Read Billions & Billions Online

Authors: Carl Sagan

Billions & Billions


“His 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


he was one of the finest modern exponents of science for the general public. Here, jargon-free, are some of the pressing questions humanity faces. We ignore them at our own peril.”

Savannah Morning News

“Sagan’s voice … rises soothingly from every page.… A graceful, thoughtful parting gift of a great teacher to his class. Only time will tell if that class, the human race, takes his lessons and lectures to heart.”

Winston-Salem Journal

“The book is flush with new ideas and questions. He anticipates ‘goose-bump-raising discoveries’ and ponders four of the most interesting problems he would choose to work on.”

The Denver Post

“[A] terrific collection of essays on science, astronomy, [and] social conscience … These nineteen essays illustrate what was perhaps his major gift—the ability to explain complex science … to a general audience.… The last essay … is a touching reflection on hard thinking, beliefs and the work of a lifetime.”

Dayton Daily News

“More personal, and far more poignant, than anything he ever wrote before.”

The Hartford Courant

“One of the finest exponents of science for the general public … These brief pieces apply scientific knowledge to the exploration of essential questions about the environment and the world’s future in a disarmingly clear and charming manner.… Sagan was upbeat to the last, and a true believer in humanity’s ability to transcend its worst impulses. This book captures his spirit at its best.”

Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

“Flashes with Sagan’s curiosity, wonder, and humanity.”


“Sagan compels his readers to look at life.”

Publishers Weekly



Intelligent Life in the Universe
(with I. S. Shklovskii)

The Dragons of Eden

Broca’s Brain


Contact: A Novel

(with Ann Druyan)

A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End
of the Arms Race
(with Richard Turco)

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are
(with Ann Druyan)

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

A Ballantine Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group

Copyright © 1997 by The Estate of Carl Sagan

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,
New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House
of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 98-96080

eISBN: 978-0-307-80102-9

This edition published by arrangement with Random House, Inc





List of Illustrations

List of Illustrations

Photograph of Carl Sagan with Johnny Carson on the Tonight show, May 30, 1980

Counting big numbers—six sketches by Patrick McDonnell

The Grand Vizier’s reward—three sketches by Patrick McDonnell

Exponential growth in bacterial population, showing the flattening of the curve

Exponential growth in human population, showing the flattening of the curve

Ripples in water on the surface of a lake, showing the wave pattern

The electromagnetic wave spectrum—note the small portion that we experience as visible light

Surface-reflectance properties of ordinary pigments in visible light

Carbon dioxide concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere over time

Timeline of global temperatures

Greenhouse Warming—sketch by Patrick McDonnell

Nuclear Power—sketch by Patrick McDonnell

Solar Energy—sketch by Patrick McDonnell

Human fetal development—drawings showing fetus at conception and at three weeks

Human fetal development—drawings showing fetus at five weeks and at sixteen weeks

Human fetal development—drawings showing resemblance of a human fetus to, in succession, a worm, an amphibian, a reptile, and a primate

Part I


There are some … who think that the number of [grains of] sand is infinite.… There are some who, without regarding it as infinite, yet think no number has been named which is great enough.… But I will try to show you [numbers that] exceed not only the number of the mass of sand equal to the Earth filled up … but also that of a mass equal in magnitude to the Universe.

(CA. 287–212
B. C
The Sand-Reckoner

never said it. Honest. Oh, I said there are maybe 100 billion galaxies and 10 billion trillion stars. It’s hard to talk about the Cosmos without using big numbers. I said “billion” many times on the
television series, which was seen by a great many people. But I never said “billions and billions.” For one thing, it’s too imprecise. How many billions
“billions and billions”? A few billion? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? “Billions and
billions” is pretty vague. When we reconfigured and updated the series, I checked—and sure enough, I never said it.

But Johnny Carson—on whose
Tonight Show
I’d appeared almost thirty times over the years—said it. He’d dress up in a corduroy jacket, a turtleneck sweater, and something like a mop for a wig. He had created a rough imitation of me, a kind of Doppelgänger, that went around saying “billions and billions” on late-night television. It used to bother me a little to have some simulacrum of my persona wandering off on its own, saying things that friends and colleagues would report to me the next morning. (Despite the disguise, Carson—a serious amateur astronomer—would often make my imitation talk real science.)

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