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The Carl Sagan Memorial Service

News & Comment

Warren Allen Smith

Volume 21.4, July / August 1997

An atheist’s memorial service held in a cathedral? Yes, Carl Sagan’s was held February 27 at New York City’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the one featuring a statue of God (a bearded Caucasian with His arms outstretched) on the front facade. The former dean, James Parks Morton, referred to “Carl the great atheist,” and Sagan’s nontheism was also cited by Harry H. Pritchett, the present dean, and Joan Brown Campbell, the general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. The cathedral was chosen because of Sagan’s record of having successfully worked with church leaders on environmental matters.

MIT physicist Philip Morrison, who is confined to an electronic wheelchair, related how at the age of six Sagan had been told that you can always add 1 to a number, and Carl had tested this by laboriously writing all the numbers from 1 to 1,000, stopping only because he had to sleep.

Sagan’s curiosity never diminished, for he went on to solve the mysteries of the high temperature of Venus (a massive greenhouse effect), the seasonal changes on Mars (windblown dust), and the reddish haze of Titan (complex organic molecules).

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould remarked that unlike Sagan, the Brooklyn garment worker’s son who turned his eyes upwards to the skies, he as a boy in Queens had turned his eyes downward to the ground. He added that the two New Yorkers had not known each other until much later. Ending an eloquent summary of how important Sagan had been to the entire scientific community, as well as the world’s other peoples, Gould paraphrased Longfellow, saying Sagan had turned the spheres and left no hell below.

Ronald Sagedeev, who had been Mikhail Gorbachev’s adviser and director of the USSR’s Space Research Institute, called Sagan a citizen of the world, one who was against the false promises of the Star Wars defense, and said “the Cold War was ended because of Carl Sagan and his friends.”

Other speakers included Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician-friend who called attention to Carl’s passion, humor, and forgiveness. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, told of Sagan’s consideration when, as a young black college student, he had first gone to Cornell for an interview (see his comments in the May/June 1997 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, p. 56). Frank H. T. Rhodes, who had been President of Cornell University during much of the time Sagan headed Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies, called Carl “a scientist but a humanist at heart,” one who was comfortable with philosophy.

One of Carl’s daughters, Sasha, described how her father had taught her logic, critical reasoning, and (to the large audience’s amusement) the importance of questioning authority. Carl’s son Jeremy said that his agnostic father was a warrior for the world, an avid antiracist, an evolutionist rather than a creationist, and one who disapproved of anyone who masked ignorance by using jargon.

Carl’s wife, Ann Druyan, secretary of the Federation of American Scientists, told of his and her exuberance at their having included an interstellar message along with the music of Bach, Beethoven, and others in two NASA Voyager spacecraft now beyond the outer solar system. At a speed of 40,000 miles per hour, the recordings are traveling in space and have a projected “shelf life” of a billion years.

Vice President Al Gore noted that he, the believer, and Carl, the nonbeliever, had no problems whatsoever working together on behalf of Earth’s environment. The two were instrumental in getting scientific and religious leaders to unite on issues of environmental protection. Carl had shown him that we are not central to the universe and that we must do something significant if “the blue dot” as seen from space is to flourish. Gore was both folksy and eloquent in relating his warm memories of Sagan.

The most eloquent of all, however, was Carl Sagan himself. A taped excerpt of his Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space resounded with an awesome timbre over the loudspeakers.

Warren Allen Smith

Warren Allen Smith is an editorial associate of Free Inquiry magazine.