1940. A small boy enters a New York public library all on his own and approaches the dauntingly high counter. All is quiet save for the rhythmic sound of someone diligently stamping books, the thump echoing through the building. The librarian hears a little voice but can’t see anyone so she adjusts her spectacles and peers downwards. The little boy, aged five, asks her for a book on stars. His eyes shining, he opens the crisp pages and begins to read for himself all the known secrets of those distant pulsating objects which curious astronomers have uncovered. In his own words:
I went to the librarian and asked for a book about stars … And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light … The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. It was a kind of religious experience. There was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.
Thus begins Carl Sagan’s introduction to the world we can only see at night.
From this point on little Carl ravenously devours all there is to know and is eager to find out more. Like the universe, he is ever expanding his insatiable mind in the quest for knowledge without borders.
Always on the cutting edge of astronomy and eager to explore the vast unknowns in the night skies above our heads, Carl Sagan revolutionized the way many people see the cosmos around them. As the initiator of the SETI search for intelligent extraterrestrial life beyond the borders of our solar system he fired up the imagination of many.
Carl’s mother had a great influence on his ambition to discover all he could. Samuel and Rachel Sagan were Reform Jews who lived in Brooklyn, New York and were not particularly well off. Samuel was born in the Russian Empire in a place which is in today’s Ukraine, and immigrated to the US like so many in search of the American dream. He was a garment worker, although due to work scarcity worked as a theatre usher during the Great Depression. Despite their modest circumstances Carl and his sister had a happy childhood and their parents cared a great deal about them. His father helped those who were worse off than himself and sought ways to relieve conflict situations between labour and management in the New York garment industry.
His parents, always supportive of Carl’s thirst for knowledge, took him to the 1939 World’s Fair, similar to the expos of today where all the latest products as well as fads are shown off for the crowds to see.
Carl recalled several of the most memorable things he saw at the World Fair:
A time capsule containing items of the time was buried amid great public interest at Flushing Meadows. This capsule is meant to be opened by future generations to give them an insight into how life in the 1930s. Many years later similar time capsules, the Time Plaque and Voyager Golden Record, were sent into space by Carl’s team as reflections of the civilization of Earth, using concepts whose seeds were planted in Carl’s mind back in 1939.
Carl also saw the America of Tomorrow map showing a glimpse into the future as seen from the perspective of the time. This was an exciting time for the US: new using dams and highways were being planned and built daily and there was a sense of upbeat optimism now that the Depression was history and the ominous developments elsewhere hadn’t yet affected the White House.
A tuning fork which became a wave on an oscilloscope, and a flashlight which when shone on a photoelectric cell made a crackling sound were two more of the marvels he observed.
Television sets also featured prominently at the World Fair and offered a tantalizing peek at the future of entertainment and communication – all very exciting for an enquiring mind such as Carl’s. This visit was a true highlight in the young boy’s life and sowed the seeds of his enthusiasm and curiosity about science and technology.
I challenge you to recall and write down a few things you remember in detail from to when you were four! Chances are your piece of paper will be mostly blank!
War clouds descended on Europe and Carl’s parents constantly worried about the safety of their Jewish relatives in Europe, while at the same time continuing to provide the best for Carl and his sister Carol.
At around seven years of age, Carl and a friend crossed the East River to spend a day in Manhattan visiting the American Museum of Natural History as well as the Hayden Planetarium. These visits continued to kindle Carl’s curiosity about the great world around him beyond the skyscraper-lined borders of New York City.
During his “down time” he relaxed with science fiction books by H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, as well as the imaginative sci-fi magazines of the time. This was the era when the Roswell Incident and various unexplained sightings fired up the search for beings from afar.
He excelled at high school in Rahway, NJ where he graduated in 1951. His teachers recognized how gifted he was and had encouraged his parents to seek a private school where his mind could be better nurtured but this was beyond their means.
From here he went to the University of Chicago where he eventually achieved his doctorate in physics. One of his chief mentors here was the planetary scientist Gerard Kuiper.
From 1962 to 1968 we would have seen him at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In 1971 he began tenure as a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
During all this time he was an advisor to NASA and was involved in the space programme since its inception. The Apollo astronauts had the privilege of hearing a pep talk from him before setting off for the moon.
Always looking further afield, Carl was instrumental in preparing plaques for inspection by possible extraterrestrial life, which accompanied Pioneer 10 and 11 in their space odysseys. An even more elaborate message accompanied the Voyager when it left this earth in 1977.
Probably the single thing which secured his enduring fame among the general public, Cosmos turned out to be the most widely watched PBS television series in history and has been seen by over 500 million people in 60 countries throughout the world. To hear the striking chords of the haunting theme music by Vangelis still brings back memories of taking a trip to the vast vaults of space with the late great Carl Sagan in 1980.
He recognized that knowledge is power and therefore science needed to be popularized, however unpalatable it may be to physics purists. Unfortunately cutting edge pioneers also need funding to achieve their ambitions, and he felt the public had a right to know where their well earned money was going.
Cosmos covered an incredibly wide subject matter for a show with a mere 13 episodes. His new fame made him sought after by many types of people. Some he labelled F/C (fractured ceramics: his variation on crackpots).
Examples of some letters he received:
“I have taken the liberty of incarcerating the alien in the basement of my home. He is eager to meet you. I will be happy to make the arrangements if you wish to visit with him.”
“In two prior letters…I indicated to you that I have discovered a planet between Venus and the earth. I also explained that I am in Attica Correctional Facility and am unable to check out this discovery further without your assistance.”
