109 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2004
After reading his two best known works, "Cosmos" and "Contact" and receiving a suggestion to read this, I ordered Billions and Billions off the internet. After the first two chapters, I was confused. They had the same heart-felt, easy-to-read style Sagan is known for, but this book seemed more private and passionate. Unlike his other works, this seems to peer into his soul much more than other stuff I've read.
The book is broken up into three parts. The first part is basically an introduction. It consists of a few chapters that educate you on such subjects as the importance of exponentials, the connection between hunting and football, and the true size and scope of the known universe. Like always, if the readers happens to already know a subject, it is still not painful to read through it. Sagan has a way with words that I can only describe as elegant. It is elementary enough to understand and yet intriguing enough to keep your interest.
The second section I would consider the "Warning Section". Pretty much the entire thing is a giant speech on the horrible things we are doing to our planet. It touches on CFC's, CO2 poisoning, and the greenhouse effect. While 100 pages of this can take it's toll on your patience every once in a while, I never trully lost interest. Right when you can consider it boring it switchs subjects just enough to keep you reading. This is definetely the section when you realize this must be Sagan's last work. The true opinion and passion that comes out out in his writing is so unlike his other books that I forgot I was reading the author of "Cosmos".
But right as I was about to get tired of hearing about the atmosphere and it's decline, the third section of the book came. I can't give this part a title because there are so many elements he touches on. Some of them being government tyranny, weapons of mass destruction, and abortion. The short essay on the latter subject was easily the most perfect example of Sagan's genius I have ever read. In a short writing he used facts, religion, philosophy, and opinion to give a perfectly unbiased view on a serious subject.
But even through all his thoughts and theories, the last two chapters of the book stick in your head the most. "In the Valley of the Shadow" recounts his repeated problems with the illness that eventually took his life in 1996. All I can say is you have to read it. The term "heroic" is thrown around way too often in our society, but the word could not be better used than to describe Sagan's final years. And finally, the epilogue was written by his wife right after Carl's passing. Her look into the man beyond the scientist is something to be cherished.
It is rare, nowadays, to find a person who is simultaneously intelligent, caring, and human at the same time. And even though it is a fairly known fact that Carl Sagan was in fact human, reading this final masterpiece makes one wonder whether he was truly part of our self-proclaimed "flawed species" known as man.
39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2000
I read this shortly after finishing Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." While I heartily recommend either volume, this one will, I think, appeal more to the mainstream audience.
Dr. Sagan infuses this work not only with the critical thinking scientific method we know and admire him for, but also with a human touch which doesn't come across in some of his other writings. It is well worth your time to read what Sagan has to say here.
During his lifetime, he was occasionally criticised in the scientific community for popularizing science, but he has done more to advance the cause of science than almost anyone else in the 20th century. In making science accessible, he allowed all of us to share his excitement and curiosity, and we are all made poorer by his loss.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2002
This is an unbelievably moving and brilliant book. I wasn't prepared for what an environmentalist Sagan was or how much of his last book would be devoted to those causes, but it was a welcome surprise, especially since he comes to environmentalism from a place, quite simply, of understanding the human being's place in the cosmos. Sagan doesn't believe in man's place being at the top of creation -- on the contrary, he asserts that human beings are a transitional step in evolution, and if we don't destroy ourselves, there are still more strange and fascinating creatues left to evolve from us. What really makes the book a stunning series of insights, though, is the closing essay "In the Shadow of the Valley," Sagan's first-person account of his struggle with cancer. As he continues to fight bravely and, nonetheless, closes in on death, he shows an admirable ability to embrace the rational world he's known so well, rather than fleeing into superstition. His wife, Ann Druyan, made me weep with her inspiring and sad account of Carl's final hours, which serves as an afterword for the book. Truly an amazing achievement, to look in the face of death, without fear, believing that the only afterlife comes in the way people remember you. Magnificent and terrifying.
39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2005
This book by scientist, professor, and author Dr. Carl Sagan is his last of thirty books that was published posthumously. It is a compilation of selected previously published articles (some of them revised) that he wrote for the publication "Parade" (which is one of the most widely circulated publications in the United States).
This book is foremost an expression of Sagan's "thoughts" (a word in the book's subtitle). What he does is express his thoughts on various social, political, religious, and scientific issues.
These selected articles are divided into three parts that make up nineteen chapters. The epilogue makes up the fourth part. Below I shall state the "nuclei" of each chapter or article (as I see it) and give for selected articles a sample thought in quotation marks.
(I) (6 chapters)
(1) The meaning of big numbers and their importance when dealing with complex issues.
(2) Exponentials and their relation to complex issues.
