The Gifts of Carl Sagan
November 9, 2011
When I was ten years old, I would lie on the floor of our family room on Sunday nights watching Carl Sagan’s astronomy series, Cosmos. Barely blinking, barely breathing, my whole family sat transfixed by the images and the music, but mostly we were awed by the science.
My interest in astronomy came early in life. My older sister thought space was cool and because I wanted her to like me, too, I started reading about planets and stars. Then came Mr. O’Hara, the astronomy teacher at the W.T. Woodson High School planetarium. My elementary school was within walking distance of the high school, so every spring our little class would venture out, two by two, following in line on our trek across the soccer field, down the big staircase, across the bridge, and along the creek to the school of the Big People and the best show of the year.
There are times when even third graders perform a kind of cost-benefit analysis: the big halls of a high school are incredibly intimidating to a little kid and only the promise of beautiful space and stars could have compelled us through such a phalanx of teenagers. Mr. O’Hara showed us moons and planets, stars, constellations, nebulae, and galaxies. He made the sky move. This was when I first learned that the pursuit of science would not always be easy but it would always be rewarding.
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There is no more literal way to “broaden your horizons” than to observe the night sky, so even when I was a child each trip to the planetarium expanded my vision and my comfort zone. It turned the unknown into the familiar. Sitting there, tilted back in those weird seats with red vinyl cushions, the vast emptiness of space soon filled with wanderers and red giants and became as recognizable as the faces of friends and family. I became “one acquainted with the night.”
Then there was Cosmos.
It’s one thing to see what the universe looks like at a planetarium. It’s a completely different thing to know how you look to the universe. It didn’t take but two minutes of that spacey music and those amazing opening images for me to realize that the universe wasn’t looking at me. It didn’t care about me. It didn’t even know I existed.
Lots of people get very disturbed by the idea that the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Confronted by that “vast emptiness of space,” they start to question: Where did I come from? Why am I here?
They must not have seen Cosmos. Carl Sagan had the answer in one word: starstuff. As he explained it, every atom in my body originated deep in the processes of stellar evolution. Cooooool… I’m made out of stars. I’m the same as those stars way out there across millions of miles. As a kid, lying in bed at night in the dark, I was sure I could see rays of light beaming from my fingertips. This was a gift of Carl Sagan: he gave me the perspective I needed to be comfortable with my place in the universe—and not only comfortable. I’m thrilled to be here.
Everyone knows that Carl Sagan was an inspiring science teacher and communicator, but there was another aspect to his work that was equally if not more important. I was not aware of it as a child, but Sagan gave me another gift—one that would bring profound meaning to my adult life.
In the book Carl Sagan’s Universe, Ann Druyan tells a story about the time General Alexei Leonov, the first human ever to walk in space, introduced Sagan’s talk to the Society of Space Explorers in Washington, DC. “Do you realize the debt that you owe to Carl Sagan?” Leonov asked. “He came to Moscow, to the Central Committee, and he briefed them on Nuclear Winter. After he left, a dozen men on the General Staff looked around at each other and they said, ‘Well, it’s all over, isn’t it? The nuclear arms race doesn’t make any sense anymore, does it? We can’t do this anymore. The threat of massive retaliation isn’t credible anymore. It jeopardizes too much of what is precious to us.’”
Another time, Druyan tells us, at the height of the Reagan-Bush Star Wars hysteria, Sagan stood before a slew of military contractors and the top brass of the Department of Defense and fearlessly, without anger, ad hominem attacks, straw men, or rhetorical tricks, debunked the Star Wars scam on its merits. Tough crowd? He got a standing ovation.
These actions, and countless others, remind us that not only did Sagan have something to say about our place in the universe, he had very strong ideas about our place in the world—this pale blue dot, this spaceship Earth. While many have decried science and its discoveries for removing humanity from the center of the universe, Sagan had a different take. More than most of us, he was familiar with the loneliness of space. He spent a lifetime searching for evidence of life on other worlds and never found it. Yet he reveled in the wonder of the unknown and he came to a profound conclusion: clearly, humanity is insignificant to the universe, but by the very nature of our unique existence we are clearly significant to each other.
Sagan and Druyan often spoke about the Great Demotions: the many scientific discoveries that expanded the distance between man and his special status as a “divine creation.” They often had to answer questions from people who believed these demotions somehow made their lives less important. Their reply was consistent and concise:
“If you wish to be important, do something important.”
Tilted seats, spacey music, and starry nights go a long way toward inspiring us children of Cosmos, but it’s not enough to just personally marvel at the vast emptiness of space. We who love and study the universe have valuable skills and information that is vital to the well-being of our world, and we are obligated to act. We probably won’t ever have the opportunity to stand before Russian generals or the Department of Defense—or perhaps we will. But we must stand nevertheless, we who stand “on the shoulders of giants.” Every day, we have a chance to use the methods of science—the lessons of science—to do something important, to contribute to the lives of our “significant others.” Sagan taught us that we need to take that chance.
Ann Druyan tells another story about a porter at Union Station who stopped Sagan from trying to give him a tip. He said, “Put away your money Dr. Sagan. You gave me the universe. Now let me do something for you.”
Thanks indeed, Dr. Sagan. Thanks for doing so many things that were important. We are inspired, and we will stand up and try to take it from here.
To learn more about Carl Sagan, and to see free Sagan Day offers and events, visit CarlSaganDay.org.
About the Author: Lauren BeckerLauren Becker, VP and Director of Outreach, is a science and nature interpreter who has taught at museums, parks, and planetariums around the country. Known for her commentaries on Point of Inquiry, CFI's radio show & podcast, she is an experienced environmental activist and advocate for science literacy and education. Lauren holds a B.A. in Geography and a Masters in Education focused on science and the public.
#1 Patricia LaRaia (Guest) on Monday November 14, 2011 at 8:42am
Thank you for a beautifully written piece on the gifts of Carl Sagan. Some of the stories, like the porter at Union Station, are so moving and significant. I'm so comforted by the thought that some appreciation came back to him in the form of simple humanity. I had a similar experience watching his Cosmos series and the effect it had on me, changed my whole life.
Many thanks for sharing...
#2 Patrick Fish (Guest) on Friday February 24, 2012 at 5:06am
If you like this, check the podcast to hear Lauren read it herself. It's even better.
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