Carl Sagan and me

My first post on Carl Sagan today will be a listing of all the memories I had of him.

When I was a kid, like many kids, I suppose, I read comic books and sci-fi books and books about UFOs or Bigfoot. From those, I learned a little science, most of it junk science, but there was still a certain vocabulary, a certain mindset, that came out, even in those fictional, flawed ways. Over and over again, I read about The Scientific Method, almost always capitalized, and presented as the basis for all rational thought. The idea of a Method for doing amazing things, making weapons for any foe, ships and equipment for exploration, or machines for helping feed, shelter and entertain all humans, appealed to me. It was a way to organize the world; it was a way to separate fact from fiction; it was a guide for creativity and a spur for adventure.

As I learned more, though, I began to see a difference between the things I saw on TV that were real, and really happening, like the Apollo missions to the Moon (with which I shared a last name), and the almost-magical creature supposedly living in the bottom of a deep, dark Scottish loch, or the black-eyed, large-headed, spindly-armed alien Grays.

Reading science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov led me to read those authors’ non-fiction essays and stories. Asimov, in particular, wrote on nearly every topic, from humor, to the Bible and Shakespeare, to lasers and physics and chemistry.

And since I always wanted more to read, once I started browsing in the Popular Science section of the library and bookstores, I saw another name: Carl Sagan.

I believe that the first strictly non-fiction science book I bought with my allowance was “The Dragons of Eden” by Carl Sagan. It strictly explored the idea of intelligence, from a scientific, and not mystical, point of view. Dr. Sagan discussed the many weird and non-intuitive things that happen when the brain is damaged; people lose the ability to recognize human faces, for example, but otherwise can function normally. Or they become unable to speak the names of objects, but can gesture to the words themselves, or pick up a similar item, demonstrating that they know what it is – but something in them is unable to speak the words.

It was my first exposure to the idea that the brain really is the “mind” – that our personalities aren’t some immaterial substance that is magically immortal, but a process that arises out of the functioning of our physical bodies.

That book, and Dr. Sagan’s gentle and patient educational tone, also began to show me how the Scientific Method was applied to the actual, dirty, messy, chaotic world. Sagan, unlike Asimov and Clarke, weren’t just writers who spoke a scientific language. Sagan was a scientist first, and an author last.

More than that, he was a Rocket Scientist.

When I went to find more books by him and learn more about him, I found that Sagan worked for NASA, the very essence of applied science to me. He had helped to design and launch probes to the other worlds in our solar system: Viking 1 & 2, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, and Voyager 1 and 2, probes that were millions of miles from Earth, sending back pictures and data about the asteroids, Jupiter, and Saturn and all their little moons.

I watched and absorbed every episode of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, hosted by Carl Sagan, on local channel 10, in 1980. I knew that the special effects were cheesy and even lame, no match for “Star Wars” or their ilk, but I also knew that “Cosmos” was talking about real things, and that made all the difference in the world.

I remember, when I was in high school, going to OMSI, Portland’s science museum, back when it was up on the hill by the Zoo, with a friend, Jeff Schenk. I don’t remember which one, but one of the Voyager probes was set to send pictures back from Saturn, the ringed planet. My friend and I were going to OMSI to see the pictures, “live”. There were several rooms set up at OMSI, with big-screen projection TVs, that were connected via satellite to NASA, showing image after image of Saturn and it’s many moons. This must have been in 1981. I remember that Carl Sagan was one of many voices and faces explaining in detail what we were seeing, and again, his playful voice showed the joy of discovery, of real discovery and exploration. All of us in that room, and everyone across the nation and around the world watching those images were seeing things that had never been seen before by anyone else, and all because of a machine built by human hands. Carl Sagan was greedy for knowledge, like any scientist, as were we all; but he didn’t hoard the knowledge. He wanted to share it with everyone.

That little space robot, controlled from millions of miles away, had travelled farther than Leif Ericson, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark combined and many times over, but the people who built and launched it were no less of explorers than those early sailors and travelers. And for me, at that moment, Carl Sagan was the voice and face for them.

Carl Sagan led me to understand what it is to be a skeptic, when he talked about the reality of searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence, as contrasted with the stories of alien abductions and saucer-shaped flying vehicles. He led me to wonder about the self-destructive impulse in humanity, when he talked about the possibility of nuclear war causing an all-too-real nuclear winter.

He even demonstrated, by example, the honor in admitting one’s own mistakes, when he publicly listed the errors he had made in his lifetime, including a prediction he had made during the first Gulf War. He had claimed, on national TV, that the oil fires burning in Kuwait would cause a chilling effect that would be global and catastrophic. It takes a real man, in my view, to admit one is wrong. The world would be a better place if more people could do the same.

I believe I’ve read every book that Carl Sagan has written; and he has written several, but not enough, never enough. Because, in December 1996, just 10 short years ago, Carl Sagan died. Death is not easy to deal with for people, and there are as many ways of coming to terms with death as there are cultures and people. It is not a surprise to me that many people try to deny death and believe in a literal immortality for themselves and the ones they love.

It can be difficult to realize that everything that made Carl Sagan the towering intellect, gentle teacher to humanity, and stubborn explorer of the universe that he was, disappeared from the Cosmos 10 years ago today. He left behind words, and pictures, and work; he left behind a family, and children. But he, himself, is gone, never to reoccur. I am glad that I got to know who he was during his lifetime. I am glad that I became the person I am today in some part because of who he was, even though he and I never met.

I’m glad that the Cosmos still produces people like Carl Sagan. May it continue to produce intelligences of such caliber for a long, long time.