Saturday, November 9, 2013

Happy Carl Sagan Day!


- Brother Ali, "Get Up, Stand Up"

Happy Carl Sagan Day! As you can imagine, there's been a lot of activity today on the Carl Sagan Google Doodle Campaign's Facebook page. Several have expressed disappointment that Google has let yet another November 9th slip by with no Google Doodle in Sagan's honor. I am disappointed as well, but, perhaps ironically, though I am the founder of the Carl Sagan Google Doodle Campaign, I am not surprised that there is no Doodle for Carl. I have more to say about this, but I wanted to say it verbally rather than in writing:

The lack of a Google Doodle will not put a damper on the festivities tonight in my part of the 'verse. Tonight is our Bonfire Celebration on the Pale Blue Dot. I may be attempting something no one else has ever done before: combining Guy Fawkes Night with Carl Sagan Day. I think the two seemingly unrelated events have implications which are very much related. Simply stated, the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot points to the significance of history and the interconnectedness of humanity, and the works and teachings of Carl Sagan show us how insignificant humanity's vain attempts at power and glory have been throughout history, as well as how connected we are to each other. Let me explain...


- Neil deGrasse Tyson

In 1605, a group of Catholics plotted to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords. They worked to undo Protestant rule of England and end the persecution of their faith. 36 barrels of gunpowder were placed below Parliament. Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was given the task of igniting the gunpowder. Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one of the Catholic conspirators, received an anonymous letter which warned against attending Parliament for the opening. Monteagle gave the letter to Robert Cecil, who later ordered searches of the whole of the Houses of Parliament. Fawkes was discovered and arrested. He told his captors that his name was "John Johnson," and he was taken away and tortured. Fawkes, a strong man with military training and experience, lasted several days before divulging any information about the Gunpowder Plot or his co-conspirators. In the end, Fawkes didn't reveal anything to the authorities that his fellow captured plotters hadn't already confessed.

Fawkes and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were tried in Westminster Hall and found guilty, they were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster and St Paul's Yard, where they were to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fawkes, in a weakened state, mustered up enough strength to hurl himself from the gallows and breaking his own neck upon hitting the ground.

November 5 became a holiday in England known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night - it celebrated the foiling of the gunpowder plot. A grotesque effigy of Fawkes, termed a "guy", would be created and displayed as part of the Bonfire Night celebration. As part of the tradition, people would often stand on street corners begging for "a penny for the guy." The effigy would be burned on a bonfire at the end of the evening to celebrate and commemorate Fawkes' foiled assassination attempt. Many went so far as to praise God for saving King James. Fawkes became a symbol of evil in subsequent years, likened to the devil himself. John Milton's Satan in book six of Paradise Lost was inspired by Fawkes as the Devil invents gunpowder to try to match God's thunderbolts. Post-Reformation and anti–Catholic literature often personified Fawkes as the Devil in this way. From Puritan polemics to popular literature, all sought to associate Fawkes with the demonic. However, his reputation has since undergone a reformation,

But there has been some "sympathy for the devil," particularly in recent years with the film V for Vendetta portraying Guy Fawkes as a freedom fighter, sacrificing his life in the battle against oppression and tyranny. In our modern times he is often toasted as "the last (or only) man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions." Guy Fawkes (or at least the now famous Guy Fawkes mask) has, for many, become a symbol of rebellion against governmental, religious, and political oppression.

In spite of his newly polished image, many still hold that Fawkes wasn't a freedom fighter at all, but fought to restore Catholic dominion of England. If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded, they say, Britain would have (ironically) looked more like the fascist police state Alan Moore warned us about in V for Vendetta. For such people, Fawkes' actions are nothing more than extremist religious terrorism.

I wrote that the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot point to the significance of history and the interconnectedness of humanity. Had Fawkes been successful, I can only imagine how different the world would be today. I'm not just referring to the impact it would have had on England. King James, the target of Fawkes' assassination attempt, is the same King James whose name and blessing were given to the King James Version of the Bible in 1611. In January 1604, King James I convened the Hampton Court Conference where a new English version was conceived in response to the perceived problems of the earlier translations as detected by the Puritans, a faction within the Church of England. James gave the translators instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. Guy Fawkes' actions in 1605 could have impacted the face of the Christian world dramatically. Another way of looking at it is that the person who wrote the anonymous warning letter did change it. Perhaps the world would still have the KJV as it is today, but an overthrow of power could have altered that course.

The Gunpowder Plot reminds me that we are affected by people we've never met: many of whom have been dead for centuries. The words of theologian R.C. Sproul come to mind: "We like to believe that we create our little worlds from scratch and then live in them. But the reality is, we step into an environment that already exists, and we learn to interact with it. The game has been conceived long before us; the rules and boundaries already decided." I'm no fan of Sproul, but I appreciate the depth of his words here. The ideas and actions of the thinkers and doers of history affect us, whether we realize it or not.

Among these thinkers of history, one of my favorites is Carl Sagan. From wikipedia: Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996) was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, science popularizer and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. He published more than 600 scientific papers and articles and was author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. He advocated scientific skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, pioneered exobiology and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Sagan is known for his popular science books and for the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which he narrated and co-wrote. The book Cosmos was published to accompany the series. Sagan wrote the novel Contact, the basis for a 1997 film of the same name.

Sagan showed us how insignificant humanity's vain attempts at power and glory have been throughout history, as well as how connected we are to each other, particularly in his reflections on a picture called "The Pale Blue Dot."

Also from wikipedia: The Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spaceprobe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth, as part of the solar system Family Portrait series of images. In the photograph, Earth is shown as a tiny dot (0.12 pixel in size) against the vastness of space.[2] The Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and to take a photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of Carl Sagan.

Subsequently, the title of the photograph was used by Sagan as the main title of his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Sagan offers these thoughts as he considers the Pale Blue Dot: "The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

For every King James and Guy Fawkes who have appeared in the annals of history, there have been thousands more just like them, all struggling to capture a very brief moment of power over a very tiny portion of a very tiny world. This earth is all we have. We can fight over it, and we can stand in judgment over each other, or we can share it for the brief time we have to spend on it.

Tonight, at our Guy Fawkes Night/Carl Sagan Day celebration, we will burn an effigy - not out of hatred, but out of humility - in remembrance that our light is tiny, and it won't last long, but we can enjoy its brightness and warmth in this time we have together.

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