By my estimate, I am at most three degrees removed from the late astronomer/writer Carl Sagan. In spirit, however, we are much closer.
My connection to Sagan, who died on this date 11 years ago, is pretty convoluted, so bear with me while I try to explain it.
First, some background. In 1972 Sagan and his colleague at Cornell University, Frank Drake, helped devise a plaque for the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes to Jupiter and Saturn. The plaque depicted the nude bodies of a man and a woman, the location of the Sun relative to prominent stars, and other basic details about the origin of the probes. The idea was to leave a calling card on the probes, in case any intelligent life “out there” should find them.
Later in the decade, Sagan and Drake repeated the exercise, making it much more elaborate, for the Voyager probes to the four gas giants. The Voyager Golden Record was a metallized phonograph record, with greetings in 55 languages (including one from Sagan’s son), music from across the globe and 115 photographs.
One of the photographs is by the famous landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, depicting in his signature style the Snake River weaving its way across the high prairie with Wyoming’s Grand Teton Mountains in the background.
At the time (1978), I was a young reporter working for the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune. I proposed to my editor that I write a story about the Voyager missions and the Golden Record, highlighting Wyoming’s connection to the erstwhile communication to extraterrestrials. He agreed, and so I hit the phones.
Unfortunately, I did not get to talk to either Adams, Drake or Sagan, but I came very close. I talked to one of Adams’ assistants, who explained that Adams, normally fiercely protective of reproductions of his work, released the image to the Cornell team for posterity.
Amahl Shakashiri Drake, Frank’s wife, was my contact at Cornell. She graciously gave me the lowdown on why the image was selected, why the record was being mounted to the probes, and other details. Since Amahl was Sagan’s friend and colleague, I figure that puts me two degrees away from Sagan, three if you place Frank Drake as an intermediary.
Like other SF/space nuts, I loved the whole idea of the golden record, and the Voyager mission, which returned some of the most spectacular images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune available then or now. That real scientists like the Drakes and Sagan thought there was a remote possibility that life existed outside our solar system was just fantastic. It validated my unfounded hope in the same possibility. I was not so weird after all.
The Drakes and Sagan were intellectual kin to Gene Roddenberry, the Star Trek creator. (Yes, I am a trekker). All three saw that human existence transcended national borders, that the universe was not necessarily hostile or untrustworthy, and that we humans belong “out there.” Science, technology and logical thought benefit human existence, not threaten it.
Hot on the heels of the Voyager record project, Sagan hosted one of the most influential, well respected science series on US television, Cosmos. Aired in 1980, the 13-week series was a personal account by Sagan of his own journey through and our place in the universe.
[The Science Channel will air the digitally remastered 25th anniversary version of Cosmos beginning Jan. 8. You should watch it.]
Sagan was affable, confident and plain spoken. His delivery, tinged with a Brooklyn accent, was that of a slightly eccentric, but loveable, professor explaining to his students the “way things are.” His turtleneck shirt, corduroy jacket with leather elbows, and explosive “b” were in today’s terms, geeky. Sagan wasn’t stylish. He didn’t speak like a TV actor. And he didn’t mind that he was a geek. In fact he was proud of it.
I was geeky then, and I still am now. Watching Sagan on the TV, and having that however remote connection with him, enabled me to accept the geeky side of me. If this guy from Brooklyn could end up on TV, well then, there was hope for me.
Sagan’s contributions to popularizing science did not end with Cosmos, nor did his influence on me. Sagan was warm but logical, tolerant but firm in his beliefs. ET life might exist; UFOs did not. Evolution was valid; creationism was not. Science made sense; religion did not. Humans could not transcend “the demon-filled world,” as he put it, until they set aside their prejudices and antiquated beliefs, and looked to the future and not to the past.
It’s a refreshing view, an anodyne to the religious nuttiness in the US political and social arenas. Sagan’s was a voice of reason in the wilderness, a prophet of science and critical thought.
Sagan died sooner than he should have, at age 62 of a bone marrow disease. We need people like Carl Sagan still. We have the same problems with superstitious and stupid people as we did in 1996. Whether they would listen to Carl, I can’t say, but at least I would be reassured.