The Darkened Cosmos II: More Tributes to Carl Sagan
Professor Carl Sagan had the whole lecture hall looking down on a small organism that was ingesting tiny creatures for sustenance. Well, it turned out we were looking at a picture taken from a satellite of a swimming pool. The ingested creatures were swimmers—people like us.
Professor Sagan had a way of surprising you. He could do it, because he had an intimate knowledge, perhaps deeper than anyone else we’ll ever meet, of how one part of the world connected with the rest of the cosmos. He described our universe with words like “elegant, exquisite, and astonishing.” And, it is. He made you feel it.
Many of us think of him as a popularizer of science. Bear in mind he was also a top notch scientist, as well. He predicted the atmospheric physics of dust storms on Mars. He alerted the world to the catastrophic changes in Earth’s climates should we recklessly allow an exchange of nuclear weapons. And, he tirelessly checked the purveyors of pseudoscience in steady, compelling essays and debates.
I met him a few times over the years after I took his astronomy course. Each meeting left me refreshed with a new and more intimate understanding of what we had discussed. It came from his easy, deep, and passionate grasp of things. I was always a little awed after each exchange.
He lived at a time when human exploration of space was, for the first time in human history, revealing to us the true nature of Nature. From his boyhood, Carl Sagan not only embraced this new awareness, he understood its significance in a way that most of us don’t. He often said, “We are all made of starstuff,” an astonishing idea. He encouraged you to prove to yourself that it was true. His presence as an orator was compelling, his writing is riveting, and his influence on the world’s appreciation of science is hard to reckon. It’s big; he will be missed.
Bill Nye, who took Introductory Astronomy from Carl Sagan in 1977, is now “The Science Guy” on public and syndicated television.
Carl’s imagination and creativity were boundless—and grist for journalists. My first contact with him was in the late ’60s, after Mariner 9, in orbit around Mars, had sent back the first close-up pictures of the Red Planet. Instead of the hoped-for signs of civilizations past or present, the pictures showed what seemed to be a bleak, lifeless surface marred by craters.
Young Carl, ever the optimist, promptly wrote a paper reporting that he had scanned thousands of weather satellite pictures of Earth, and on only one of them had he spotted any evidence that intelligent life might exist on Earth. Thus, civilizations might well be thriving on Mars, he suggested, just a little beyond the resolution of Mariner’s camera. My story in Time magazine, based on an interview with the then little-known Carl, was entitled “Is There Life on Earth?”
Not long afterward, Carl turned his attention to Jupiter and held out the possibility that life could exist on the gas giant. How? In the form of creatures composed largely of gas bags and floating freely in the Jovian atmosphere. That hypothesis, made perhaps with tongue in cheek, was also too much to resist. My Time story was entitled (appropriately) “The Gas Bags of Jupiter.”
Over the years, I hounded Carl for stories and seldom came up empty-handed. He was patient, courteous, friendly, and always seemed flattered by my interest. His explanations of difficult concepts were lucid, his quotes lively, and his insights unique. In short, he was a science writer’s dream source.
When I last saw Carl at his sixtieth birthday celebration in Ithaca, he seemed a happy, fulfilled man. He had reason to be, secure in the knowledge that he was admired around the world as science’s most articulate and imaginative spokesman.
What a loss.
Leon Jaroff was a senior editor and the science editor of Time, for which he still writes, and the founder and first managing editor of Discover.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
The following is a eulogy for Carl Sagan (edited slightly) that was delivered by Neil deGrasse Tyson at a memorial service held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Other speakers included Sagan’s wife, two of his children, Stephen Jay Gould, and Vice President Al Gore.
What can I say about Carl Sagan that has not already been said?
Carl Sagan was at the helm of many ships. But the one I have in mind carries people, who, as part of life’s priorities, seek to enlighten the public about the beauty of science. Collectively, all of us on this ship deliver lectures, write books, and give interviews with the media. But for each engagement, somehow we know that Carl has been there before—if not in person then in spirit. He has made our work easier, having painted the landscape that now frames our efforts to reach the layperson. I cannot count the number of times I have jump-started an encounter with the public by directly or indirectly referencing a jeweled quote from one of his many literary or media expositions on the universe. With Carl’s passing, I now feel that sense of insecurity reminiscent of when you first leave home. I feel not only the loss of a friend but the loss of a leader.
