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The Power of Short Sentences- Carl Sagan Contemplates Self-Destruction of the Earth

This speech was delivered at the peace memorial at Gettysburg National Cemetery Park at 1988 by Carl Edward Sagan, who is famously known as astronomers and professor of physical science at Cornell University. The speech contains much of his own personal understanding of advancement of science and civilization. He made interesting connections between a few major wars in the past century including the Civil war, World War II, and the Cold War. He also compared the difference between each historical events and drew the conclusion that the killing is evitable if the “brothers” and “brothers” can unit and disarm the nuclear weapons until the love of the peace is “rekindled”.

This speech is unique from other speeches of the world of peace. Carl creates a personal feeling and emphasizes on little things which make a tremendous difference for the experience as the audience. The most sentences in his speech are long; however, with a couple of powerful short sentences, it really shifts the things a lot.

The first example is the sentence “One bomb”. The sentence appeared twice early in the passage: “Each of those weapons had the equivalent power of about ten thousand tons of TNT, enough to kill a few hundred thousand people. One bomb.”; “… enough to kill a few million people. One bomb. Strategic nuclear weapons in now …” I can imagine Carl Sagan strengthening the tone on either of the two words when delivering the speech because both words are able to draw dramatic effect. The contrast between “hundred thousand/millions” and “one” and simply the word “bomb” not only indicate the physical harm but also pushed the audience to think what’s behind all these numbers- human themselves.

Another example is “We make mistakes. We kill our own.” This combination appeared three times in the middle part of speech for the transition between each modern wars. Having “kill our own” repeating sounds like the history, the history of mankind is repeating while humans were not learning from the mistake. This process evokes connection and regrets in each audience hear no matter whether they are physically involved in the war or not. It challenges the audience’s understanding of the basic logic of “learning from mistakes “and evokes intense emotions as well.

Another one is “They wandered.” It is experiencing its power in the context: “the civil war was mainly about union; union in the face of difference. A million years ago there were no nations on the planet. There were no tribes. The humans who were here were dived into small family groups of a few dozen people each. They wandered.” Here Carl tried to draw an imagery of having no conflicts but community among human beings. “They wandered” sounds much like a land of freedom and peacefulness that no other sentence could describe. Each audience would probably have a different detailed explanation. So vague but detailed at the same time. This is the power of a short sentence.

Published inSpeech Analysis

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