Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable

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

(Illustration by Jody Hewgill)
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He gained new fans in 1973 with his book The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, a kind of forerunner to “Cosmos.” Promoting that book, he made the first of more than two dozen appearances on Carson’s show over the next two decades. The Sagan papers include a letter from Sagan to Carson insisting that he’d never actually uttered the phrase most associated with him: “billions and billions.” Carson wrote back: “Even if you didn’t say ‘billions and billions’ you should have—Johnny.”


Sagan’s prominence made him the go-to person for the country’s most famous acidhead, Timothy Leary. On April Fools’ Day, 1974, Sagan and the astronomer Frank Drake visited Leary at the state mental hospital in Vaca­ville, California, where Leary had been locked up on drug possession charges.

Drake, a frequent Sagan collaborator, was a pioneer in the search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and was also known for the Drake Equation, which estimates the abundance of communicative aliens. Leary was a Harvard professor-turned-counterculture-guru who had become a proselytizer for the spiritual and mental benefits of hallucinogens. Lately, inspired by Sagan’s Cosmic Connection, he’d become obsessed with the idea of building a space ark to carry 300 carefully chosen people to another planet orbiting a distant star.

In this curiously emblematic meeting—which has been incompletely described in Sagan biographies but is now plain to see in the archives—Leary asked which star he should aim for. Sagan and Drake broke him the bad news: We don’t have the technology. All the stars are too far away. But true believers are not easily deterred. In a subsequent letter to Sagan, Leary reiterated his desire to “imprint the galactic point-of-view on the larval nervous system,” and said we just need fusion propulsion, longevity drugs and “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”

“I am not impressed by your conclusions in these areas,” Leary wrote. “I sense a block in your neural-circuity[sic].”


Sagan originally planned to call his big TV series “Man and the Cosmos.” The title sounded sexist, however, and Sagan considered himself an ardent feminist. In the Sagan papers, we find this note by Sagan dated April 30, 1978:

1. There. [with some subtitle]
2. Cosmos. [also with some subtitle]
[Both have the advantage of simplicity.]

Fortunately, he went with option 2.

Druyan, in an interview, said of her collaboration with Sagan on “Cosmos”: “It was three years of the most intensive, globe-girdling, mind-stretching kind of enterprise. It was a real trial by fire. It felt like a kind of a long march. What I call climbing Mount Cosmos.”

“Cosmos” began with Sagan on a rocky California beach, saying, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Special effects transported him through the universe in a Ship of the Imagination, and back in time to the Great Library of Alexandria. “Cosmos” was as broad as its name, touching on Moon landings, famous comets, astrology, science, superstition, the human brain, extraterrestrial life and the fallibility of our species.

Sagan told the Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, “I would like to, in the vernacular of the ’60s, blow people’s minds.” (Shales liked what he saw: The “program itself is spectacular and inventive: visually, a fabulous expedition; and intellectually, at least to novices in the sciences, an invigorating, stirring challenge.”)
It was a smashing success—and he soon discovered the special burdens of being that rarest of creatures, the celebrity scientist.


After “Cosmos,” everyone wanted a piece of Carl Sagan. They wanted interviews, book blurbs, annotations of manuscripts. They wanted him to give speeches and participate in conferences. Most of all, they wanted his affirmation. They wanted him to listen to their ideas about God and the nature of reality.

Sagan’s office at Cornell became inundated with letters from eccentrics. He labeled many of them “F/C,” which stood for Fissured Ceramics—Sagan-speak for “crackpots.”

Some correspondents contested his apparent atheism (though Sagan considered himself more of an agnostic, because he couldn’t prove scientifically that God didn’t exist). Some harangued Sagan about alien abductions or novel interpretations of the laws of physics.

“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.”

Another wrote: “I have been experimenting with the force of gravity and I believe that I can demonstrate just what it exists of and how it is caused.”

And another: “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.”

The university eventually set up Sagan’s office with a system for recording phone calls. Here’s a partial transcript, from May 5, 1981, of a call from a man who said his name was James. He spoke to Shirley Arden, Sagan’s indefatigable secretary:

Arden: What kind of things do you feel he’s doing?

James: Well, fooling around with people’s brains, to be specific. With their right hemisphere....

Arden: And you feel that he needs to be punished for this?

James: His right hand will be chopped off and he will—he’ll learn to use his left hand and he’ll become a left-handed person.


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