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Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  14,496 ratings  ·  505 reviews
In the final book of his astonishing career, Carl Sagan brilliantly examines the burning questions of our lives, our world, and the universe around us. These luminous, entertaining essays travel both the vastness of the cosmos and the intimacy of the human mind, posing such fascinating questions as how did the universe originate and how will it end, and how can we meld sci ...more
Paperback, 296 pages
Published May 12th 1998 by Ballantine Books (first published June 2nd 1997)
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Jenny GB
Jul 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Carl Sagan writes about many topics in this book, but manages to make them all readable and understandable. My favorites are his essays on exponential growth and decay, the universe, and abortion. He really clearly lays out his thoughts and makes hard to understand concepts reachable in science and mathematics. He makes what is probably the most logical argument I have ever read in the abortion debates about our need to decide what makes us human and determine at what point that happens. His sho ...more
May 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I liken Carl Sagan's explanation of physics, mathematics and astronomy in Billions and Billions and all his books to what Steven Pinker did for the field of linguistics in The Language Instinct: he takes extraordinarily complex phenomena and breaks them down so the intelligent reader fascinated by such quandaries, but who just didn't have the passion to study them academically, can understand and muse upon. I used Pinker's work when teaching linguistics in graduate school, and I could see physic ...more
I am a great fan of Carl Sagan and it is with some sadness that I can recommend this, his last book, only partially. It is a collection of nineteen essays, organized into three mostly unrelated parts. Some items are well worth reading—particularly the last—but some not at all.

Part 1, "The Power and Beauty of Quantification," is merely a simple echo of his famous book Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980). The first chapter on large numbers, from which the "Billions and Billions" of this book's title
Mar 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
The core premise of Sagan's final book is, to paraphrase an old Native American saying, "We have not inherited the Earth from our ancestors, but have borrowed it from our children." So stop the F screwing it up.

Presented as 3 parts of 19 essays in total, some of the essays, especially in the first part, are similar to the material he covered in Cosmos: cosmology and the vastness of space, our history as a species, general physics, life outside Earth. Some of the other essays are about then emerg
Rami Hamze
Aug 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
Series of articles by the brilliant Carl Sagan in his last book on topics such as humanity, the universe, religion, love and death

i rate this book 3 stars, and a fourth star is just for Carl Sagan as a human who i look up to as the best cosmic citizen ever lived. every sentence i read i imagined from his "cosmos" voice and smile. who else could touch on all topics of science, math, religion, love and emotions in one discussion and reach all levels of people?

last chapter "In the valley of the sha
Whitney Milam
I will never tire of reading Carl Sagan's thoughts on anything and everything.

We’ve been here for only about a million years, we, the first species that has devised means for its self-destruction. We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think as well as we can. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves, but for all those, humans and others, who came before us, and to whom
Dec 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Sagan is eloquent as always. It helps even more to read it out loud to yourself, (muttering lest someone observe) and make up a Sagan accent as you go. He takes a gentle hand, which I think bespeaks desperation in his last years, his last chance to nudge the ball forward amidst tangible fear that forceful will be deemed strident, erudite will sound preachy, and warning the bitter rantings of an old Cassandra. Carl knows he's on the losing team, he loves humanity, and deeply fears our suicide by ...more
This is I think Carl Sagan's last published book, published in 1996. His chapter/essay, entitled "The Twentieth Century," is one of the most insightful summaries of what the universe is that I ever read. Well, maybe not the most insightful, but surely in the top three:

"Perhaps the most wrenching by-product of the scientific revolution has been to render untenable many of our most cherished and most comforting beliefs. The tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors has been replaced by a co
Paul Martin
Jun 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
Six times now have I looked Death in the face. And six times Death has averted his gaze and let me pass. Eventually, of course, Death will claim me - as he does each of us. It's only a question of when. And how.

