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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Arden told other members of the staff what to do if she pressed the alarm button on her desk: “When the alarm button sounds they are to immediately notify Safety. Safety is to send an officer immediately.”


Sagan was a compulsive dictator, delivering his thoughts into a tape recorder that never seemed far from his lips. The conversational nature of his writing owes much to the fact that he didn’t type, and literally spoke much of the material and had a secretary type it up later. He also liked marijuana. Sometimes the pot and the dictation would be paired. A cannabis brainstorm would send him dashing out of a room to speak into his tape recorder, his friend Lester Grinspoon told one of Sagan’s biographers, Keay Davidson.

The Sagan papers aren’t organized by High and Not High, but there is a lot of material filed in a category with the peculiar name “Ideas Riding.” That’s his free-form stuff, his thought balloons, dictated and then transcribed by a secretary.

For example, from 1978, we find this dictated memo: “Why are palm trees tall? Why not? Because the seeds are so large that they cannot be carried by wind, insects or birds. A high launching platform is necessary so that the coconuts will settle far from the tree. The higher the tree, the further the coconut lands. Therefore, the competition among coconuts accounts for the high height of palm trees which live in environments where there is not a dense competing foliage of other species. To optimize the throw distance, the coconut must be spherical, which it is.”

Sagan did not reveal much of his inner life in his letters, but sometimes in “Ideas Riding” he lets down his guard, as was the case in July 1981: “I can talk about my father in ordinary conversation without feeling more than the slightest pang of loss. But if I permit myself to remember him closely—his sense of humor, say, or his passionate egalitarianism—the facade crumbles and I want to weep because he is gone. There is no question that language can almost free us of feeling. Perhaps that is one of its functions—to let us consider the world without in the process becoming entirely overwhelmed by feeling. If so, then the invention of language is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.”


Sagan’s emergence as the country’s top science popularizer ruffled many of his colleagues. Much of science is, as Sagan himself noted, prohibitive in nature, setting limits on what is and is not physically possible—thou shall not go faster than the speed of light, and so on. Beyond that, the scientific community as a social and even political entity has a number of clear and well-enforced, if unwritten, rules, including, Thou shalt not speculate, thou shalt not talk about things outside your immediate area of expertise, and thou shalt not horse around on late-night TV talk shows.

The scientific community’s divided opinion about Sagan came to a head in 1992, when Sagan was on the verge of being elected, as part of a larger pool of 60 nominees, to the National Academy of Sciences. A rump caucus of scientists within the Academy made a fuss, saying Sagan hadn’t accomplished enough in his research. After a hot debate, with Sagan supporters defending his hard-science achievements, the frowners prevailed, and Sagan’s name was flicked from the list of the newly anointed. Sagan received condolence letters from outraged colleagues; in an interview with me a few years later he shrugged it off, saying he’d always assumed he’d never get in. But Druyan told me, “It was painful. It seemed like a kind of unsolicited slight.” The Academy tried to salve the wound in 1994 by giving Sagan an honorary medal for his contributions to public understanding of science.


Sagan became gravely sick with the blood disorder myelodysplasia in 1994, and underwent a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Cari. Sagan, then 60, wanted everyone to understand that although he was facing the possibility of a premature death, he would not seek comfort in some traditional religious belief in an afterlife.

In 1996, a man wrote to him asking about the distance to heaven. Sagan’s response: “Thanks for your letter. Nothing like the Christian notion of heaven has been found out to about 10 billion light years. (One light year is almost six trillion miles.) With best wishes...”

When a religious couple wrote to him about fulfilled prophecies, he wrote back in May 1996: “If ‘fulfilled prophecy’ is your criterion, why do you not believe in materialistic science, which has an unparalleled record of fulfilled prophecy? Consider, for example, eclipses.”

Sagan became agitated after reading a new book by the legendary skeptic Martin Gardner, whom Sagan had admired since the early 1950s. It suggested that perhaps there was a singular God ruling the universe and some potential for life after death. In November 1996, Sagan wrote to Gardner: “[T]he only reason for this position that I can find is that it feels good....How could you of all people advocate a position because it’s emotionally satisfying, rather than demand rigorous standards of evidence even if they lead to a position that is emotionally distasteful?”

Gardner responded: “I not only think there are no proofs of God or an afterlife, I think you have all the best arguments. Indeed, I’ve never read anything in any of your books with which I would disagree. Where we differ is over whether the leap of faith can be justified in spite of a total lack of evidence...”

I interviewed Sagan that spring in Seattle, where he was undergoing medical treatment, and although chemotherapy had ravaged his body he had lost none of his volubility or his enthusiasm for science, reason and the wonders of the cosmos. He felt confident that he could beat his disease.

We talked a lot that day about extraterrestrial life.

“I’d rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I’d hate to die and never know,” he said.

While he was in Seattle, his secretaries sent a fax daily to Druyan with a rundown on the mail, calls that had come in, speaking invitations, requests for interviews, requests to contribute a piece of writing to some upcoming anthology. Sometimes Sagan would annotate these faxes with a few instructions. Toward the very end he would sometimes merely cross out a paragraph. Couldn’t do it. He was out of time.

Sagan died shortly after midnight on December 20, 1996. He was 62.


Sagan had a few core beliefs, including the sense that there is an order and logic to the universe, that it is fundamentally a benign place, congenial to life and even intelligent life. His cosmos was primed for self-awareness. He sensed that humanity was on the cusp of making a cosmic connection with advanced civilizations (and no doubt that a certain Brooklyn native would be in on the conversation!). In effect, he believed he was fortunate enough to live in a special moment. That notion rubs uncomfortably against the Copernican principle, after the 16th-century discovery that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, which tells us that we should never assume we are in a special place—not in space and not in time.

The cosmos, for whatever reason, declined to produce during his lifetime the intragalactic communication Sagan expected.

Where are they? The question is known as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who blurted it out one day at Los Alamos in 1950. The U.S. was actively working on developing a space program, so why wouldn’t aliens on distant worlds? And if they did, why hadn’t they come to visit? (Never mind the sketchy UFO reports.) The Fermi paradox has become more searing in recent years, ironically because of the discovery of extrasolar planets.

In late 2013 scientists announced that based on extrapolations of data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, which scrutinized a tiny patch of the sky, there may be as many as 40 billion planets that are roughly the size of the Earth and in orbits around their parent stars that put them in what we consider to be the “habitable zone.” Even if the Kepler-data extrapolation is off by an order of magnitude, or two orders, that leaves an astonishing amount of apparently life-friendly real estate in the Milky Way galaxy—which is, of course, just one of, yes, billions and billions of galaxies.


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