Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan - An anniversary, a memorial

Ten years ago today, a great of science, astronomy, and skepticism died - Carl Sagan. A science blogger in New York suggested a memorial blog a thon, and with the sanction of Carl's son, Nick, I'm participating on my blogs here and here.

Personally, hungry for anything "star" related after Star Wars came out in 1977, I eagerly awaited every episode of Cosmos, hosted by Dr. Sagan. But it wasn't until July 4, 1997, that he really changed me, after he had passed away. I didn't know he had even died until I saw the movie "Contact", and saw the end credit, "For Carl". The questions in the movie about God and Science, and the conflict (or not) between the two left me really anxious to read the book, but in an airport, I picked up another book of his, "The Demon Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark", when Contact wasn't available.

Wow. I felt my eyes open and an epiphany began that didn't stop. I read everything he wrote. I re-read several religious texts that I hadn't read for a while, and even searched out some "new age" literature to read, as well as developing a voracious appetite for science books. I began to write again. I began to notice how persistent biology was on Earth, how the stars shine so brightly at night, why stars burn and why the sky is blue, almost for the first time. I saw the scientific method as it truly is - an unappreciated golden gift to mankind, that has left us with longer lifespans, magical technology, a way of thinking and approaching everything, and a great understanding of how huge and ancient our universe is, and leads us to questions of who we are, where we came from, and how humble we have to be in face of all we haven't known for centuries, and all we do not yet know.

Ironically, scientists were his biggest critics. Yes, there are people that hate him for popularizing science, and he was punished professionally for that (is science really supposed to be only for the ivory tower elite and not for the rest of us?), by denial of fellowships and rewards. Some scientists still feel like arguing with him. I have felt in the past that his alliance to liberal politics, like nuclear war protests, and his miscalculation of the effects of a nuclear winter, often interferered with his otherwise unflinching respect for the facts, no matter where those facts lead.

But, as Sagan said repeatedly, when you're in love with something, you want to tell the whole world. And he was in love with science.

So, Dr. Sagan, from the boy who saw you on television week after week, to the critical thinking adult I've become, I want to thank you. Your respect for humanity and people that didn't agree with you is especially admirable. I hear scientists left and right introduced as "the next Carl Sagan", but the sad truth is that none of them can hold a candle (in the dark or otherwise) to your gift of communication, your writing style and command of how best to express your love for the scientific method and all we can learn from it.

As Dr. Sagan said repeatedly, over and over, if you want to make your life meaningful, you have to be willing to do something meaningful. He made much of science not only meaningful, but beautiful, humbling, even poetic.

"We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers."

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ann Druyan

Beginning 20 December 2006, there will be a new blog by Ann Druyan, likely at, or linked to,, or Until then, a special posting as we approach the tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death on December 20th, 1996.

Where Would We Be With Carl?
by Ann Druyan

Weather permitting, Carl preferred to think and write outdoors amidst the natural beauty that surrounds our home in Ithaca, New York. As I write this, I look out on the clearing down by the waterfall where he would work, sitting at a table, all but motionless for hours at a time. He said the music of the rushing water provided the perfect background white noise for concentrating. When Carl and I were writing Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, I once looked up from the computer in my office to find him deep in thought, his attention so highly focused on our manuscript that he was completely unaware of the rather large deer peering over his shoulder, as if trying to read what he was writing. The waterfall, the gorge with a record of the aeons inscribed in its strata, and the still-wild animals remain for now. The chair is empty.

We have traveled ten times around the Sun since Carl's death, and our little world is much changed. With his dazzling mind and vast knowledge, what would he have thought of the direction we, as a civilization, have taken in the years since? How might he have campaigned against the forces of darkness and brutality? How many minds might he have opened? During the last ten years, I have longed for the personal Carl of our love, family, and work together, but I have also keenly missed the man who was a global voice for science, exploration, reason, and democracy. Carl's ecological niche has remained tragically untenanted for all this time-and in my opinion, the consequences have been profound. My respect for his greatness keeps me from speaking for him with any degree of certainty. I can only offer my conjectures based on our 20 years of intense communication. Some of my speculations are more confident than others, flowing logically from the deeds and words of his life.

