A few weeks ago, Triple J's Hack program had this item about Australian culture making big heroes of sports people while not paying much attention to intellectuals. They made their point by asking people who their favorite sport person was, which usually resulted in an immediate answer, and then following that by asking who their favorite intellectual was - which was usually followed by embarrassed silence.
Jo then asked me what my answer would be, and I immediately said Dennis Bergkamp. She persisted, and I said that my answer would probably be Asimov - I like him, I read lots of his books, and he implanted lots of ideas in my head. Bill Bryson would probably come second place, even though he's not the biggest of intellectuals (certainly not on the Asimov scale). Jo asked what about Chomsky, and the answer is that as much as I appreciate his opinions he seems incapable of speaking at a popular enough level to really stir some emotions.
And that was it.
A couple of days later I read a book review in Scientific American, dealing with a new book by Carl Sagan. I found that odd, given that Sagan died 10 years ago; indeed, the book is a collection of lectures he gave before he died.
But then I started recollecting Sagan and his influence on me. It's not just another man I'm speaking of; it's the man who is most responsible for the way I look at the world now.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Back when I was 10 years old, my uncle bought me Broca's Brain, a book by Carl Sagan. I read it - it was a tough read for a 10 year old, but I managed to get through it with something - and my personal history from that point in time was totally changed. For a start, the concepts of religion and god - concepts I already started developing doubt towards - were now no longer something to doubt but rather something to dismiss (not that this was the Sagan heritage; there's a lot of my interpretation in that).
Then my uncle taped Sagan's TV series for me, Cosmos. We would watch it again and again, and again it made a huge impact on me.
I think I can safely say that the way I view this world of ours - the way I think of stuff, accept stuff, and my general views on where we come from and what we are - come directly from Sagan's mouth (and brains).
Since the Scientific American reminder I've re-read Broca's Brain and started watching Cosmos again. My uncle died roughly at the same time Sagan did, so now my Cosmos partner is Jo, and she's enjoying it almost as much as I do.
A shiver runs through me when I watch it. There is a lot of that old kid's excitement running through me again, plus memories of my uncle, but most of all it's the excitement of hearing the things that I keep think of the way I think of them.
I bought another book of Sagan last week and I've already started reading it; the grand design now is to buy all of them, pretty much. His books have this lovely mix of scientific facts thrown in with a lot of philosophy and personal views, and I seem to be a sucker for these.
I am not a big fan of ratings and classifications such as "what is the greatest video game ever" or "who is the world's greatest intellectual"; I feel these are stupid, because at any given moment my answer would be different due to different moods and different circumstances. But that aside, I think Carl Sagan is one major great intellectual.
I love his work and I am appreciative of its effects on me. Sagan may be dead, but his work is still with me.