The Future is Now:
Conversations with Carl Sagan (condensed) These conversations could have taken place yesterday.
In light of the recent planetary discoveries by NASA, how much hubris can humankind have to think we are alone in this vast universe? Carl Sagan of NASA and Cornell University spent much of his life contemplating life far beyond this solar system; He talked about it on TV, and searched for those elusive creatures from outer space. (He had a theory about that.) And he wrote about it.
I was privileged to interview him twice. The second time he was under treatment for a bone marrow condition. (Below this article are the two interviews. It was a lifetime ago. And it was yesterday.)
When he was a kid, Carl Sagan, who was born in Brooklyn in 1934, sat on a bench in Coney Island looking at the stars. When he asked his teacher about them, his teacher told him to look it up. Sagan was a pioneer, an astrophysicist who sent 24K gold CDs beyond the galaxy on two starships called Voyager. Yes, for real. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/09/12/tech/innovation/voyager-solar-system/) and (http://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/goldenrec.html)
Not many young people ever heard of this giant, this American hero, this grandson of an illegal immigrant, an Orthodox Jewish fugitive from Hungary who worked as a human ferry, carrying people on his back across the local river.
Maybe the voyages of the Enterprise are not as science-fiction-y as we thought. After all, with fitbits and smartphones, aren’t we already walking around with Tricorders? Food for thought…
I don’t remember dates well, so my dates can be off, but I interviewed Carl Sagan after Search for Forgotten Ancestors was published in 1993 and again after A Pale Blue Dot was released. So whatever the dates were, the last time I saw him, he was literally as pale as a sheet of paper and very thin and frail.
Search was begun by Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, in the 80s. Here is a compelling line from it:
“…the infrastructure was collapsing, the environment was deteriorating, the democratic process was being subverted, injustice festered and the nation was converted from the leading lender to the leading debtor on the planet.”
They asked themselves, “How did we get into this mess? How do we get out? Can we get out?”
That was almost 25 years ago.
When I interviewed Carl Sagan the first time, he said we were already doomed by global warming and nuclear weapons. The nuclear confrontation is why he and Druyan wrote Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.
And after we had a wide-ranging two hour schmooze, he said he was going to write a book about hunters and gatherers, but then we got into a talk about hate and racism… and he said to me that if we stand on Pluto and look at Earth, it is smaller than a dot that makes up the resolution in a printed photograph, that we are a pale blue dot, and that the micro-thin layer of gasses that keep us alive is something everyone on this planet needs, and no one seems to care that we are poisoning ourselves, and killing each other.
He also said that aliens wouldn’t come near us. They have already figured out we are tribal, violent and self-destructive, that we are metal creatures with rubber wheels that spew poison into what little clean air we have. They have seen our TV shows and heard our radio broadcasts and decided that they will leave us alone.
Then he wrote Pale Blue Dot and I interviewed him again.
“The reality is,” he told me, “is that we live on a tiny planet that goes around an obscure sun that is one of 400 billion other suns that make up the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn, is one of about 100 billion galaxies that make up the Universe, which may be one of a very large number, maybe an infinite number of Universes. And in that context, to think that we are the center of — much less the reason for — the Universe, is pathetic.”
In one of those conversations with him, he told me he could not understand why parents didn’t teach their children to think critically, and I asked him if he really thought all parents think critically. He was also concerned about the growing belief in superstition instead of science. The man was a prophet. He saw it coming.
And now it is here.
THE FIRST INTERVIEW 1993
CARL SAGAN: Looking Up (edited)
I was hanging out with Billy, my skinny mechanic. He was moaning about his divorce. I was moaning about my kids. It was the same old, same old. So I changed the subject.
“I’m going to Ithaca to interview Carl Sagan and his wife and partner, Ann Druyan, next week. Will my wreck make it?”
I saw stars shoot into his big blue eyes and his jaw dropped as he stared at me from under the hood of my battered ’82 Ford.
