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

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


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • In the final book of his astonishing career, Carl Sagan brilliantly examines the burning questions of our lives, our world, and the universe around us.

These luminous, entertaining essays travel both the vastness of the cosmos and the intimacy of the human mind, posing such fascinating questions as how did the universe originate and how will it end, and how can we meld science and compassion to meet the challenges of the coming century? Here, too, is a rare, private glimpse of Sagan’s thoughts about love, death, and God as he struggled with fatal disease.

Ever forward-looking and vibrant with the sparkle of his unquenchable curiosity, Billions & Billions is a testament to one of the great scientific minds of our day.

Praise for Billions & Billions

“[Sagan’s] writing brims with optimism, clarity and compassion.”Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“Sagan used the spotlight of his fame to illuminate the abyss into which stupidity, greed, and the lust for power may yet dump us. All of those interests and causes are handsomely represented in Billions & Billions.”The Washington Post Book World

“Astronomer Carl Sagan didn’t live to see the millennium, but he probably has done more than any other popular scientist to prepare us for its arrival.”Atlanta Journal & Constitution

Billions & Billions can be interpreted as the Silent Spring for the current generation. . . . Human history includes a number of leaders with great minds who gave us theories about our universe and origins that ran contrary to religious dogma. Galileo determined that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. Darwin challenged Creationism with his Evolution of Species. And now, Sagan has given the world its latest challenge: Billions & Billions.”San Antonio Express-News

“[Sagan’s] inspiration and boundless curiosity live on in the gift of his work.”Seattle Times & Post-Intelligencer

“Couldn’t stay awake in your high school science classes? This book can help fill in the holes. Acclaimed scientist Carl Sagan combines his logic and knowledge with wit and humor to make a potentially dry subject enjoyable to read.”The Dallas Morning News

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345379184
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/12/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 112,988
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Carl Sagan served as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo spacecraft expeditions, for which he received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and (twice) for Distinguished Public Service.
His Emmy- and Peabody–winning television series, Cosmos, became the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. The accompanying book, also called Cosmos, is one of the bestselling science books ever published in the English language. Dr. Sagan received the Pulitzer Prize, the Oersted Medal, and many other awards—including twenty honorary degrees from American colleges and universities—for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment. In their posthumous award to Dr. Sagan of their highest honor, the National Science Foundation declared that his “research transformed planetary science . . . his gifts to mankind were infinite." Dr. Sagan died on December 20, 1996.

Read an Excerpt


With characteristic optimism in the face of harrowing ambiguity, Carl writes the final entry in a prodigious, passionate, daringly transdisciplinary, and astonishingly original body of work.

Mere weeks later, in early December, he sat at our dinner table, regarding a favorite meal with a look of puzzlement. It held no appeal. In the best of times, my family had always prided itself on what we call wodar, an inner mechanism that ceaselessly scans the horizon for the first blips of looming disaster. During our two years in the valley of the shadow, our wodar had remained at a constant state of highest alert. On this roller coaster of hopes dashed, raised, and dashed again, even the slightest variation in a single particular of Carl's physical condition would set alarm bells blaring.

A beat of a look passed between us. I immediately began spinning a benign hypothesis to explain away this sudden lack of appetite. As usual I was arguing that this might have nothing to do with his illness. It was merely a fleeting disinterest in food that a healthy person might not even notice. Carl managed a little smile and just said, Maybe. But from that moment on he had to force himself to eat and his strength declined noticeably. Despite this, he insisted on fulfilling a long-standing commitment to give two public lectures later that week in the San Francisco Bay area. When he returned to our hotel after the second talk, he was exhausted. We called Seattle.

The doctors urged us to come back to the Hutch immediately. I dreaded having to tell Sasha and Sam that we would not be returning home to them the next day as promised; that instead we would be making yet a fourth trip to Seattle, a place that had become to us synonymous with dread. The kids were stunned. How could we convincingly calm their fears that this might turn out, as it had three times before, to be another six-month stint away from home or, as Sasha immediately suspected, something far worse? Once again I went into my cheerleading mantra: Daddy wants to live. He's the bravest, toughest man I know. The doctors are the best the world has to offer ... Yes, Hanukkah would have to be postponed. But once Daddy was better ...

The next day in Seattle, an X-ray revealed that Carl had a pneumonia of unknown origin. Repeated tests failed to turn up any evidence for a bacterial, viral, or fungal culprit. The inflammation in his lungs was, perhaps, a delayed reaction to the lethal dose of radiation that he had received six months before as preparation for the last bone marrow transplant. Megadoses of steroids only compounded his suffering and failed to repair his lungs. The doctors began to prepare me for the worst. Now, when I ventured out into the hospital hallway, I encountered a whole different species of expression on the too familiar faces of the staff. They either winced with sympathy or averted their eyes. It was time for the kids to come west.

