Category Archives: Science

Happy Carl Sagan Day 2013

There are so many videos of Carl Sagan’s inspirational and life-changing narration about the Pale Blue Dot. Here are two of my favorites.

The first is a recently released crowd-sourced video from the skeptic and nonbelieving community. Carl Sagan certainly has a way to bring people from all walks of life together, and that makes me so happy.

The second is a breathtakingly beautiful production from the Sagan Series.

My Secular Friends, Be Awesome Anyway

vastness

I am an Atheist, and this is who I love …

Post #1 for SSA’s Blogathon! Consider offering a small donation to help empower secular students and provide safe places for secular students in schools around the country!

I *love* a lot of people, some famous and some not. But I think the questioner is asking me to narrow down a list of people that are above and beyond even a high standard of awesomeness, and have me explain why. Here we go.

As you might expect, Carl Sagan has always been one of my favorite people. Not only a great scientist, but an excellent communicator of science to the public. Not only a great communicator of science, but a dreamer who cared about the political and social realities of our time and offered a vision about the future transcended our present location in time and space. At a time when the Cold War seemed far from over, he condemned the “obscene” number of active nuclear weapons on Earth and framed it in the context of existential risk and survival in the vast Cosmos. He talked passionately about the need to protect our fragile environment from the dangers of climate change. He warned us against the costs of religious or political divisions. And he directly addressed a lot of social issues, like the prohibition of marijuana. He died in 1996, convinced that we are not alone in the Universe.

The next person on this very short list is Bayard Rustin. He was a civil rights activist, a socialist, a Quaker, and a gay rights advocate. He agreed with MLK and Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, and he worked to organize the 1947 Freedom Ride and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He traveled to California and worked to protect property rights of Japanese Americans during WWII internment. Although he identified as a member of the Communist Party during his early life, he eventually became disillusioned with the movement.

copy of bayard rustin

It wasn’t his communist history that got him in trouble as much as his open homosexuality. His political opponents, many part of the more conservative parts of the Civil Rights movement, labeled him as a pervert and a corrupting influence, and many historians say that his legacy suffered as a result. It’s a shame that he’s not more well-known these days.

There’s a great documentary about Rustin if you want to learn more.

What Are You Thirsty For? This is What I’m Thirsty For

There was a time at the UChicago campus when the InterVarsity Christians set up a tent outside and politely asked people, “What Are You Thirsty For?” as part of a larger national evangelism campaign. I think it was a very sincere effort to spark conversation about what people wanted in life, and how it connected to Christianity.

Well, I wasn’t asked, and who knows what I would have said, but I’m going to try to answer anyways.

This is what I’m thirsty for.

-I’m thirsty for a world of humanism, a world where old, narrow allegiances and ideologies give way to an appreciation of the well-being of all forms of sentient life and a true effort to minimize suffering, paying special attention to the poor, the disadvantaged, the outcasted, and our animal cousins.

-I’m thirsty for a world where people will learn to understand the benefits of thinking skeptically and the dangers of not recognizing their cognitive biases, a world where science, like a candle illuminating the dark, occupies its rightful place in the public discourse.

-I’m thirsty for a world where traditional and oppressive forms of morality that restrict ordinary human actions or identities, especially sexuality and gender, be discarded in favor of a more liberal system that affirms the true freedom and equality of all people.

-I’m thirsty for a world where real practical solutions, built from the technological intelligence of humankind, work to improve the quality and length of life, instead of a world that draws false hope from ancient fables that talk about a afterlife that we know not of.

-I’m thirsty for an ethical system that is reasonable and proportional to the welfare of people and the severity of moral transgressions, a system that rejects extreme and eternal forms of cruelty, rejects moral justification of actions based on supposed divine commands, and rejects the extreme belief that human beings are depraved and therefore need to feel guilty and repentant about every little imperfection that they have.

-I’m thirsty for a culture where disbelief, dissent, and skepticism is respected as a good, rather than discouraged or blamed as the workings of a supernatural demon.

-I’m thirsty for true inspiration instead of unfounded hopes, true inspiration that comes from seeing people of all religious backgrounds who do great and brave things, or from understanding the majesty of this enormous natural universe where we are floating on a speck of dust revolving around a random star in a random galaxy out of hundreds of billions. It is this cosmic view of life that I am also thirsty for an end to the conceited worldview that manifests itself in fights over politics, land, and religion.

-And finally, I’m thirsty for learning and growing, and for taking the risk all the time of thinking for myself, rather than resigning myself to an unalterable theistic authority that supposedly rules over us all.

That’s what I’m thirsty for.

Humanists, what are YOU thirsty for?

One Life: An Atheist Appeal to Make Your Life Extraordinary

Yes. This is the only life you’ll ever have. Listen to this message, and enjoy and cherish your wonderful existence in the Cosmos, which is “all that is or ever was or ever will be”.