(3) The human hunting instinct, a remnant from our past.
"[I]f we're stranded a few hundred centuries from when we long to be--if...we find ourselves, in an age of environmental pollution, social hierarchy, economic inequality, nuclear weapons...with [ancient] emotions but without [ancient] social safeguards--perhaps we can be excused for [liking rough, contact sports] like...football."
(4) The physics of waves, sound waves & human communication, and light waves & human sight.
"[T]he elegant machinery of the evolutionary process...has brought us into ...superb harmony with our physical environment."
(5) Four cosmic questions. Sagan explains the details behind these questions that are as follows:
(i) Was there ever life on Mars? (ii) Is Titan a laboratory for the origin of life? (iii) Is there intelligent life elsewhere (iv) What is the origin and fate of the universe?
(6) Expresses the idea that because there are so many stars or suns in the universe, then there are probably many planets.
(II) (7 chapters)
(7) Draws a parallel between a shrimp's world in an aquarium and our world.
"With acid rain, ozone depletion, chemical pollution, radioactivity...and a dozen other assaults on the environment, we are pushing and pulling our little world in poorly understood directions. Our...advanced civilization may be changing the delicate ecological balance that has...evolved over the 4-billion-year period of life on Earth."
(8) Environmental concerns.
"Nearly all our [environmental] problems are made by humans and can be solved by humans."
(9) The job of the policymaker.
"[P]olicymakers need--more than ever before--to understand science and technology."
(10) Thinning of the ozone layer.
"It's hard to understand how "conservatives" could oppose safeguarding the environment that all of us--including conservatives and their children--depend on for our very lives. What exactly is it conservatives are conserving?"
(11) Global warming.
(12) Solving the global warming crisis.
(13) An alliance between science and religion to solve the environmental crisis.
(III) (6 articles)
(14) The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Illustrates "the common enemy."
(15) Abortion (co-written with his third wife, Ann Druyan). An excellent article that considers the science involved.
(16) Looks at codes of ethics. Sagan asks, "[C]an we explore the matter scientifically?"
(17) Examines the technological advances in the art of mass murder from the projectiles used at Gettysburg to the nuclear weapons we have today. Co-written with A. Druyan.
"Today , the United States and the Soviet Union have booby-trapped our planet with almost 60,000 nuclear weapons...[that] could destroy the global civilization and possibly even the human species...nuclear weapons remain our greatest danger."
(18) Examines the twentieth century in three categories: (i) Saving, prolonging, and enhancing human life (ii) Totalitarian and military technology and (iii) The revelations of science.
"Only in the twentieth century has technology made killing on...a [large] scale practical...Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the twentieth century will be the most profound challenge of the twenty-first."
(19) An account by Sagan of his bone marrow disease. I admired him for looking at "Death in the eye." The postscript of optimism for this chapter he wrote in October 1996 was probably his last published words.
(IV) Epilogue by A. Druyan (Feb. 1997). She gives an account of Sagan's fight with complications due to his disease that he succumbed too in late Dec. 1996.
There are more than fifteen illustrations in this book. I found most of them quite helpful and informative.
A problem I had with this book is that many times it does not seem to flow from chapter to chapter. The reason for this is that the chapters are actually articles that Sagan wrote at various times for the publication "Parade." I feel he should have let the reader know this at the beginning of the book (in order to prepare the reader). Instead he leaves this explanation until the end of the book (in the acknowledgements).
As well, I noticed that chapters 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 16, and 18 have no references. As well, chapters 1, 4, and 17 only have one reference each. Anyone familiar with Sagan's works knows that he always extensively references. The major reason for not properly referencing (I think) is that he was so hampered by his disease that he could not properly complete these (which is understandable).
Despite these oversights due to overwhelming circumstances, this book provides much insight into social, political, religious, and scientific issues. This is all done in Sagan's characteristic easy-to-read style.
Finally, before reading this book, I suggest that a potential reader examine a photograph of the Earth as seen from 3.7 billion miles away. (Such a photo is found in Sagan's 1994 book "Pale Blue Dot.") This will increase the impact of what is said in this book.
In conclusion, this is a fascinating and important book. I realized after reading it why the National Science Foundation awarded posthumously Dr. Carl Edward Sagan (Nov. 1934 to Dec. 1996) their highest honor since "his gifts to [humankind] were infinite."
