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Remembering Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan passed away 15 years ago today. Sagan was a gifted astronomer, astrophysicist, writer, and evangelist of science; he was best known for his TV series Cosmos, and his novel Contact, which was later made into a movie. Both dealt with the big questions of science (including are we alone?), and humanity's place in the cosmos -- about finding meaning through the scientific method, and experiencing wonder in the process. Sagan was a tremendously humane man, whose warmth and generosity of spirit exude a comforting glow that has inspired a generation of scientists, and now a generation of artists. In the years since Sagan's death, the rise of the internet and tools to remix and share media have led to hundreds of videos based on Sagan's work. Here, I'll collect some of the best, along with some of my favorite clips from Cosmos. Be warned, this is a very long post -- the man inspired a tremendous amount of creative work.

Earth: The Pale Blue Dot

By director Michael Marantz, using time lapse photography and narration from Sagan's 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space:

We were hunters and foragers. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the Earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls.

Our little terraqueous globe is the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds.

We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?

And here's a short film by David Fu, using more source narration from Pale Blue Dot mixed with clips from classic movies and TV and music by Mogwai:

The Symphony of Science

The Symphony of Science is a project featuring scientists' words set to music. The series is wonderful, though this first installment called "A Glorious Dawn" is still the best:

Here are a few more good Symphony of Science videos featuring Sagan:

We Are All Connected:

The Unbroken Thread:

The Sagan Series

Reid Gower has been assembling videos featuring Carl Sagan, primarily using Sagan’s narration from Pale Blue Dot and assorted documentary footage. The first video started out as a plea for NASA to do a better job at marketing itself, so the public would support increased funding. From there, Gower created The Sagan Series, a bunch of short films of various topics, all using Sagan's voiceover. You can watch the whole series here; check out the first video for a taste:

Carl Sagan and the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions

In this beautiful Sagan "Pale Blue Dot" remix, Torrey Meeks combines footage of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, time lapse footage, and Sagan's increasingly famous "Pale Blue Dot" intro narration. Beautiful, touching, and well-made.

Images and Sounds on Voyager's Golden Record

The Voyager 1 probe was launched in 1977. Among other things, it carries a golden record (actually, gold-plated copper) onboard, containing songs, sounds, and images from Earth, all selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan. In the video below from NPR, we see a montage of images and sounds on the record.

Carl Sagan Interviewed by Ted Turner

In 1989, Ted Turner interviewed Carl Sagan for CNN. The resulting discussion touched on the environment, nuclear warfare, space, time travel, SETI, and many other topics. You can watch the entire interview here; here's the first bit to get you started:

Cosmos as Choose-Your-Own-Adventure

Accountant and Cosmos aficionado Callum Sutherland has remixed the landmark Carl Sagan documentary Cosmos into a "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" style video series called Imagination. Read more about this project, or check out the first installment below:

Cosmos: The Fourth Dimension

In this clip, Sagan explains how to think about the fourth dimension -- including the notion of tesseracts. Read more in my blog post from 2009, or just watch:

Cosmos: The Drake Equation

In this clip from Cosmos, Sagan explains the famous Drake Equation -- a proposal for a way to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. You can read more about this equation, or just enjoy the clip below:

Watch Cosmos for Free, Online

The entirety of Cosmos is available online, for free: watch it on Hulu. (It has ads.) You can also buy it on DVD from Amazon, but it's over a hundred bucks. (I have the DVD set, and personally I think it's worth it.) If you want to learn more about the series, read Documentaries I Like: Cosmos. Rest in peace, Carl.

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Weird
7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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History
Is Death by Guillotine Painless?
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Is death by guillotine painless?

Roger Kryson:

Death by guillotine would be painless because it immediately severs the nerves from your spinal cord to brain. The clean cut would paralyze you after severing your vertebrae, so pain receptors would no longer send signals as your nerves are severed and your body is non-functional. This is, of course, assuming you’re alive after having your head completely chopped off by a 10-pound blade accelerating at speeds of 40 mph, which you wouldn't be. You wouldn't even feel the cold touch of the blade as it sliced into your neck hair; it would be too fast.

For those saying that spasms have been witnessed after execution by guillotine, it should be noted that spasms such as involuntary jerks, eye fluttering, and twitches can occur up to five minutes after death. This is because the brain suffocates, but it does not mean the presence of pain is there. Many people who pass away naturally and painlessly in a hospital bed will twitch, their eyes flutter, and even have bowel movements minutes after death. Once you are dead, you can't “feel” anything, including pain. As for studies mentioned about brain activity continuing in rats after severing of the head, the same goes. Brain activity can still be present after death, but that does not mean the subject is alive, nor [does it have] the defined senses of feeling.

The guillotine was such an effective fear-mongering tool because it didn't focus on pain and suffering, but rather punishment. The idea was you're going to literally just be wiped off the face of the Earth for your crime—you're not even going to be allowed the few extra minutes of torture. The idea of dwelling in a dark cave before being escorted out blindfolded, having your neck placed on a board with a bucket to catch your severed head, and being executed by the drop of the blade and nothing else … it's a jarring realization of just how unsympathetic death is.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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