When Carl saw Sasha it seemed to effect a miraculous change in his condition. Beautiful, beautiful, Sasha, he called to her. You are not only beautiful, but you also have enormous gorgeousness. He told her that if he did manage to survive it would be in part because of the strength her presence had given him. And for the next several hours the hospital monitors seemed to document a turnaround. My hopes soared, but in the back of my mind I couldn't help notice that the doctors didn't share my enthusiasm. They recognized this momentary rallying for what it was, what they call an Indian summer, the body's brief respite before its final struggle.

This is a deathwatch, Carl told me calmly. I'm going to die. No, I protested. You're going to beat this, just as you have before when it looked hopeless. He turned to me with that same look I had seen countless times in the debates and skirmishes of our twenty years of writing together and being wildly in love. With a mixture of knowing good humor and skepticism, but as ever, not a trace of self-pity, he said wryly, Well, we'll see who's right about this one.

Sam, now five years old, came to see his father for one last time. Although Carl was by now struggling for breath and finding it harder to speak, he managed to compose himself so as not to frighten his little son. I love you, Sam, was all he could say. I love you, too, Daddy, Sam said solemnly.

Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each others eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.

It had begun in 1974 at a dinner party given by Nora Ephron in New York City. I remember how handsome Carl was with his shirtsleeves rolled up and his dazzling smile. We talked about baseball and capitalism and it thrilled me that I could make him laugh so helplessly. But Carl was married and I was committed to another man. We socialized as couples. The four of us grew closer and we began to work together. There were times when Carl and I were alone with each other and the atmosphere was euphoric and highly charged, but neither of us made any sign to the other of our true feelings. It was unthinkable.

In the early spring of 1977, Carl was invited by NASA to assemble a committee to select the contents of a phonograph record that would be affixed to each of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Upon completion of their ambitious reconnaissance of the outermost planets and their moons, the two spacecraft would be gravitationally expelled from the Solar System. Here was an opportunity to send a message to possible beings of other worlds and times. It could be far more complex than the plaque that Carl and Carl's wife, Linda Salzman, and astronomer Frank Drake had attached to Pioneer 10. That was a breakthrough, but it was essentially a license plate. The Voyager record would include greetings in sixty human languages and one whale language, an evolutionary audio essay, 116 pictures of life on Earth and ninety minutes of music from a glorious diversity of the worlds cultures. The engineers projected a one-billion-year shelf life for the golden phonograph records.

How long is a billion years? In a billion years the continents of Earth would be so altered that we would not recognize the surface of our own planet. One thousand million years ago, the most complex life forms on Earth were bacteria. In the midst of the nuclear arms race, our future, even in the short term, seemed a dubious prospect. Those of us privileged to work on the making of the Voyager message did so with a sense of sacred purpose. It was conceivable that, Noah-like, we were assembling the ark of human culture, the only artifact that would survive into the unimaginably far distant future.

In the course of my daunting search for the single most worthy piece of Chinese music, I phoned Carl and left a message at his hotel in Tucson where he was giving a talk. An hour later the phone rang in my apartment in Manhattan. I picked it up and heard a voice say: I got back to my room and found a message that said Annie called. And I asked myself, why didn't you leave me that message ten years ago?

Bluffing, joking, I responded lightheartedly. Well, I've been meaning to talk to you about that, Carl. And then, more soberly, Do you mean for keeps?

Yes, for keeps, he said tenderly. Let's get married.

Yes, I said and that moment we felt we knew what it must be like to discover a new law of nature. It was a eureka, a moment in which a great truth was revealed, one that would be reaffirmed through countless independent lines of evidence over the next twenty years. But it was also the assumption of an unlimited liability. Once you were allowed into this wonderworld, how could you ever again be content outside of it? It was June 1, our loves Holy Day. Thereafter, anytime one of us was being unreasonable with the other, the invocation of June 1 would usually bring the offender to his or her senses.

Earlier I had asked Carl if those putative extraterrestrials of a billion years from now could conceivably interpret the brain waves of a meditator. Who knows? A billion years is a long, long time, was his reply. On the chance that it might be possible why don't we give it a try?

Two days after our life-changing phone call, I entered a laboratory at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and was hooked up to a computer that turned all the data from my brain and heart into sound. I had a one-hour mental itinerary of the information I wished to convey. I began by thinking about the history of Earth and the life it sustains. To the best of my abilities I tried to think something of the history of ideas and human social organization. I thought about the predicament that our civilization finds itself in and about the violence and poverty that make this planet a hell for so many of its inhabitants. Toward the end I permitted myself a personal statement of what it was like to fall in love.

Now Carl's fever raged. I kept kissing him and rubbing my face against his burning, unshaven cheek. The heat of his skin was oddly reassuring. I wanted to do it enough so that his vibrant, physical self would become an indelibly etched sensory memory. I was torn between exhorting him to fight on and wanting him freed from the torture apparatus of life support and the demon that had tormented him for two years.