“What?” he said, banging the top of his head as he straightened up and began, literally, to jump up and down. His face and coveralls were smeared with monkey grease.
“You’re going to interview Carl Sagan? My hero? My Main Man? No, your heap won’t make it. The carburetor’s leaking, the catalytic converter is clogged and the brakes are iffy. I’ll drive you. Even if I have to sit in the car. I just want to see him when he opens the door, you know — just see the neighborhood.”
I wasn’t exactly blasé myself. I’d wanted to profile Carl Sagan for almost 20 years. Not because he was a celebrity, or good looking, or because he was from Brooklyn — all valid reasons — but because he was the scientist of my generation who bridged the gap between science fiction and science fact. He took the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and made them real.
Carl Edward Sagan, born in Brooklyn in 1934, was an astronomer and exobiologist who showed that a massive greenhouse effect explains the broiling temperatures of Venus, and that the mysterious changes on Mars are due to windblown dust. He replicated the organic haze of Saturn’s moon Titan in the laboratory, explored the role of comets in the origin of life, and looked for radio signals from other civilizations in space.
He won the Masursky Award from the American Astronomical Society “for extraordinary contributions in the development of planetary science.” At NASA, Sagan played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager missions to other planets. He wrote more than 20 books (many in collaboration with others), and in 1978 won a Pulitzer Prize for the Dragons of Eden, which speculated on the origins of human intelligence.
And then there was Cosmos, the Emmy and Peabody award-winning PBS TV series and book he wrote with his wife Anne Druyan that made him a household name on college campuses — and by 1993, had been seen by more than 50 million people in 60 countries.
Sagan was the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University and Director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies there. He was also the president of the Planetary Society, the world’s largest public membership space interest organization.
Anne Druyan was born in Queens — somewhere between fresh Meadows and Jamaica Estates — in 1949. She always wanted to be a writer and her mother saved her first stories — which were written on paper towels. By now her accomplishments would fill much more than 10 pages. Besides being Sagan’s major collaborator, she was secretary of the Federation of American Scientists an organization with more than 50 Nobel laureates as members — one dedicated to ethical scientific research. The organization works against the nuclear arms race and other misuses of science and high technology.
She’d come a long way since the seventh grade, when her teacher called her stupid for wondering how we know that the decimals of Pi, the transcendental number by go on forever Sagan used reunion as a model for the best parts of the heroine in their science fiction novel Contact. In the book, the key to discovering extraterrestrial intelligence is hidden in Pi, and complicated by politics. (Her math teacher didn’t have a clue!)
In 1977, Druyan was the creative director of the Voyager Interstellar Record, working with Sagan on the message to other possible interstellar spacefaring civilizations placed aboard Voyagers I and II. The decision of what to put on the record was based on the question “If you could only take 10 things with you to a desert island, what would they be?”
“Making the record became an oddly practical way of confronting some abstract questions about art and life on earth. Are human beings capable of making something universal? Who are we? What are the essential characteristics of our identity? How do you represent the earth?” they said.
The message on that gold-plated disc, in addition to containing information about our galactic address and the nature of our planet, includes some of the world’s best music, from Beethoven and Bach, to Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Both spacecraft left Cape Canaveral that summer to reconnoiter the outer planets and then fly off through the galaxy.
“The likelihood that our message will ever be received by beings of another world is impossible to predict,” Druyan cautioned at the time. “Forty thousand years will pass before the spacecraft glides by even the nearest star.”
As a TV producer, Druyan has worked on specials about abortion, the environment, Halley’s Comet and nuclear war, and participated in a live teleconference with the cosmonauts on the Soviet Mir space station. In 1985, the New York Film and Television Festival awarded a gold medal for Best News Special to her “Breaking the Spell: A U.S.-Soviet Dialogue” about the nuclear arms race.
