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Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

by Carl Sagan, 1997, Ballantine Press, softcover, 296 pages
(available in bookstores, about US$14)

Carl Sagan enjoyed a brilliant career as an astronomer and space scientist.   He won numerous awards for making astronomy and earth science understandable.   His book, Cosmos, became the best-selling science book ever published in English.  His novel, Contact, sold widely and was made into a major motion picture.  The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence won a Pulitzer Prize.   Sagan died of cancer in 1996.  The book editing was finished by his wife and longtime writing partner, Ann Druyan.

The first chapters deal with the enormity of the numbers.  "There are maybe 100 billion (10^11) galaxies and 10 billion trillion (10^18) stars."  He then describes research into his top five cosmic questions:

Understanding our place in the cosmos helps frame our decision making here on Earth, and in our time on Earth.

"Our technology has become so powerful thatnot only consciously, but also inadvertentlywe are becoming a danger to ourselves. ... The thickness of most of the atmosphereincluding all of it involved in the greenhouse effectis only 0.1 percent of the diameter of the Earth."  He describes the science of the green house effect and the hole in the ozone layer.  Sagan urges caution and accelerated investigation into the situations.

   "We are not always smart or wise enough to foresee all the consequences of our actions.  The invention of CFCs was a brilliant achievement.   But as smart as those chemists were, they weren't smart enough.  Precisely because CFCs are so inert, they survived long enough reach the ozone layer.  The world is complicated.  The air is thin.  Nature is subtle.  Our capacity to cause harm is great.  We must be much more careful and much less forgiving about polluting our fragile atmosphere.
   "We must develop higher standards of planetary hygiene and significantly greater scientific resources for monitoring and understanding the world.   And we must begin to think and act not merely in terms of our nation and generation (much less the profits of a particular industry) but in terms of the entire vulnerable planet Earth and the generations of children to come"  (p. 116).

Carl Sagan also appeals for arms reduction.  This is a terrible waste of monetary resources and intellectual capital, and it further endangers life on the planet.

Perhaps in our lifetime we might see a united world community for global decision making.   Decision analysis can greatly help as a process for clarifying values, understanding the risks, and making logical, consistent decisions.

I highly recommend this book for all thinking adults.  You will not agree with all of Sagan's ideas, but the issues he raises are important ones.

—John Schuyler, August 1998.

Copyright 1998 by John R. Schuyler. All rights reserved. Permission to copy with reproduction of this notice.