(first published 1997; 3 parts or 19 chapters; epilogue; main narrative 230 pages; acknowledgements; references; index)
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Published not long after his death, this--Sagan's last book--is a collection of essays on a variety of subjects having in common a palpable urgency traceable to both the state of the planet and the state of Sagan's health, both perceived as perilous. Besides Sagan's distinctive blend of stark optimism and stern alarm, and his splendid rationality, one is struck by a kind of anger in his tone, as though he has grown impatient with the stupidities of humankind. Thus one reads in the essay on abortion these bitter words: "There is no right to life in any society on Earth today... We raise farm animals for slaughter; destroy forests; pollute rivers and lakes until no fish can live there; kill deer and elk for sport, leopards for their pelts, and whales for fertilizer; entrap dolphins, gasping and writhing, in great tuna nets; club seal pups to death... What is (allegedly) protected is not life, but human life." (p. 166)
What he is against in these essays, as his widow, Ann Druyan, notes in her Epilogue on page 228, are "the forces of superstition and fundamentalism." Sagan is preeminently the champion of education and reason as the means to better our life, and the implacable enemy of ignorance. (For "superstition and fundamentalism," read "ignorance," plain and simple.) In some respects this book is a continuation of his volume from the year before, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, but the emphasis here is on the problems confronting us and what can be done about them. In particular, Sagan confronts the depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, pollution, the threat of nuclear war, overpopulation, etc. He asks the question (the title of Part II), "What Are Conservatives Conserving?" and gives the answer, their short-sighted bottom line. His arguments are ingenious and interesting to read as one observes how hard he is working to persuade us to take care of ourselves and our planet home. He compares the warnings of modern science with those of Cassandra who had the gift of prophesy but the curse of never being believed, science becoming in this sense both Cassandra and the Oracle at Delphi, misunderstood and misinterpreted by our policy makers, whom he likens to Croesus, the rich king who salivated at the prospect of a mighty empire being destroyed only to find that it was his own. As Pogo observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." One senses too that Sagan is projecting his concern that he himself is in danger of becoming a Cassandra.
Certainly, in reading this book, one senses the personality of Carl Sagan come to life. His wide knowledge as a scientist, and his influence as a public spokesperson for science and for the environment and for all the life on this planet, are manifest. His tendency to preach and guide, his absolute desire to use his celebrity for the common good (and to scold) are evident. He mingles hope with despair; he loves humankind, yet despises what humankind does. He sees our capacity to love and help one another as our saving grace, but cannot help but recall and recount the horrors we have visited upon one another and on our fellow creatures. He sees the planet as one, as Gaia (although he does not use that word) with its organisms cooperating with one another for mutual survival. He writes, "The inclination to cooperate has been painfully extracted through the evolutionary process. Those organisms that did not cooperate, that did not work with one another, died. Cooperation is encoded in the survivors' genes." (p. 67) (Incidentally, this is a clear statement for the idea of group selection in evolution. Dawkins, et al., take note.) His writing reveals a man who always tried to do his best, and was perhaps his own sternest critic. He recalls for all of us, "wincing recollections of past faux pas" in the chapter on the environment where he tries to persuade us to take a stance "Somewhere between cheerful dolts and nervous worrywarts..." (p. 75)
I hear the man and identify with his concerns, and I know myself that I cannot make up my mind on whether to be cheerful about our prospects or to despair. I "solve" this problem by realizing that all species eventually go extinct, and that somebody or something "better" than us might follow, or to understand that we are just a tiny phase in the cosmic process of Becoming.
More to the point, I would hope to be just one fraction as worthwhile to my fellow humans as was, and is, and will continue to be, Carl Sagan, a brilliant man of great humanity who is sorely missed. To read him is to experience the best of humanity. He, like science, is a candle in the dark.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
There are two ironies here. Despite Carl Sagan's extraordinary success in science and his consummate skill as a popular writer of science, his greatest name recognition is a consequence of a parody. Sagan was a frequent guest on the Tonight show starring Johnny Carson., and Johnny often did sketches mimicking him where he used the phrase "billions and billions", with particular emphasis on the b's. The second is that even though Carl never uttered the phrase, he chose it to be the title of a book written as he was dying of cancer.
I have read most of his popular works on science and he is one of the best, on the order of Isaac Asimov or Stephen Jay Gould. In looking back at his career, it is easy to overlook his substantial accomplishments in astronomy. The first time I was exposed to his work was from an article in National Geographic where he was cited for his work in exobiology. My second exposure was when I slogged through the book "Intelligent Life in the Universe" that he wrote in collaboration with I. S. Schlokovskii. Heady reading for a middle school student. While I may not have understood the material, I did recognize the quality of the work.
The main theme of this book is the severe environmental problems that this planet currently faces. Despite the reluctance of some to accept the data, there can be little doubt that the planet is heating up and the most logical explanation is human activity. The burning of fossil fuel is pumping enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This gas captures solar energy at a rate far in excess of its true percentage in the atmosphere. In second place is the destruction of the ozone layer, where once again small amounts generate a cascading effect far beyond the amounts. There is no doubt in my mind that the most significant point in the book is the one he makes about the true price of oil.