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Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of the best things that Carl did was to include his final thoughts on space exploration. I learned by means of his elaborating around a quote that we really are one planet after all. It's the Saudi astronaut who said that they were looking out of the window of the rocket and pointing to their country; they got a little further and were pointing at their peninsula; a little further and all that they could do was to point at their planet. Carl Sagan (peace be upon this Prophet) is so correct in saying that we scientists are modern-day prophets because we have a sensible message for the world to heed - that if we don't do something to secure a better momentum which this earth is taking, anhilation will occur and then our 'God(s)' will come down and destroy us for sure; yet in the end, the causatives will have been us all along. I read the book in Spanish, which was quite fitting because this message is not for United Satesians alone!!! This was truly one of the greatest souls of all time! Sagan was not a dry, directionless atheist like many of us have met - he was also in fact more spritual than most self-appointed spiritual teachers of which I've heard or seen. But the amazing thing was to learn that Sagan had lots of different religious figures praying for him around the world although he didn't follow any of their religions. So by writing this commentary, I'm not the first to observe the greatness of Sagan. We should teach our children the same things that he was elucidated for our benefit!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the book to be somewhat interesting and beautiful. As a Carl Sagan fan, I found his book to be just as smart, well-written and insightful as his other novels. But what makes it possibly his best novel is hearing about what happened that led to his death, how he felt about it, and his whole general thoughts on death. It's kinda sad to read the last words that he will ever write in this book. Not only is the book smart and insightful, but it was also heartbreaking, thought-provoking and beautiful. Rest in peace, Carl Sagan.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Billions and Billions' was, for me, a wonderful mix of science, religion, sociology and everyday personality that characterized Dr. Carl Sagan. His wife's epilogue was so moving that I cried. There will never be another scientist like Carl Sagan and those of us who listened to him have an obligation to carry the burden of responsibility to save the Earth from environmental catastrophe and keep on looking outward into Space--THAT'S where our future is.
stretch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In his last published work Carl Sagan explores the beauty of quantification, the dangers humans pose to the environment, and human morality through his many speeches and essays. All the essays and speeches presented well reasoned arguments and simple explanations that made Sagan such a powerful spoke person and popular figure. While some of the material is dated and the dire warnings of ozone depletion, global warming, and all out nuclear war can get repetitious, they are still worthy of our attention. The last third of the book is in my estimation the most important. In this section Sagan argues for us as species to learn to cooperate with one another so that we can solve the issues that impact the planet we all share.The most poignant of the essays in this collection was his last, "In the Valley of the Shadow," an emotional account of his struggles with the illness, myelodysplasia, that would ultimately take his life. Through all the bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy treatments, Sagan still manages to sustain his usual wit and optimism that we have all come to know and love. Sadly the treatments didn't work and we lost one of the greatest popularize of science we have ever known.Ann Druyan, Sagan¿s loving wife, adds a moving epilogue in which she describes Sagan¿s last days and the courage Sagan exhibits while facing death without the comfort of faith in a world beyond our own.
ChinaTownBoi More than 1 year ago
Billions and Billions is a brilliant collection of essays about the world and life, and is one of the most intriguing and eye-opening books I've ever read.  This book is a slow read and is filled with giant numbers and confusing statistics, but is so captivating that it doesn't feel like a chore at all.  After making many revolutionary scientific advancements over the course of his life, Sagan lies close to death and reflects on the world.  He speaks on a broad range of topics, stretching from ancient history to monday night football, with loads to say about each one.  His writing is astounding, as Sagan takes something that may seem simple on the outside, and completely analyzes it, opening the reader to ideas that they never knew existed.  Not only does Sagan reflect on our past, but he also predicts the earth's future, and gives us advice that could potentially save the world.  Specifically, he talks about global warming and life in the future, using hard scientific facts to prove his claims.  He also sways more to the ethical side of arguments, such as when talking about abortion, he asks many deep questions that leave the reader with something to ponder.  Critical yet insightful, Sagan's thoughts on humans and the world are captivating and ingenious, and make this book a must-read
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Guest More than 1 year ago
When I finished reading this I realized that in order for the world to improve we need people like him around. EVERYONE should read this, beacause he is like that great teacher so few of us had-the one who made us think, not just learn facts. He will be remembered for a long time :)
Guest More than 1 year ago
Some of the greatest insight celebrating science and probing into mankinds fraility and fallible nature. Carl has once again delved into the nether regions of the mind to bring about the spectacular collection of essays. A must read for anyone who cares to know .. what it means to live in the 21st century.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is unlike most any other book that I've read by Carl Sagan. The format is more like that of a collection of thoughts on topics ranging from quantification (exponentially increasing or decreasing statistics and their impact on our society) to the necessary alliances of science and religion if we are to survive the coming millennium. Extremely thought provoking and almost a call to action to make a change in the way profit controls decision-making to the brink of endangering the human species. Certainly the best collection of non-fiction literature from a single author that I have ever read, and a must read for any intelligent person seeking to broaden their perspectives of global warming, birth control, and living as neighbors of one world and not the citizens of isolated countries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the first book by Carl Sagan ive read, in this book he touches up on many subjects, Im glad I read it, it envokes alot of individual thought by the reader which is always good, The Epilogue written with Ann Druyan, his wife, is also a touching chapter talking about the death of Carl Sagan
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is full of great facts. Carl sagan is one of the greatest minds ever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She knocks on the door.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hodd tge kitten and pet her