Where are you from?

descendent

We are the Universe

What’s better than a bunch of individual videos narrated by Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan? One epic video with all three of them. Check it out:

Inspiration Is a Privilege

It was not so long ago at the University of Chicago that the evangelical Christians from the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the atheists from the Secular Alliance sat down to host a joint Q&A event. The audience members got to ask questions of the panelists. Apart from some super-insensitive rhetoric from the other side (something along the lines of defending the idea that “secularism is responsible for gas chambers” because “secularism has no account of human dignity”) and the friendly sparring over trite theological/philosophical points like Pascal’s Wager and the Euthyphro Dilemma, nothing stood out for me from the discussion besides a very intriguing question.

Earthrise

A previous audience member had asked what gave atheists hope. It’s a very common question, and our eloquent panelists, Lauren Daurizio and Brian Green, did an excellent job of explaining how much awesomeness there is out there to be discovered, how enjoyment in everyday things and optimism in scientific progress are wonderful attitudes to hold. And they’re absolutely right. As I hope this blog and the actions/words of many others around the world show, we are incredibly lucky to be alive and to enjoy this wonderful, but finite journey called life–all in the not-quite-middle of this magnificent Universe. Let’s keep doing that!

Then, an audience member (I don’t remember if it was the same person) asked if this answer would be valid for people in dire situations, like people living in desperate poverty in some developing country. This question is what I’m going to answer here.

The answer, of course, is no. Many of the positive thoughts and feelings we take for granted in our lived contexts aren’t available or aren’t possible for others. And for many reasons:

1) Many people we tell to “enjoy science” and to “reflect upon the midnight sky” aren’t in the position to do so. Watching Cosmos is not going put food in front of hungry kids; it’s not going to rebuild the livelihoods of the victims of sex trafficking, or stop the next devastating natural disaster.

2) Many people don’t have the luxury of understanding the world as we do. Science and humanism are not wrong, but many people don’t grow up having the tools to understand the power of inspirational freethought. By the pure lottery of birth, we are put into distinct cultures, times, and societies that have varying degrees of educational opportunity and popular appreciation for modern science.

3) Many people simply have brains that can’t. According to NAMI, one in seventeen people live with a serious mental disorder. The brain, while amazing in its complexity and function, is just a collection of cells that can wreck havoc on people’s lives. This is why I absolutely cannot stand it when people say that suicide and depression is always the victim’s fault/responsibility. What they’re really doing is blaming people for a bunch of neurons firing in some unbelievably complicated way that nobody wants. Mental illnesses aren’t self-made, fabricated wounds for the mentally weak (whatever that means); they’re real wounds, and should be treated as such.

What does this all mean? It doesn’t mean that you should stop reading this blog or unsubscribe from the Carl Sagan series on Youtube. It doesn’t mean that being inspired by everyday activism, kindness, and generosity isn’t amazing in itself. It doesn’t mean that reposting “I fucking love science” memes or reveling about the next Mars Rover mission is a waste of time. I firmly believe that popular science and spiritual contemplation (in the most secular sense) are incredibly valuable, and can be appreciated by people even with few means.

What I really want to say is that we should have a sense of humility and an acknowledgement that inspirational freethought is a luxury. It’s an unfortunate fact of the world that optimism and hope isn’t possible for everyone. Rather than trying to impose happiness and hope on others based on some limited perspective, the fact that hope is scarce in the world should drive us to do something about it.

Happy Carl Sagan Day

Last week’s Carl Sagan Day celebration, organized by secular students from Northwestern, UChicago, and DePaul was simply unbelievable.

Professor Vandervoort talked about his early academic relationship with the young, audacious, and visionary Carl Sagan. He was brought to tears on the stage as he was talking. Professor Olinto amazed us with the newest discoveries in space science and physics, from the discovery of thousands of planets to dark matter/dark energy and detection of high energy particles bombarding Earth. And Professor Beck-Winchantz reminded us that we all have an eagerness for scientific discovery, and that science is not just an ivory tower profession, but that it should and does belong to all of us. He encouraged us to participate in citizen science projects, and showed us an inexpensive, awe-inspiring way of sending a camera into near-space and back.

More importantly, events like these outline the incredible work that secular students can do to inspire others and to promote the wonderful tradition of humanism and scientific skepticism, a tradition that Carl Sagan championed throughout his life.

Carl Sagan Day Chicago: The New Cool Thing

It’s an event sponsored by the Alder Planetarium. There’s going to be apple pie from scratch. There will be many wonderful space talks by awesome science professors. What is it?

It’s Carl Sagan Day, a celebration of Carl Sagan’s lasting legacy. Come to DePaul University on November 1 at 7PM.

Carl Sagan brought the Universe to millions of people around the world. He showed us that we are small and insignificant, but that we can make life meaningful through the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers. And he brought us a compelling story about not just us–but everything there ever was. We are stardust harvesting starlight, starstuff contemplating the stars.