Among his many achievements Carl also wrote a thoughtful science fiction novel named Contact which was turned into a movie of the same name (1997) starring Jodie Foster as a scientist on an odyssey to seek scientific as well as deeper meaning on her journey through life. The experiences of Dr Ellie Arroway closely mirror the feelings of Sagan himself: determinedly scientific, sceptical and yet seeking the indefinable extra dimension beyond the purely physical.
He served as a scientific advisor for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and advised that the film suggest, rather than overtly depict, extraterrestrial superintelligence. This movie is still one of the most highly acclaimed ever made, and leaves definitive answers to the imagination. Its special effects were ahead of its time.
His numerous published popular science books include The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain and Pale Blue Dot. In 1995 he published The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. His final book was Billions and Billions. This was a good humoured reference to a catchphrase with which people associated him but which he never actually used. The actual phrase he used was:” billions upon billions of stars “– referring to a galaxy, in the book version of Cosmos.
He was an incredibly hard worker and could work 18 hours a day.
He had unsurpassed knowledge and insight into the properties of the planets and moons of our solar system.
He collaborated with Frank Drake in compiling the Arecibo Message which was sent into space in 1974 for potential alien listeners to enjoy. He also co-founded the Planetary Society, which has over 100 000 members, and was a member of assorted scientific societies too numerous to mention.
Never particularly modest, the brilliant author Isaac Asimov described Carl Sagan as one of only two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own, the other one being the computer scientist Marvin Minsky.
Carl had a strong social conscience and spoke of the dangers of the nuclear programme, especially following Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to put a moratorium on nuclear testing from 6 August 1985 (40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima). The US, typically, refused to follow suit and this resulted in numerous protests by concerned people.
Carl advocated the use of marijuana, belying the idea that only brain-addled hippie types, peaceniks and advocates of free love used it. He recognized the medical benefits of this interesting plant early on. He also stated that it had helped develop his sensual and intellectual experiences. This was stated in an incognito document, the authorship of which was only revealed after his death
I haven’t tested his theory for myself yet…have you?
Cannabis is still being studied for its potential benefits in fighting many maladies, including cancer. He was ahead of his time in assessing the potential medical benefits of this much maligned plant. To this day in my country it is illegal to have it on your garden inventory. I’ve house sat for people who had a “dagga” crop growing peacefully in their vegetable garden among the spinach and potatoes, a nice green patch stuck away discreetly at the back of their remote smallholding alongside a railway line. Considering how harmless it is compared to hard drugs, the obsession with keeping it illegal isn’t worth it as the real fight is against heroin and other life-threatening drugs.
Before we drift too far away on a cloud of cannabis-scented smoke, let’s briefly discuss a topic which some sceptics think are drug-induced: UFO’s and extraterrestrial visitation.
Carl Sagan was very open to the idea of alien intelligence out there, and indeed advocated the search for it but as in all his work he used his motto “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – a standard he used in most of his thinking.
He didn’t really believe UFOs were visiting our planet due to the staggering distances involved, because indeed the universe is so vast with its countless distant galaxies that unless they possess technology way beyond our current capabilities, including speed far surpassing that of light, it would be physically impossible, even if they wanted to visit. But he always retained an open mind on this topic, while remaining a sceptic about most purported sightings.
I’m sure ETs would rather visit for the sake of our beautiful beaches and mountains rather than to experiment Frankenstein-like on us and our cattle. They would surely have better things to do and if they indeed have the superior intellect deep space travel involves, they would not desire to consult with the Pentagon, Kim Jong-Un or Vladimir Putin, and would rather seek out individuals they perceive as unique or enlightened in some way.
Sagan was not an atheist. Always true to his scientific upbringing he argued that the existence of a God could neither be proved nor disproved with our limited knowledge of the universe. Thus he would be considered an agnostic.
He commented thus on the relationship between science and spirituality:
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
In 1981 Carl married his third wife, the author Ann Druyan, who had worked side by side on Contact. She has contributed a great deal in keeping his legacy alive since his untimely death, and ensured the continuation of much of his work.
From Pale Blue Dot:
“On it, everyone you ever heard of…The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. . . .
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
Carl Sagan, Cornell lecture in 1994
In the 1990s Carl was once again in Ithaca and giving lectures on critical thinking at Cornell.
Unfortunately he suffered from ill health in the last two years of his life and received three bone marrow transplants, his sister Carol being the donor. His last years were almost as busy as before, and he lost none of his enthusiasm or curiosity. He still hoped that evidence for extraterrestrial life would be found during his lifetime.
Although in remission from myelodysplastic syndrome he developed pneumonia, probably due to the weakening of his immune system, and passed from this earthly plane at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, on 20 December 1996. The world had lost one of its most remarkable minds at age 62.
A walk-in model of the solar system, some 1.2 km in length, called the Sagan Planet Walk, was opened in 1997 and meanders through Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University.
Many other memorials, too numerous to mention, were named in his honour. Somewhere out there is an asteroid called 2709 Sagan.
All Sagan’s papers are available for viewing at the Library of Congress. They arrived in 798 boxes: a testimony to the magnitude of Sagan’s work.
His enduring legacy lives on all around us both on earth and in the stars we see at night. Maybe he can view the Earth as it looks from afar: a pale blue dot in the cosmic depths, like a single grain of sand on a huge beach washed by the slow rhythmic tides of time, and no longer limited by physical confines.