I've learned much from our confrontations - especially about the beauty and sweet poignancy of life, about the preciousness of friends and family, and about the transforming power of love. In fact, almost dying is such a positive, character-building experience that I'd recommend it to eve
Mar 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-i-own
What a great book. It was well written and really touched on a variety of different topics. Though it is dated now, I still feel that I gained a lot by reading it. And the last two chapters where he talked about his disease and views on death really struck deep with me.
Mar 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wow. That was nothing short of beautiful. Sagan begins with a little introduction about the long misinterpreted understanding of who really said “Billions and Billions” and now he chooses what was a misconception or humorous parody of him to be the title of his last book. This is a way of him ending his legacy on a note of “thank you for remembering me”. Sagan then talks numbers for a little while to really show how small the big things are or how easily and quickly we can reach them. Once we ar ...more
Jul 13, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Written at the end of his life and published with an post script illuminating his unsuccessful battle with myelodysplasia, as well as a touching epilogue by his widow Ann Druyan. The book starts out with a kind of fleshing-out of humanity by its numbers, things like human population and resource usage and the age of the species are all implicitly synthesized into a description of people by very large numbers. It then touches on social and environmental issues, how people react to them, and what ...more
Nov 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing
First it was Ann Druyan’s bittersweet epilogue, and then the very next page Carl’s unfinished acknowledgements began with his words to Annie: “I want to be like you when I grow up.” Every copy of this book, not just mine, must have those pages wrinkled up with water.

The rest: everything you would expect from Carl Sagan. Fabulous, even when what should be badly dated by now still sadly applies.

Highly recommended to any and all.
Jul 10, 2008 rated it liked it
Sagan can be a little repetitive but that doesn't mean his words carry no less value. The chapter on abortion is worth your time if you've ever been even mildly divided on the issue, which you should be. Also, I teared up on the bus reading In The Valley of the Shadow, which documents Sagan's fatal battle with myelodysplastic syndrome.
Jason Schneeberger
Dec 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As I always think when I finish one of his books; few who have ever put pen to paper have ever been more wise or knowledgeable than Carl Sagan
Z. Yasemin
May 31, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Carl Sagan was not only a successful, fun, approachable educator and astronomer, but he was also great author which keeps the reader excited and curious to move to the next chapter... then close the book and think what he just told you!
Jacob Williams
May 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Being afraid of quantification is tantamount to disenfranchising yourself, giving up on one of the most potent prospects for understanding and changing the world.

What this book offers: thoughtful comments on climate change, abortion, and nuclear arms proliferation

My only previous exposure to Sagan was via his fiction, the novel and movie Contact. Now I have some sense of why he was such a beloved science communicator. Billions & Billions begins with a discussion of big numbers, using multiple ap
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Thought provoking.

And honestly? More than a little disheartening.

A big chunk of this book deals with the CFC disaster of the 80's-90's and the parallels to be drawn between that and current climate change...going from the analysis of the threat, to the denial by big business, to the penalties coming to fruition, before FINALLY, some change being made.

It was....honestly a little depressing. And I'm not sure that's a situation that'll get better anytime soon.

Recommended for food for thought.
Saurav Sharan
Jul 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
I must say, I have never completed a book faster:just three sittings and last half in a two hour flight to Mumbai.I am inclined to be a little proud of this achievement.
My heroics were partly possible because the book is predictable in its first half, where Carl Sagan begins by enumerating the environmental problems,the world is facing,beamed especially with Ozone depletion and Global warming. The research and subsequent efforts by different companies, countries and communities have been capture
Menglong Youk
Billions and Billions, which was the last book of the one and only, Carl Sagan includes 19 different essays on subjects like history of the cosmos, science and mankind, danger of nuclear weapons, ozone layer disappearing, relationship between science and religions, abortion, and especially his personal fight with the disease that took his life away from yhis world. I love the way he reasoned his arguments with simple explanation and eye-opening examples. His enthusiasm makes readers interest and ...more
Ashish Samuel
Apr 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: physics, essays
Carl Sagan talks about dozens of varied subjects like space exploration, climate change, inequality, arms race, abortion rights etc, in such an empathetic and harmonizing voice that masks the bitterness these divisive debates have generated over the years and still does. None of the thoughts and musings he share may sound new to someone reading it two decades later. He wrote this in a distant age when the internet and mobile phone technology were in their infancy, which later grew into proportio ...more
Patrick Kelly
Powerful book. Carl Sagan shows deep understanding and humility of and for the human race. He speaks of philosophy, the climate change, abortion, life, death, nuclear war, and the as always the universe.