The United States currently pays a substantial price for oil far in excess of the amount spent up front for each barrel. The extensive military presence that is maintained in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other middle Eastern nations has cost many American lives, to say nothing of the expense of extricating Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Were it not for the black gold, these nations would rarely if ever make the evening news. Other less obvious costs are the environmental destruction, which in combination could send the total costs to over eighty dollars a barrel. His points about renewable energy currently being cheaper than oil are sound, but still largely unheeded. However, it is possible that the current energy crisis in the Western states may make it more attractive again.
Sagan writes with great skill and clarity. As he was dying, he continued to write about what was the real passion in his life, the future of humans and how fragile we are in our strength. I read this book with sadness, hope and a sense of frustration. A great man was lost when he died. However, let us hope that his prophesies of environmental danger prove to be wrong, as we show that we can construct solutions to the problems we have created.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2001
I found this book to be simply stunning. In fact it is really the book that set me, both physically and mentally in motion. It awakened in me a curiousity and zeal for knowledge that I hadn't remembered since my early childhood. So anyway I am now nearly finished with my undergraduate work and planning grad school. Ah the excitment of being a biologist. In billions and billions Sagan tackles many issues thoughtfully and as honestly as they can be. One reiviewer who thought the novel terrible and couldn't give it as a gift thought Sagan's ideas on the environment were cursory at best was, I think, completely off base. Sagan hits all the major points of our environmental problems and I think offers excellent solutions for them. Easily demolished? Only if you are a Rush Limbaugh fan who can easily dismiss obvious data. What I notice most about the reviews of this book that find it awful, or drivel, or plain bad is that it isn't that Sagan was short or a bad writer or any real and valid complaint, but rather that they simply disagree with his position on matters not of science. Sagan was an athiest but he was always respectful of religion. He felt his postion strong enough to stand in oposition to the popular one. I think the dismissiveness of the critics betrays their own fears that ideas like God, and religion aren't so strong, aren't so ready to be challenged. My quiestion is if they aren't, then what good are they? If we dismiss with out serious investigation then how strong are our ideas?
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2006
Don't believe the editorial review by Gilbert Taylor. Sagan only mentions Pat Robertson in passing. It was actually sort of a footnote about how the televangelist got his fanatical anti-abortion viewers to skew the results of a phone survey.
The phrase "billions and billions" is not really Sagan's "cliche", because he never actually said it. But Sagan's description about how that fallacy got started is actually very amusing, so I can't imagine why someone would call it "flat", but I get the impression this nimrod never actually read the book.
And the topics in this book are not "rudimentary", like the reviewer said. They are typically very intelligent topics, described with enough scientific detail to prove a point, but in an entertaining or interesting way. And some of the topics are very profound, such as life and death on earth, and Sagan's own fight with cancer. This book contains the most elegant and lucid descriptions of ozone depletion and global warming, which everyone should read.
And, the reviewer's criticism about the book being "uneven and eclectic" is stupid. This book is clearly described as a compilation of essays and various other writings, and it was published well after Sagan's death. These writings were obviously not meant to be similar, or build on each other. That's not the point of this book. But it is a very personal and touching collection of writings by a truly brilliant scientist and gifted writer.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 1998
Since Dr. Sagan died before he had a chance to bring "Billions and Billions" to fruition, there is a slight lack of unity to the overall volume; but the book still illustrates Sagan's virtues as a writer and as a humanist. The book includes chapters on ozone depletion and global warming and potential solutions, both radical and moderate; observations on Monday night football, of all things, and its usefulness as a release of humanity's competitive and aggressive urges; an analysis of the abortion issue; a chapter of historical analyses of the United States and the Soviet Union, published in both countries simultaneously in the late 1980s; and a scientific attempt to define the parameters of morality. (This latter chapter is the only one with which I have a strong complaint, for an inattentive reader is likely to miss the subtleties of the argument and come away with quite mistaken conclusions on Sagan's intentions.) Let no one say that science or rationality or skepticism are "threats" to a human way of life after reading a humanistic author such as Sagan. Overall, an excellent book.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2006
Thoroughly enjoyed this. Sagan never claims to have ALL the answers, but encourages the reader to think in a non-conventional fashion. As a community college instructor of the Natural Sciences, I appreciate Sagan's ability to describe and relate the micro- and macroscopic nature of the universe. Each chapter reads well on its own. Especially enjoyed the chapter on the myths of Croseus and Cassandra and their applicability to today's political approach towards current environmental and social issues.