Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable | Science | Smithsonian
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Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable

No one will ever match his talent as the “gatekeeper of scientific credibility”

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We live in Carl Sagan’s universe–awesomely vast, deeply humbling. It’s a universe that, as Sagan reminded us again and again, isn’t about us. We’re a granular element. Our presence may even be ephemeral—a flash of luminescence in a great dark ocean. Or perhaps we are here to stay, somehow finding a way to transcend our worst instincts and ancient hatreds, and eventually become a galactic species. We could even find others out there, the inhabitants of distant, highly advanced civilizations—the Old Ones, as Sagan might put it.

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No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

Now “Cosmos” is back, thanks largely to Seth MacFarlane, creator of TV’s “Family Guy” and a space buff since he was a kid, and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow. They’re collaborating on a new version premiering on the Fox Network on Sunday March 9. MacFarlane believes that much of what is on television, even on fact-based channels purporting to discuss science, is “fluff.” He says, “That is a symptom of the bizarre fear of science that’s taken hold.” The astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, serves as narrator this time, giving him a chance to make the case that he’s the Sagan of our generation. “‘Cosmos’ is more than Carl Sagan,” Tyson told me. “Our capacity to decode and interpret the cosmos is a gift of the method and tools of science. And that’s what’s being handed down from generation to generation. If I tried to fill his shoes I would just fail. But I can fill my own shoes really well.”

It’s an audacious move, trying to reinvent “Cosmos”; although the original series ran in a single fall season—and on public television!—it had an outsize cultural impact. It was the highest-rated series in PBS history until Ken Burns took on the Civil War a decade later. Druyan loves to tell the story of a porter at Union Station in Washington, D.C. who refused to let Sagan pay him for handling luggage, saying, “You gave me the universe.”

The revival of “Cosmos” roughly coincides with another Sagan milestone: The availability of all his papers at the Library of Congress, which bought the Sagan archive from Druyan with money from MacFarlane. (Officially it’s the Seth MacFarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive.) The files arrived at the library loading dock in 798 boxes—Sagan, it seems, was a pack rat—and after 17 months of curatorial preparation the archive opened to researchers last November.

Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, who are reviving “Cosmos,” view Sagan’s papers at the Library of Congress. (Paul Morigi / Getty Images)
(Everett Collection)

The Sagan archive gives us a close-up of the celebrity scientist’s frenetic existence and, more important, a documentary record of how Americans thought about science in the second half of the 20th century. We hear the voices of ordinary people in the constant stream of mail coming to Sagan’s office at Cornell. They saw Sagan as the gatekeeper of scientific credibility. They shared their big ideas and fringe theories. They told him about their dreams. They begged him to listen. They needed truth; he was the oracle.

The Sagan files remind us how exploratory the 1960s and ’70s were, how defiant of official wisdom and mainstream authority, and Sagan was in the middle of the intellectual foment. He was a nuanced referee. He knew UFOs weren’t alien spaceships, for example, but he didn’t want to silence the people who believed they were, and so he helped organize a big UFO symposium in 1969, letting all sides have their say.

Space itself seemed different then. When Sagan came of age, all things concerning space had a tail wind: There was no boundary on our outer-space aspirations. Through telescopes, robotic probes and Apollo astronauts, the universe was revealing itself at an explosive, fireworks-finale pace.

Things haven’t quite worked out as expected. “Space Age” is now an antiquated phrase. The United States can’t even launch astronauts at the moment. The universe continues to tantalize us, but the notion that we’re about to make contact with other civilizations seems increasingly like stoner talk.

MacFarlane, Tyson, Druyan and other members of Sagan’s family showed up at the Library of Congress in November for the official opening of the Sagan archive. The event was, as you’d expect, highly reverential, bordering on the hagiographic. One moment reminded everyone of Sagan’s astonishing powers of communication: After the speakers finished their presentations, the organizers gave Sagan the last word, playing a tape of him reading from his book Pale Blue Dot.

Recall that in the early 1990s, as Voyager I was heading toward the outer reaches of the solar system, Sagan was among those who persuaded NASA to aim the spacecraft’s camera back toward Earth, by then billions of miles away. In that image, Earth is just a fuzzy dot amid a streak of sunlight. Here’s Sagan, filling the auditorium with his baritone, lingering luxuriantly on his consonants as always:

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives...[E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered 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.”

***

He started young. In the Sagan papers, there’s an undated, handwritten piece of text—is it a story? an essay?—from the early 1950s in which Sagan, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, sounds very much like the famous scientist-essayist he would come to be:

There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.

This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.

Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, “I am the great silent spaces between worlds.”

Carl Edward Sagan was born in 1934 in Brooklyn, the son of a worshipful, overbearing mother, Rachel, and a hard-working garment industry manager, Samuel, a Ukrainian immigrant. As he entered adolescence he became an avid reader of science fiction, and gobbled up the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels about John Carter of Mars. His family moved to New Jersey, and he distinguished himself as the “Class Brain” of Rahway High School. In his papers we find a 1953 questionnaire in which Sagan rated his character traits, giving himself low marks for vigorousness (meaning, liking to play sports), an average rating for emotional stability and the highest ratings for being “dominant” and “reflective.”

The adult Sagan always sounded like the smartest person in the room, but in the papers we encounter this interesting note in a 1981 file, right after “Cosmos” hit it big: “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.”

After earning his doctorate Sagan began teaching at Harvard, and as a young scientist, he earned notice for research indicating that Venus endured a greenhouse effect that roasted the surface—hardly a place congenial for life. Later he would make strides in linking the changing surface features on Mars to planetary dust storms—dashing any hope that the markings were linked to seasonal changes in vegetation. It’s an obvious irony of his career that two of his major hard-science achievements showed the universe less hospitable to life, not more.

His speculative nature—freely discussing the possibility of life beneath the surface of the moon, for example—disturbed some of his colleagues. He seemed a bit reckless, and had a knack for getting quoted in newspaper and magazine articles. He published in the popular press—including writing the “Life” entry for Encyclopaedia Britannica. His own calculations in the early 1960s showed that there could be about one million technological, communicative civilizations in our galaxy alone.

And yet he thought UFOs a case of mass misapprehension. Among his papers is a November 1967 lecture Sagan gave in Washington as part of the Smithsonian Associates program. The very first question from an audience member was: “What do you think of UFOs? Do they exist?”

Though a skeptic about UFOs, Sagan had a tendency to be squishy in his comments about flying saucers, and at first he equivocated, saying there’s no evidence that these objects are alien spacecraft but leaving open the possibility that some “small fraction might be space vehicles from other planets.” But then he launched on a protracted riff about all the ways people get fooled.

“Bright stars. The planet Venus. The aurora borealis. Flights of birds. Lenticular clouds, which are shaped like lenses. An overcast [night], a hill, a car going up the hill, and the two headlights of the car reflect on the clouds—two flying saucers moving at great velocity in parallel! Balloons. Unconventional aircraft. Conventional aircraft with unconventional lighting patterns, like Strategic Air Command refueling operations. The list is enormous.”

Sagan was denied tenure at Harvard in 1968, but was quickly scooped up by Cornell. When not teaching and writing, he helped create plaques for the space probes Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. The plaques notoriously depicted a naked man and woman, with some graphical descriptions of the position of the Earth in the solar system and other scientific information—just in case the spacecraft bumped into alien scientists out there somewhere.

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