Sagan was concerned for the human race and the ideas he presents are relevant today. I am sad that he did not live to see the success of the human race but simultaneously glad he did not see our failures. We should have headed his warnings.

The one thing Carl Sagan did not see coming was the pow
Mar 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Read today, "Billions and billions" is a series of musings on popular dark things hurting the planet today: pollution, nuclear war, disease, climate change. It is bleak at times, but overall optimistic. A bit too naively optimistic for today's standards of end-of-the-world sensationalist predictions.
But this is exactly what it makes it stand out.
Oh, yes. And another thing that makes it stand out: it has been written by a highly competent man of science.
More than twenty years ago.
If you start
Sep 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Some of the essays were wonderful, some I really didn't enjoy. The book was also not what I was expecting. The last few chapters and epilogue, describing his illness and his death left me ugly crying in front of strangers on a train. Regardless of my like or dislike for this particular book, Sagan was a wonderful human, and the world is absolutely better off for having had him in it.
Jim Razinha
Jan 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

This falls into the Books I Should Have Read Already category, although it could also be in the Small Stacks of Found Books one because I did find it at a used bookstore while looking for something else.

Sagan covered a lot, in his very accessible way, and a reader might get an impression that he ran out of time, which of course, he did. I’ll not summarize here but I will share a few notes I made and observations I flagged... I do want to point out that even good thinkers like Sagan make mi
Rithu Chillal
Jan 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I first became enthralled by Sagan at age fourteen when I discovered my dad's copy of Cosmos. Eighteen years later, I finally decided to read this one. I can't remember the last time, if ever, I've teared up at the end of a non-fiction book. The more I read of Sagan and his work, the more I'm humbled and impressed by not only his scope of technical knowledge of the Universe (I appreciate his use of capitalization) but his complete reverence for it.

In this book, this reverence flows down to the
Jon I.
Jul 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: physical
Another great book from the late, great Carl Sagan. Though I think The Demon Haunted World is an overall better book, Billions & Billions is no slouch. Focusing on a variety of topics such as environmental protection, climate change, abortion, the moral implications of science, and 20th-century progress, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's essays are as vital as ever. Some of the information is outdated -- as to be expected from a book largely written in 1996 -- but the lessons he imparts and the questi ...more
Todd Burris
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Good book. First and third segments are more interesting than the middle. In the first segment Sagan quantifies some figures and reminds us how small and almost inconceivable our world is. Out of the countless stars and rocks in the Universe we exist on the perfect rock situated perfectly from our star. Of course, life could exist under different circumstances in other parts of the Universe. He also reminds us that scientific understanding is available to all.

The second segment is about the envi
Carl Sagan's final book, finished up shortly before his untimely death in 1997. Because of that some of the science presented in the book has been surpassed in the last 20 years. But most of his conclusions, and fears, have continued along much the same paths as he discussed in the book, global warming, pollution and uncontrolled population growth.

As with most books of this type I was totally engrossed by the hard science topics and less so by most of the 'soft science' discussion. Still, overa
Sagan's "compete with one another in good works" graf:
"Let us vie in art and science, in music and literature, in technological innovation. Let us have an honesty race. Let us compete in relieving suffering and ignorance and disease; in respecting national independence worldwide; in formulating and implementing an ethic for responsible stewardship of the planet."
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In 1934, scientist Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. After earning bachelor and master's degrees at Cornell, Sagan earned a double doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1960. He became professor of astronomy and space science and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University, and co-founder of the Planetary Society. A great popularizer of science, Sagan produced th ...more

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