My personal journey with Carl Sagan 3

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.

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3 thoughts on “My personal journey with Carl Sagan

  1. Reply PK Dec 21,2007 7:46 pm

    You DO know about Sagan as the BHA, though, no?

    Google it.

    That said, I’ve always been partial to Sagan because of my affection for the movie Contact.

  2. Reply eljefe Jul 5,2009 9:59 pm

    … the open-mindedness and tolerance which he extols, and which have been so instrumental to his success and that of other like-minded people is, itself, a direct product of western protestant Christian thinking.

    That is overstating the case. I would not give Protestantism full credit for open-mindedness and tolerance. Certainly, the philosophers of the Enlightenment had some influence, as well. With certain exceptions (the Quakers, the Baptists), most of the Protestant churches of the 16th-18th centuries were as intolerant and close-minded as the religions they sought to reform or withdraw from. We can use the Puritans, both in the UK and in the colonies, as examples of the latter kind of behavior.

    Open-mindedness and tolerance are not traits held by all believers of whatever religion we might study. Sectarianism is a major problem still, even in the United States. While our political philosophy, laws and educational systems may encourage tolerance, there are many whose hearts are closed to the nobler aspects of their religious belief. The mistrust of “the Other” is still with us. Substitute the words “the Other” with “immigrants,” “Mexicans,” “Muslims,” “Obama,” “gays,” or “atheists” and you have most of the talking points of the right-wing Christians at your fingertips.

    Sagan and I share his trepidation about religion — like The Shadow — “clouding men’s minds.” Certainly, we can argue that belief in a single Creator who put order in the universe indirectly led Europeans to become scientists and philosophers, but there were scientists and philosophers among the pagan Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Sumerians as well. Dogmatic and sectarian thought, on the other hand, shuts believers’ minds to the worth and contributions of those outside their particular religion. Contradictions to their rather rigid world-views threatens them and makes them fearful them. What should be an intellectual discussion instead becomes an emotional one, especially if the religious feel they must “defend the Faith” at any cost. Creationism is one such example. Despite abundant evidence supporting an earth that is billions of years old, creationists hold tightly to their belief, and many are notably intolerant and close-minded, accusing scientists (and Darwin) of being atheists intent on bringing down the Christian church.

    I do not here evangelical Christians (the dreaded so-called “religious right”) calling for silencing their opponents for “hate speech”, and I haven’t heard any talk of criminalizing people for being “enemies of the Faith”. Instead, I have heard of previously lawful (even if controversial) speech being silenced because of it’s religious content, and I have heard spokesmen for the scientific community label others as “enemies of Science”.

    You are not listening very carefully, then. There is a subset of evangelicals, the Dominionists, who are bent on making the United States a Christian nation, following Scriptural laws. Some have suggesting amending the Constitution to make Christianity the official religion of the USA. Sarah Palin, who may or may not have some connections to these people, spent most of her campaigning last fall accusing large parts of the USA of being “un-American.” We have Congressmen, like Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann, suggesting members of Congress of being un-American, too. Many in the religious right mistrust Obama, question his nationality, his Christian beliefs, his motives. There are prominent televangelists, and nearly every right-wing talking head, who routinely blame all the ills of the world on whatever “Other” happens to be the focus of the day. Much of this rhetorical blather borders on hate speech, and some crosses the line.

    Anyone who tries to force religious thinking into science classrooms could be called an enemy of science. There are plenty of people across the nation who are teaching creationism — or who want to teach creationism — as if it is a legitimate scientific explanation. They confound the ill-educated with their hand-waving arguments and lax definitions of “science,” making it difficult if not impossible for people to understand real science.

    Sure, there are atheists who are also dogmatic and intolerant, and scientists as well. These may be human traits we cannot entirely escape. But the atheists and scientists don’t justify their behavior by appealing to a Higher Being who supposedly tells them what to do and how to think. In that, they are hopelessly outnumbered.

  3. Reply Bill Cravens Jul 5,2009 6:47 pm

    I’m re-reading Cosmos, hence my search for Sagan-related information on the net. (I started out searching sites related to his accent… myself, I never did hear much “Brooklyn” in him but then, I’m not myself from the East Coast.) I always enjoyed Sagan’s insights, and his style. I’m currently reading his book “The Varieties of Scientific Experience” (a parallel of “The Varieties of Religious Experience”). However, though I enjoy Sagan’s work, I cannot agree with his take on “religion”. He starts with a definition of religion as “belief in god or gods”, and then holds himself and other agnostics to be free of this affliction. In reality, religion is much better defined as “the attempt to find meaning and/or purpose in life”. Confuscians and Buddhists, for example, have much to say about how we live and how we treat one another, but are indifferent as to belief in a “personification of the self-existant”. Whether one believes Ultimate Reality to be a “person” or not is indeed often associated with the belief that we “ought” to live a certain way, but it is not essentially and unavoidable connected with it. There are “believers” in God (Deists) who make few or no judgements in His Name. There are secularists (including Sagan) who feel very sure that some policies are good, and others evil, inspite of the fact that their view of the Cosmos is that it’s utterly indifferent to our “opinions”.

    For this reason, although I thoroughly respect Dr. Sagan’s right to believe as he does, and in fact delight in reading his works and listening to him, I am concerned about what may constitute a subtle hostility on his part toward the “religion” of others. I would be quick to point out that the open-mindedness and tolerance which he extols, and which have been so instrumental to his success and that of other like-minded people is, itself, a direct product of western protestant Christian thinking. There have, of course, been narrow-minded and hostile religious believers. But is there any doubt that for every Torquemada or medieval pope or Bin Laden that agnostics can point to, there is a Stalin or Mao or Hitler to which religious believers can just as rightly point? In the meantime, the whole idea that we “ought” to be tolerant of others (whether it suits our own purposes or not) is, itself, a “religious” statement. Physics did not deny Hitler his means, any more than the words of Jesus Christ (“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”) were able to stop the medieval Church from burning heretics at the stake.

    For this reason, I think that it is important for today’s advocates of secular reasoning to pause and take stock of some of the things that are being said by them or in their name. I do not here evangelical Christians (the dreaded so-called “religious right”) calling for silencing their opponents for “hate speech”, and I haven’t heard any talk of criminalizing people for being “enemies of the Faith”. Instead, I have heard of previously lawful (even if controversial) speech being silenced because of it’s religious content, and I have heard spokesmen for the scientific community label others as “enemies of Science”. In this vein, it might be good for modern Secularists to heed an ancient admonition from the New Testament, directed originally at believers who felt themselves to be above reproach… “Let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.” Just as our charity is judged by how freely we give of our own wealth, rather than that of the taxpayers, so also is our tolerance judged by how we treat those with whom we actually disagree.

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