In the course of the last week, I have learnt of the deaths of two men whose work I greatly admired, first Apple founder Steve Jobs, and today, C and Unix creator Dennis Ritchie. The death of Steve Jobs had a particularly strong effect on me, and in truth I'd spent much of the last week struggling to put together the necessary words to articulate precisely why I should have been so aggrieved by the death of a man who I had never even met, particularly as I have never been a blind admirer of all things Apple, and fully recognize that Jobs was as flawed a human being as any other, and not a particularly likable one at that, at least until his initial ouster in 1985.
I still intend to say a few words about what exactly Steve Jobs meant to me, but in the meantime I'd like to share something by another person who died before his time, and who I considered a personal hero growing up, the man who introduced me to the beauty of science, and the sheer strangeness and magnificence of this universe in which we reside. I am speaking, of course, of Carl Sagan.
I find that Sagan's words here help lend perspective to the deaths of any individuals, however much I might have looked up to them or admired their contributions: the fact of the matter is that any individual life is but an instant in the grand scheme of things, and as much as the passing of particular persons may affect us, this little rock we inhabit will keep on turning for hundreds of millions of years yet, just as it has for the 4.5 billion years it did before we came along. This perhaps may seem like cold comfort to some, but I find it oddly reassuring: from dust we came, and to dust we shall return ...
PS: As an aside, I'd like to mention that I did eventually get to meet Carl Sagan shortly before his untimely death in 1996: he'd happened to come to Dartmouth to give a talk back, and afterwards I went up to ask for his autograph, which he provided on the back of a copy of a paper on the history of group representations which I'd brought with me. I remember Sagan saying making a joking comment about the paper, but what exactly the comment was or why I found it funny I can no longer recall; what struck me most at the time was being surprised at just how tall Carl Sagan was, and how lucky I was to actually be meeting in the flesh the very man whose "Cosmos" ignited my fascination with science as a child. In as far as there are no doubt very many people out there upon whom Carl Sagan had an effect, it simply isn't true that "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones" - at least not in this case.