***I told Billy I would check with Sagan and Druyan to see if I could bring him along. Billy was once a nuclear engineer with degrees from the University of Arizona and Northwestern. He was good at what he did, but one day “they” asked him to fudge the safety specs on a power plant. He refused, earning a reputation for being “uncooperative.” He decided he’d rather be a mechanic. He said he became a scientist because of Sagan and also credits Sagan’s sense of ethics for his decision to quit.
In preparation for the trek, I read Sagan’s collections of essays. The Cosmic Connection (1973), and Broca’s Brain (1974) — and his science fiction novel Contact (1985), (a major motion picture starring Jodi Foster. He did not live to see the final cut.). I also devoured their new book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.
Sagan and Druyan began Shadows in the early 1980’s, when “the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was making a potentially fateful intersection with 60,000 nuclear weapons…,” according to the book’s introduction.
“Meanwhile,” it continues, “the infrastructure was collapsing, the environment was deteriorating; the democratic process was being subverted, injustice festered and the nation was converted from the leading lender to the leading debtor on the planet. ‘How did we get into this mess?’ we asked ourselves. ‘How can we get out? Can we get out?’”
Sagan and Druyan sought the political and emotional roots of all the above through an analysis of recorded history. But they found no one point at which they could say that this is where such roots were planted. “Before we knew it,” they write, “we were looking to the first humans and their predecessors. Events of remote ages, long before humans came to be, are critical, we concluded, for an understanding of the trap that our species seems to be setting for itself.”
That quest is an old friend. In the 1970s, Sagan noted in The Cosmic Connection that in a time when conventional wisdom is under attack, there is an ongoing search, often unconscious, for a cosmic perspective for humanity — “a kind of philosophical hunger, a need to know who we are and how we got here.”
***At 3 a.m. on a dark and stormy night. Billy and I strapped ourselves into his station wagon and headed northwest. Because of road repairs, for most of the trip we were narrowly sandwiched between glowing white pylons and luminous road-markings surrounded by inky blackness; we were in a space capsule, as if we were traveling through hyper space.
As the light came up in the east, we emerged in the bucolic countryside of the Finger Lakes region. Through the mist we could see the checkerboard fields, chasms and waterfalls that enfold Ithaca and the Cornell campus. The climbing sun dappled emerald foliage tinged with hints of autumn.
What a great place to think!
We found their home on a cul-de-sac, on the shore of Lake Cayuga, a house open to lots of sunlight and a beautiful view. We were early, but a research assistant led us to the dining room and offered us herbal tea. Soon, Druyan and Sagan joined us.
Sagan asked Billy about his education, where he had worked and why he left nuclear engineering. He was moved by Billy’s story, and told Billy he was glad to meet him and admired the strength of his convictions.
Watching Sagan and Druyan together, you could feel how close they are. After years of working together, with no flirting, no touching and no dating, they suddenly realized how deeply they cared about each other during a longodistance phone call. Both immediately rearranged their lives and married. Sagan had three grown children from a previous marriage, and two with Druyan. “I think they are five menschen” she offered.
She: “I’m really proud of our relationship. Carl’s parents did an unbelievably great job. I bless them every day.”
He: “It’s very nice of Annie, but in fact the real reason everyone here gets along so well is almost entirely due to her.”
So she’s the one who pries the rock out of his hand as chimp females do to calm aggressive males, apropos Shadows? They laughed.
Shadows, Sagan’s and Druyan’s synthesis of thousands of years of human knowledge, took 25 drafts and 12 years to write. And they didn’t kill each other along the way. “The writing was an evolutionary process, in which only the fit parts survived. We argued on a lot of points, but always in a respectful way. It doesn’t mean being without passion. There’s a lot of passion here. Voices were sometimes raised, but all in the course of finding out what’s true. And every time we review drafts, we see if we can agree on every single change…. It’s also a lot of fun if you’re doing it with somebody you love and whose perceptions you admire. And one reason I admire Annie is because sometimes she finds a flaw in my argument or she phrases something with supreme elegance.”
