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

~Book Review~

March 2001

Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan, Ballantine Books, 1997, is the last book that Carl Sagan wrote before succumbing to myelodysplasia, a rare disease of the bone marrow. In fact, the final chapter designated an epilogue, was written by his wife Ann Druyan after his death.

One of the most interesting points in the book is Sagan's claim that he never used the phrase, "billions and billions," which is, as he notes "too imprecise." The first few chapters of the book discuss large numbers. He teaches the reader not only the history of numbers but about very large numbers and the difficulty in trying to comprehend cosmic vastness.

The second section of the book tackles the issue of environmental responsibility in general and global warming in particular. Sagan recounts two ancient Greek myths to discuss our modern plight. Croesus asked the Oracle of Delphi what would happen if he invaded Persia. The response was that he would destroy a mighty empire. Only when his own empire was destroyed did it occur to him that the question he asked was incomplete. Current policymakers consult the oracles of think tanks, universities, etc. and often get answers to more than the questions they ask. Sagan writes "policymakers need-more than ever before-to understand science and technology. (In response to this need the Republican Congress has foolishly abolished its own Office of Technology Assessment.)"

The second myth is that of Cassandra whom Apollo granted the gift of prophecy to with a return promise of favors. When she reneged, the angered Apollo caused all of her prophecies to be disbelieved. Many of our policymakers simply refuse to believe dire predictions. "The job of the policymaker is to steer a prudent course between these two shoals," says Sagan.

On the subject of global warming Sagan takes the stand that the chemicals we are dumping into the environment will be around for hundreds of years and it is therefore prudent to expect the worst. If the dire predictions are true it is going to take time and money to make corrections. We simply cannot afford to wait until it is too late to reverse our current trend and to develop a means to clean up our messes.

The book continues to discuss a wide range of social issues ranging from political systems to abortion. Sagan obviously knows that he is dying prematurely and his last commentary is what he truly believed. Consider this quotation:

"Perhaps the most wrenching by-product of the scientific revolution has been to render untenable many of our most cherished and most comforting beliefs. The tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors has been replaced by a cold, immense, indifferent Universe in which humans are relegate to obscurity. But I see the emergence in our consciousness of a Universe of magnificence, and an intricate, elegant order far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And if much about he Universe can be understood in terms of a few simple laws of Nature, those wishing to believe in God can certainly ascribe those beautiful laws to a Reason underpinning all of Nature. My own view is that it is far better to understand the Universe as it really is than to pretend to a Universes as we might wish it to be.

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.

I highly recommend this book to all of my friends, but especially to my humanist friends.

--Wayne Wilson