I first met Carl when I was in high school in the mid-1970s. My letter of application to Cornell University was dripping with an interest in the universe. The admissions office, unbeknownst to me, forwarded the application to Carl Sagan’s attention. Within weeks I received a personal letter from Carl, inviting me up to Ithaca to visit him. . . . I visited Carl on a snowy afternoon in February. He was warm, compassionate, and demonstrated what appeared to be a genuine interest in my life’s path. At the end of the day, he drove me back to the Ithaca bus station and jotted down his home phone number—just in case the buses could not navigate through the snow and I needed a place to stay.
I never told him this, but at every stage of my scientific career that followed, I modeled my encounters with students after my first encounter with Carl.
Although I did not ultimately attend Cornell University, Carl and I re-met several more times over the years. . . .
I last saw him at his sixtieth birthday celebration at Ithaca. An entire evening was spent by friends, loved ones, and colleagues, heaping praises upon Carl. Each testimony was grander than the next. There was the undergraduate who majored in science after a single encounter with Carl. There was the graduate student who shifted his thesis focus to planetary atmospheres upon becoming excited by the science that Carl had described to him. There was the letter to Carl (read by the Astronomy Department Chair) from a student in Africa who launched an astronomy club in his home village after reading Cosmos. Topping that moment, the department had actually flown the student to Ithaca for the occasion and introduced him to Carl in person. Then there were the letters read from top officials of international governments. And then there was the announcement that an asteroid would be named after Carl’s wife, Annie Druyan, whose orbit was in eternal resonance with another asteroid that had already been named for Carl.
The praise seemed unending, which led me to ask myself whether the life of any human being could be worthy of this much praise. The next evening, Carl gave a public talk to a standing-room-only crowd in Cornell’s Uris Auditorium. His topic was inspired by the contents of his recent book Pale Blue Dot. During the hour of his talk, and the hour that followed of questions he fielded from the audience, I realized that the praise I had witnessed the night before was only the beginning of the praise that he truly deserves—and will continue to receive.
I will miss him.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. He is also a visiting Research Scientist and Lecturer at the Department of Astrophysics, Princeton University.
Sagan’s greatest gift, which enriched and rewarded us far more than it did him, was his transparent enthusiasm to “find out and tell about” the advance of human understanding of the universe. He vividly humanized what had been previously regarded as cold-blooded “scientific curiosity”; and in advertising science “with a human face,” he brought all the strengths and weaknesses of a human being onto the stage. For all of us exposed to his messages, he encouraged our fervent hope that the human intellect, with all of its inefficiencies and distractions to which none of us are immune, could still come to understand, bit by bit, the incomprehensible universe.
James Oberg is a science journalist and space engineer in Houston.
E. C. Krupp
Only three astronomers have appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and Carl Sagan was one of them. Such spotlighting in the national media was not his greatest triumph, but it makes his impact very clear. When he went dipping his toe in that cosmic ocean, he took a huge crowd with him. Anyone who advocates the democratization of knowledge has to be grateful. He showed us there is romance and adventure in the disciplined, systematic acquisition of knowledge.
With an imaginative reach anchored in rational thought, he brought the stars down to Earth and persuaded its inhabitants to examine their connection with the cosmos. He wasn’t Man of the Year, but he spoke for Earth.
E. C. Krupp is director of Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
As a science educator, I know I speak for many in my profession when I try to express how greatly Dr. Sagan will be missed. I believe he did more to encourage young people to seek out knowledge and truth than anyone else in the last thirty years. He made science “cool” and inspired not only students but many teachers as well. Carl Sagan will not soon be forgotten.
Jerry M. Hosmer teaches chemistry and is chair of the Science Department at Poplar Bluff R-1 School District in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Carl Sagan the last few weeks. He never knew me, but he saved my life, and I never got to thank him. I was a screwed-up kid in the late ’70s. I was a high school dropout who spent too much time partying and none building a future. I was on the fast road to nowhere and badly in need of something larger than myself to give my life direction. Then came Cosmos.