For instance, I feel sure that he would have been gratified by the achievements of The Planetary Society and especially thrilled by our boldness in actually launching our own spacecraft, Cosmos 1, the first solar sail. (Only ten years ago, this would have been so prohibitively expensive that even Carl never dared to dream that we could attempt such a feat.) I can see him tipping an imaginary hat in Lou Friedman's direction for his leadership of the mission. I know Carl would now be knocking on every conceivable door to raise the money necessary to see the project through to its fulfillment as a major milestone in the history of exploration. Given his powers of persuasion, I think we would be well into the countdown to our next launch.

Carl would have been inspired by the discoveries of the Mars missions and very proud that they were led by his students. The revelations of Cassini and Huygens would have taken him to new heights. How I wish he could see the new data from Mars and the outer solar system. If it were possible to share one new image of the planets and moons with him, I would pick a shot of Titan, the object of a lifetime of his scientific imagining. It would be the one taken by the Huygens descent probe of the Titan coast, showing icy highlands with dry rivers and what appears to be the shoreline of a vanished sea. Here the Titan coast looks more like Biarritz than any other place that comes to mind. From his boyhood in Brooklyn in the 1930s, he envisioned a time when the planets and their moons would become real places to us. No matter how inhospitable to humans Titan's atmosphere may be, that vision of the Titan coast beckons.

Years before the launch of the first space shuttle, Carl criticized it as an unsafe "capability without a mission," a program that he prophesied would siphon off support from the grudgingly funded space science treasury. I have no doubt that he would have led the fight to protect and enhance federal support for space science. He would have continued to campaign for science and critical thinking against the many different cultural and political assaults of the last several years. It's not that I think he alone could have turned the tide, but he would have provided critically needed leadership for those of us who have felt unrepresented.

To know what Carl would have thought of the current state of our nation, you need only remember that his pride in being an American stemmed from the integrity of our elections, our system of checks and balances, our respect for the rule of law both domestically and internationally, our high standards of evidence and truthfulness, our long historical recognition of the critical importance of the separation of church and state, our ability to take care of each other in times of disaster, what we stand for on the planet, our commitment to science and public education, and, perhaps most of all, the Bill of Rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution.

Carl died five years before the attacks on September 11, 2001, but he saw growing religious fundamentalism-whether it was in Mecca or the Bible Belt-as a looming threat, from without and within, to everything we value. He knew but one antidote for the magical thinking that lies at its root: the ability to weigh contending hypotheses and evaluate them by using the scientific method. So, despite the fact that he was battling a fatal disease and undergoing the "medieval torture" we call bone marrow transplants, he found the strength to write The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It would be one of two books that he would write during his last illness. His doctor told me that he had never had a patient who was able to read two books during the months it takes for a bone marrow transplant, let alone to write them.

I hope that, believing as he did in the profound relationship between science education and effective citizenship in a democratic society based on science and high technology, Carl would have shared my excitement in the current project we at the Carl Sagan Foundation have chosen to support: the Carl Sagan Academy, the nation's first humanist public charter school. CSA serves middle schoolers in the Tampa area of Hillsborough County, Florida who otherwise might never have any experience of the wonders of nature as revealed by science. It is the result of a remarkable collaboration of the American Humanist Association of Florida and the local Baptist churches, the kind of cooperation between people with radically different ideologies that exemplifies the world of which we dream. Now in its second year, the student body consists of 78 of some of the most under-served children in America. I hope all who share Carl's dream of a scientifically literate and critically thoughtful public will contact us at the Carl Sagan Foundation.

