one another.

I love books.

While that is not the most eloquent statement about reading, the three word sentence communicates my desire to spend time with the writings of another.

In contrast to my simple declaration, there are are a number of very eloquent statements about the importance of books.  On my e-mail correspondence, I have a quote from the Victorian Scottish born essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

 “All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been; it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”

I enjoy sharing that quote and two other facts about Thomas Carlyle:


Thomas Carlyle

1. He invented the word Eleutheromania: A mania or frantic zeal for freedom. If I were to use this word in a sentence, I would write, “At the conclusion of every school year, I suffer a serious case of Eleutheromania.”

2. He and his wife were very unhappy. They were so unhappy that the author Samuel Butler said of their marriage: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

I also have a favorite funny quote about reading books. This quote is by the brilliant comedian Groucho Marx (1890-1977) and is spelled out in big gold letters on one of my book bags:


Groucho Marx

”Outside a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

I get a number of people who look at my bag from a distance, I see their lips move as they read the joke aloud…and then I see them smile when they understand. Groucho’s humor is timeless.


Carl Sagan

By far the most eloquent comment I have ever read about reading books, however, comes from Carl Sagan (1934-1996).  Sagan was was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author who relentless promoted science. His brilliant TV series in the 1980s Cosmos received critical acclaim and gave over a reported 500 million viewers a new perspective on the size and scope of the universe and the relative size of planet Earth in comparison.  The 11th episode was titled “The Persistence of Memory” and in this episode Sagan stated the following:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

A book reaches across the millennia. An author is in your head speaking to you. Books bind people together.

Astonishing indeed, and reason enough to say, “I love books.”