As a child I had been fascinated by science and in awe of the starry sky, but somehow I lost sight of it in the confusion of growing up. Then Carl Sagan brought it back to me. He gave me back my sense of wonder at the mystery of the universe—something I wasn’t even aware I’d lost. After viewing the series, I received a copy of the companion book from a friend. I stayed up for two days reading it, then began to buy and read his other books as he published them. Gradually, I began to see the world in a different way and make changes in my life. I quit partying all the time, read everything I could get my hands on in the way of general science, and even worked through a few “Teach Yourself” books on astronomy, physics, and other subjects. I hadn’t had math or advanced science in school, but I was encouraged by my understanding of Dr. Sagan’s explanations. It took several years, until the late ’80s, but I finally got around to trying college. A few years ago I earned a B.S. in physics.
I intended at the time to pursue graduate study in astronomy, following in the footsteps of the master, and I hoped to study directly with Dr. Sagan; but I had to leave school for a while to make some money. Still, I thought I might one day get a chance to sit in his classroom. I would have liked to hear him describe in person the billions of stars in the universe, to hear his eloquent speech without the limitations of television, to tell him how much his teaching meant to me, to say thank you, but I guess it wasn’t to be.
I wasn’t even aware that he was ill until I heard of his death. It really shook me up. For several days I kept thinking of him and how the world had lost some of its heart, how science had lost its greatest champion. And slowly I began to realize a loss of a more personal nature, of something I didn’t even know I had. A Hero. Hero worship has always put me off, but it is now apparent that I’ve had a hero for years. This man has been my hero. This man, who never knew me, but saved my life, and whom I never got to thank. Well, Carl Sagan, thank you. I never sat in your class, but you were my greatest teacher. There may be billions of stars in the universe, but few have shined as brightly as you.
Dave Larson currently works in telecommunications in Rowlett, Texas. He hosts a web site dedicated to the advancement of science at http://web2.airmail.net/dlarson1/science.
Carl Sagan was a person I long admired. I, like Carl, had become fascinated with astronomy at a young age, only about four years old. Recently, I hoped that he was looking forward to the launch of the Cassini probe to Saturn, considering his particular interest in its moon Iapetus.
Now he is gone. I do not believe in an afterlife; however, I feel we can achieve a type of immortality through others. As long as we speak, read, and think of what Carl Sagan spoke, read and thought, then he will be alive forever in our thoughts and our hearts.
As long as I am alive, I will remember him. I believe that I will not be alone in this. And, long after we are gone, I hope there will be a new generation of children inspired by Cosmos, Broca’s Brain, and even The Demon-Haunted World.
Goodbye, Carl . . . you beat all of us to the stars.
Mike DiMuzio is Planetarium Lecturer and Observatory Director at Youngstown State University’s Ward Beecher Planetarium.
(July 4, 1996)
The deep wrought-iron July sky
was that evening briefly ablaze. Mostly
and most briefly with rockets thrown
in a deliberate craze of patriot novae—
syncopated concussions, overloaded brains
in faint choral echo. Less so (but not so less)
winged neurons whizzed past ears
in Permian blood-lust. Hands clapped
in adaptive patterns as rocket launch
or needled proboscis insisted. Almost unnoticed
Jupiter’s constancy in the southeast brought you
to mind; just this one. So nanobits of strontium
and carbon valence burn, slow and warm,
hot and fast, filled a deeper sky with form.
V. Alan White is a professor of philosophy and the 1996-97 Carnegie Wisconsin Professor of the Year, University of Wisconsin Centers.
Following is just a brief sampling of other letters received from readers.
The death of Carl Sagan has left the world a poorer place. His contributions to society have been prodigious and will be considered even more so when social historians of the future assess his overall beneficial impact upon a civilization in dire need of the “big picture” perspective. He was only 62 years old at his death in December of 1996, and I worry that without another twenty years or so of his typically consummate and compassionate rationality, there might not even be social historians of the future in a position to render appropriate judgment at all! Perhaps an overstatement, perhaps not.
Our survival as a dominant species on this planet has depended upon and will increasingly require the application of rational thought, often best exemplified through the scientific method. Our progress is threatened by ignorance and superstition, particularly under the guises of fundamentalist religious dogma, creation “science,” astrology, New Age channeling, and numerous other silly pseudosciences. Sagan, in his gentle way, extracted the best from the scientific method, combining it with a true morality filtered from the Judeo-Christian ethic, delighting all those of open mind and goodwill who read his works or heard him speak.