This past summer, as I watched former Vice President Al Gore's film on global warming An Inconvenient Truth, I thought how proud Carl would have been of his former student at Harvard and longtime friend. More than once in the film, Al Gore acknowledges Carl's influence on his thinking, and his evocation of Carl's "Pale Blue Dot" meditation provides the film with its final spiritual impact. I was reminded of how long it has been since we had a tireless, rigorously scientific, eloquent advocate for the planetary perspective to connect with people everywhere and to awaken us from our stupor; to move us to act in defense of our life support system.

The briefcase Carl carried with him on that last trip to the hospital remained locked, exactly as he left it in December of 1996. It's a kind of time capsule of what he was working on and thinking about during those last days of his life. I had carried it home on that last trip from Seattle, but something kept me from exploring its contents. When I sat down to write this article, it occurred to me that it was probably time to open it and look inside. I tried a couple of likely combinations. When I got to my own birthday, bingo, the golden hasps flew open. The case contained photos of our family; a Saturn-shaped birthday card from our then-14-year-old daughter, Sasha; a clutch of NASA security badges; an issue of Science with a false-color Galileo image of Europa on the cover; slides of various planetary surfaces; a note from astrophysicist Chris Chyba about a visit that was never to be; Carl's reply to astronomer Neil Tyson, whom he had known and admired since Neil first wrote to him as a Bronx high school student contemplating a career in science; editor Charlene Anderson's request that Carl respond to a Planetary Report reader's question ("How can simple gases turn to organic residues when exposed to UV rays?"), to which, of course, his answer was "yes"; a message to artist Don Davis regarding the astronomical imaging for the motion picture Contact: another from scientist/artist Bill Hartmann about cratering on Mars; and letters of thanks for his agreement to give the keynote addresses to NASA's 1997 Early Mars Workshop and to the December White House Conference on the Future of Space Exploration.

In the last week of his life, Carl wanted desperately to somehow get to that conference. He knew he was about to die and he wanted to leave us with a vision of how to build on the epochal achievements of the first 40 years of the space age. He was worried that we were losing our way and our resolve to continue on the long road to the stars. As he lay dying, he managed, with an effort I found heart-wrenching, to dictate the speech.

A few days later, Vice President Gore opened the meeting by reading Carl's words aloud. It was one of the last things I was able to tell him and be certain that he understood. He smiled at the news. What I saw in those hazel eyes was a mixture of affection for Al Gore, a sense of relief that he had been able to communicate with space science decision makers, and a flicker of concern about the future, one that proved to be, in the short term at least, all too well-placed.

Well, maybe two steps forward, one step backward, is how we as a species wend our way through history. Perhaps these little detours have some selective advantage as a means of processing change along our pathway to the stars. In the meantime, a global community of people coalesces around Carl's legacy. The chair may be empty, but the ideas, the values and even the dreams of the man are here now.

Ann Druyan's latest collaboration with Carl Sagan is her edit of his 1985 Gifford Lectures into the new book titled The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, published by The Penguin Press. She is working on three feature films. Anyone wishing to contact The Carl Sagan Foundation is urged to write to Cornell Business and Technology Park, 95 Brown Road, Suite #1027, Ithaca, NY 14850.

Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico

Originally uploaded by FrogMiller.

Above is a picture of me at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, taken earlier this year. This is the world's largest radio astronomy telescope, as well as the site of the strongest message beamed into outer space, as well as the setting for scenes in both Carl Sagan's book and movie, Contact, starring Jody Foster. Today's news brings a report that this observatory is taking the steepest budget cuts and the first layoffs since they opened in 1963.

I have mixed feelings about this - I hate to see how science always gets cuts first, but I'm encouraged by how well private enterprise has done things like SETI (using the Arecibo data) and Rutan's Spaceship one - in most cases faster, cheaper, and safer, than NASA or Congress did it. I hope that the Planetary Society, or SETI advocates, approach people to take up the slack.