Carl Sagan, Corvair Owner, Practical Philosopher, Individual.


I have always admired the work of Carl Sagan since I first saw “Cosmos.” He also wrote the story to the film “Contact“, which I think of as great Science Fiction. Many people in the Corvair world know that the one car he owned was a 1964 Corvair convertible, which has been restored since his passing. Above all else, Sagan was a first order observer of the human condition.

I do not like conspiracy theories generated by the internet. I detest that stuff, it often shows how poorly educated people are to believe things that defy physics and simple observation. That stream of BS cries wolf all the time and often has the effect of numbing people to real issues that need to be considered, understood and addressed.

My first year in College was going to night classes at Kean in NJ, about a million years ago. Most of the students were in their 30s and 40s and took the work seriously. I had a class on the Philosophy of Science in the 20th century. The professor started out by showing us how many of the scientists that had worked on the initial atomic weapons later morally regretted it, feeling that they had unwittingly played a role in making the end of life a real possibility. He then said this subject in 20th century was well worth studying, because it was just the opening round, a prelude of what was to come in the next 50 years.  He brought up human cloning, artificial intelligence and the end of privacy and the restriction of choice. He pointed out that all of those things would be done by scientists or with tools provided by them, and we had damn well do a better job on the following rounds than we did on developing atomic weapons without considering where it almost lead. 32 years later, I am not so sure we have.

The class largely was studying the work of four very influential writers. Jacob Bronowski, (who wrote the Ascent of Man), C.P. Snow ( who wrote The Two Cultures).  Author Koestler,( who wrote Darkness at noon) and Sagan. The quote below fits in with the type of concept that we looked at. Snows book spoke of how few people in society understood what science was working on, and it was published in  1947! Koesler stood next to Orwell as the greatest anti-totalitarian of his day. If you are a fan of the 1980s band The Police, you may be surprised that their song titles, Ghost in the Machine, synchronicity, Invisible Sun and others were chapter titles in Koestler’s books.

Bronoski was widely thought of as the last man who had full mastery of most of the branches of science, but his strongest attachment was to examining its morality. He filmed a segment about how science was about questions, not certainty of answers. To make his point, he contrasted the quest for knowledge with the Fascist certainty that they alone had all the answers. When the camera drew back he was standing knee-deep in the pond at Auschwitz where his families ashes were flushed.

Get a good read on the Sagan quote below, it isn’t a pretty thought, but it is undeniable that things have shifted in the direction of his warning.  We all have friends who send us warnings  in the form of forwarded emails about Mexico taking Texas back, Idaho going to Sharia law, albino pythons that live in septic tanks and how the government hid the aliens at area 51.  What Sagan was warning about is reality, and one way you can tell he was right is by the percentage of people who actually believe most of the garbage in internet stories.


 What does this have to do with Corvair flight engines? Any time you are working on your Corvair engine, building an airframe and developing all of your flight skills, you are supporting and participating in the real technical world, the world of Physics, Chemistry and Gravity. By learning and mastering any technical skill, you are making sure that there is one less undeveloped person in our world.

Note that Sagan sees technical manufacturing, and the type of jobs it provides, with the education that those jobs require, as the basis of a strong democratic society founded on “We the People.” Service and information are important, but they are there to support the technical-manufacturing base, by themselves they are unbalanced.  Would you like to know why I think it is very important that our parts be made here instead of in China? Although we are building a simple engine, most of our parts are made by very high-end CNC shops and made from US refined materials. You are supporting very good jobs here. If an American wants to buy a Rotax 912, that is their choice, but in my book they forfeit the right to complain about the US unemployment rate and/or the economy. (When the trade deficit is 40 billion a month, it doesn’t matter who is trying what with our economy, it isn’t going to work.)

If you read one single thing this weekend, go on-line and read George Orwell’s 1941 review of Koestler’s book Darkness at Noon. Koestler had been a communist and survived the purges, before concluding that the police state is the greatest enemy of humanity. The book is a very personal account of why individuals, even good ones, succumb to the will of the state.  He also points out that the humans who start such governments are not pure monsters, they have some perspective, however, the people who are born into, and have only known such a world, frequently are capable of pure evil. (Think of the new, 29 year old, leader of North Korea when you read Orwell’s piece.)

I think that building and flying your own aircraft, a device that serves no purpose to society or government, something that is just for you the individual, is a very important act that reinforces the dignity and value of being an individual. No matter how you think we got here or what you think we are supposed to be doing, we can agree that the points in history were individuals had no value were not the brightest chapters in human history.

I love animals and think they are great,  but the two things that are supposed to set us apart are the fact we make tools and we can choose to act as individuals and not part of a collective herd. Funny how fewer people make and use tools these days and how that coincides with many people behaving more like a herd. Individuals creating art in any form, painting, music, dance or even aircraft building, even if it is done just to please one human, is just as important as any act for the greater good.

  The first time I read Johnathan Livingston Seagull I thought it was stupid gibberish (because I was 17, the age where we were all a unapreciated genius). Later I understood that Bach’s point is that if every act is judged on the sole merit of its value to society, we will end up with the conformity of a flock of seagulls, complete with their compulsive need to peck non-conforming individuals to death, just to protect the uniformity. (It also took me an embarrassingly long time to get that the seagull was named after Johnny Livingston, one of the worlds greatest pilots ever.)

Out there, many builders reading this are probably thinking :”I just wanted to build an engine and go flying, not change the world” Well if you stick with it and finish and fly, I can assure you that one world will change for the better…your own.-ww

One Reply to “Carl Sagan, Corvair Owner, Practical Philosopher, Individual.”

  1. William, I am really thankful for your introducing these Gems. But awful to realize we are in the midst of these predictions.

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