Book Review: Billions and Billions by The Great Carl Sagan

“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” - Carl Sagan

8 years ago I was assigned a paper-back version of Billions and Billions for English 101 at Mohawk Valley Community College. While taking up an Art degree I was a bit resilient on taking the Gen. Ed. classes. Let alone paying an outrageous amount for their books - on top of my $800 bill accumulated by my art supplies. In short I was given a book that I had no excitement in reading. As the semester went on our professor spoke more about his life than actually teaching us English and we didn’t even touch Billions and Billions. I think he was required to assign us a book and this is what he chose. I stared at this book for years collecting dust, not knowing the deep significance of its words or Carl Sagan himself. Eventually I lost it in the midst of boyfriend breakups and moving from house to house over the years. However I never stopped thinking about it for some odd reason.

Today I can happily say that I gleefully purchased a hard cover in Barns and Noble. My goal is to read 10 books this year. I have a keen interest in science books and self-help books, so most of the books I have chosen are just that. I couldn’t wait to finally dive into Billions and Billions, with excitement and an open heart this time. However as I turned the last page I have to see it was a bit disheartening and sad. Not because the books was bad or the information was incorrect - the exact opposite. This books gave me a whole new outlook on Earth and humans. The irony of how directly it correlates with the modern world we live in now. Note: Carl Sagan released Billions and Billions 20 years ago, yet it all still relates and matters today.

Sagan split the book up into 3 parts, I will go over each part and what I thought of them.

Part I: The Power And Beauty of Quantification.

In part 1 Sagan speaks about the significance of the numbers “Billion” and exponential notation equations. He articulates how ancient and modern-day civilization have interpreted large numbers; how it’s changed our civilization, our population, Earth’s environment, our measurement of time and distance, and our view on the cosmos. The information I soaked in the most from part 1 are:

Our civilization is growing at an alarming rate, enough to make us fear what the potential hazards of our children's and grandchildren’s generations may endure.

Billion is only the tip of the iceberg, soon trillion or a larger exponent will take over our way of thinking. What then? How do we compromise the human mind to balance these growing numbers. Too many humans, not enough food. Too much money, not enough resources. The more humans, the more diseases. It’s definitely daunting to think about.

On the positive side of the growing numbers, it has opened our mind to space exploration. You might have heard the phrase, “There are billions of galaxies in the Universe, with billions of stars that have planets orbiting them.”. This is unreal to think about it, but mesmerizing at the same time. Our quest for potential habitable worlds out there are on the horizon. If only Sagan could see what our space exploration is doing today as far as: Mars, Jupiter, Cassini, Titan, Europa, and the hundreds of habitableplanets NASA has released to the public today. 20 years ago he saw all this hope for mankind. Reading his words gives me such a tremendous responsibility to know this and understand it.


Part 2: What Are Conservatives Conserving?

Part 2 is where Sagan get’s down to business and writes about what that needs to be said about the difference between the rich and the poor, and also the politicians and the civilians. The chapters included in Part 2 are what really got my blood boiling. Note: this book was released during the Clinton administration. Part 2 explains the effects of technology and global warming on our world. Starting with the pros and cons of technology. What stood out to me the most is that fact that humans are still in the baby stages of technology considering we’ve only been using most of our technology for only 200 years. We’ve advanced exponentially because of it, but we’ve also created new evils in the mean time. The two main evils that he touched on are: the technology that has created large corporations that feed the rich and starve the poor, and the technology that has contributed to global warming through the admissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). You wouldn’t believe the technology that we use today that initially released this chemical compound, ex: refrigerators. It's enough to disrupt your sleep and make you hold your children extra close tonight. Basically, humans went a century thinking they were advancing human civilization when in reality it caused a century of war, genocide, and irreversible damage to the human culture and the Earth’s environment. And we all thought a selfish King was terrible? No, King Henry VI himself would cry if he used Google today. It all boils down to the leaders of the world setting rules and regulations in place to protect the environment and the poor. We civilians also need to do our part, one person can’t change the world, but “billions” can.

The last chapter of Part 2, touches on the imperative needs for the alliance of religion and science. I believe there has been a significant step forward on this issue. Science in the last 20 years has become a world-wide popular phenomenon. No more do people think that science is only for mad-scientists and science-fiction writers. Science is for us all, including all religious faiths. I am very happy that so many religious leaders have taken on the acceptance of science. Even the Pope himself vouches for science! Another thing Sagan would be proud to see today.


Part 3: Where Hearts And Mind Collide

There is always a logical thinking to a specific situation, yet all humans are set in their own way and belief systems. Unfortunately we live in a world where our countries are run by men who are at war with each other. They all think of each other as enemies. Their religion is wrong, our culture is wrong, their skin color is wrong, our economy is wrong, their healthcare system is wrong, etc. Decade after decade it seems like we can’t make up our mind on what we’re really fighting each other for. It always seems like one culture or religion is pushing themselves onto another. Sagan magnificently writes that we need to stick together. We ALL have one common enemy: the deterioration of Earth and human civilizations. Deterioration meaning: global warming, diseases, and humanity. We’re destroying each other and in the process destroying Earth too. Sagan states a ton of great ideas that could unify our world, ideas that would even work today in our modern civilization. Our enemy isn’t everyone else, our enemy is ourselves. Fix with in and you can fix with out.

The end of the book was a tear-jerker and touched lightly on Carl Sagan’s disease - myelodysplasia syndrome. Carl Sagan has many books and documentaries, which I have either briefly read or watched. Yet Billions and Billions spoke to my heart and mind. I think it’s because it was his last book before he died. His last spoken hopeful words to the world. If this book didn’t have a date on it I’d swear it was written this year to us all. You might have already guessed that my book review on Billions and Billions is extremely positive and I wish I could buy it for every human-being. I do know many people have read it, and some so inspired by it they became scientists. I was only 8 years old when Carl Sagan died, but I can imagine that the generation who lived through the Carl Sagan era were devastated when he passed. I feel I have a responsibly to help keep that legacy going, by suggesting to you that you should read this book and go even further on the information and exploration of Carl Sagan life.

Thank you for taking the time to read my book review on Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan.

“Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.” - Carl Sagan