I will miss the articulate exuberance with which he celebrated the wonders of our cosmos and his stern but sympathetic admonitions against those of us who would succumb to easy preconceptions about ourselves and our world—in the process engendering some short-term emotional comfort but, in the long run, only erecting obstacles to deeper understanding. He was without question one of history’s greatest proponents for scientific advancement, a magnificent ambassador of knowledge, teaching us along the way that, without the deep data provided by rigorous application of the scientific method, we make ourselves vulnerable to charlatans and shallow “experts” offering glibly authoritative answers to profoundly difficult questions. Philosophically, he was a strong logician, but his approach to teaching was a bit whimsical, even spiritual, and always honest.
Carl, I will miss your newest books and articles, your appearances on television and, especially, fundamentally, your good-humored and incisive courage in dealing with the phony pseudoscientists and fuzzy thinkers abounding in our culture. I hope some of us can carry your shining torch.
Twin Falls, Idaho
In 1994 I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Dr. Carl Sagan, when he delivered the keynote address at the CSICOP conference in Seattle. As a fan of Dr. Sagan’s since I watched him on Cosmos, I was enormously flattered at having him compliment me on a question I asked at the conference.
When I heard he was ill, I sent him a get-well card at Cornell University. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether he received it. Only a month or so ago, I was so happy to hear that he thought he was getting better. Now he is dead, and coincidentally, that same day I received a call from the local library to say that the long-awaited copy of The Demon-Haunted World was ready for me to pick up.
So I’ve decided to remember Dr. Sagan in a way he’d be sure to enjoy: by making a contribution to CSICOP’s Center for Inquiry, and by devouring his last, fascinating book.
Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Carl Sagan was one of the few public figures on this planet who made you proud to be a member of the human race. It takes little imagination to realize that your magazine will be inundated with letters mourning the loss, and while at the moment it does little to relieve the sorrow, it is a comfort to acknowledge the legacy he has left us.
By coincidence, when I heard the news I happened to be rereading his marvelous book The Dragons of Eden, still a masterpiece of informed speculation. My eye fell on one paragraph in particular that I think sums up what I most admire in Carl Sagan, and it also encapsulates my own feelings:
In a way, science might be described as paranoid thinking applied to Nature: we are looking for natural conspiracies, for connections among apparently disparate data. Our objective is to abstract patterns from Nature . . . but many proposed patterns do not in fact correspond to the data. Thus all proposed patterns must be subjected to the sieve of critical analysis. . . . The search for patterns without critical analysis, and rigid skepticism without a search for patterns, are the antipodes of incomplete science. The effective pursuit of knowledge requires both functions. (Dragons of Eden, 1977)
Folkestone, Kent, U.K.
I am just a regular guy who likes to read and think. But the passing of the great Carl Sagan is a horrible loss. I bought his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in November 1992. I could not believe how much scientists knew about evolution. Before this book, I had only a very vague idea of evolution.
It opened my eyes to the true story of life on this planet and caused me to read many other books and discover my favorite science writer Richard Dawkins. Explaining science without dumbing it down takes brilliance, and Carl Sagan was one of the best: along with Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Isaac Asimov.
When I think about all those other books I have read and continue to read—all the pleasure of learning—I have to thank Carl Sagan for his impact on my thinking. He never knew me, but in every sense he was my teacher. I can’t get the point across strongly enough. Thanks to Carl Sagan for getting me thinking and interested in science and philosophy. I love him for it.
(In Memory of Carl Sagan)
Take me on a trip to the stars
Melt me into Mercury
Mold me into Mars
Take me to where it all began
Oh won’t you take me, Universe Man
Your brain was big as Jupiter
Your passion blazed like Venus
But I never felt the stupid-er
In the presence of your genius
Your need to know was infinite
Your energy contagious
You lifted me outside myself
and showed me something ageless
There are millions of planets above us
Ev’ry one with a different hue
And billions of stars in the heavens
But, Carl, there was only one you
Now nothing can keep you grounded
Not even gravity’s hand
At last you’re free, for you get to be
One with the universe, man
Take me on a trip to the stars
Melt me into Mercury
Mold me into Mars
Oh, to be where it all began
Wait for me there, Universe Man