Jumping in with both feet, I offered three elegant phrases I had culled from Shadows: “They’d rather eat sand.” “Violence is contagious.” And, “Testosterone causes stupidity.” Sagan rebuked me, “You’ve picked a few items which support your feminist perspective. That is only a part of what the book is about. It’s about a whole lot of things.”
“But if testosterone causes stupidity…?” I persisted. “Testosterone also causes the kind of aggression needed to defend against predators, and without it, we’d all be dead,” answered Sagan. “So, the point we’ve tried to make repeatedly is that there is a balance of traits which together have adaptive advantage or evolutionary value. Testosterone is there for a reason. It’s not an evolutionary mistake.”
Evolution is a major part of the story in Shadows, and evolution has always been problematic for believers in God. Sagan and Druyan are often asked about God’s role in their understanding of us and our origins, and they are both currently involved in dialogues about science with religious leaders. Sagan has just completed a series of conversations for television with the Dalai Lama. Both are also involved with the Joint Appeal in Religion and Science for the Environment.
If God is this guy in the sky, there are hundreds of different religions that each have their own definition of Him. I went back to my readings to see what Sagan had to say about it. In Broca’s Brain (1973), I found that Sagan addressed the issue head-on in an essay called “A Sunday Sermon”: “Many of the people who ask whether I believe in God are requesting reassurance that their particular belief system, whatever it is, is consistent with modem scientific knowledge….
“My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passions to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential to the welfare of the human species.”
Nothing Sagan and Druyan say is really inconsistent with modem, and even some Orthodox Judaic interpretations of the Torah. They believe that the Torah is a codification of the best scientific knowledge available in the Sixth Century BCE, expressed as metaphor. Fundamentalists of many religions, however, have trouble with the physical evidence of evolution and there are startling facts in Shadows that make them very uncomfortable.
“Chimps, our closest kin, share some 99.6 percent of our active genes. And their social arrangements seem hauntingly familiar: Many spontaneous groupings of men are oriented around hierarchy, combat, blood sports, hunting and loveless sex. The (chimp) combination of dominant males, submissive females, deferential but scheming subordinates, a driving hunger for “respect” up and down the hierarchy, the exchange of current favors for future loyalty, barely submerged violence, protection rackets, and the systematic sexual exploitation of all available adult females, has some marked points of similarity with the lifestyles and ambiance of absolute monarchs, dictators, big-city bosses, bureaucrats of all nations, gangs, organized crime and the actual lives of many of the figures in history adjudged ‘great.’”
Considering that we are a mere 0.4 percent genetically different from chimps, we go far to deny the similarities between us and them. We shave, we wear clothes, we perfume ourselves to neutralize our natural odors, we disguise the meat that we eat, and spend an inordinate amount of time and money on “cosmetics” to convince ourselves that we are not animals. But no matter how hard we try, we cannot deny the resemblance. We are, arguably, the most dangerous animals on earth. Sagan and Druyan have found yet another similarity.
“… The most potent form of verbal abuse in English and many other languages is “F — you,” with the pronoun “I” implicit at the beginning. The speaker is vividly asserting his claim to higher status, and his contempt for those he considers subordinate. Characteristically, humans have converted a postural image into a linguistic one with barely a change in nuance. The phrase is uttered millions of times each day, all over the planet, with anyone hardly stopping to think what it means…. It is a badge of the primate order, revealing something of our nature despite all our denials and pretensions.”
But wait. There’s more! Experiments with macaques, also called rhesus monkeys, are even more suggestive of our close relationship with primates. Sagan and Druyan feel they resonate with the ring of parable, and from them, Druyan concludes that macaques have more rachmonos (compassion) than humans.
Macaques in a laboratory were fed only if they were willing to pull a chain that would shock another monkey, whose reactions could be seen through a one-way mirror. Otherwise they starved. But they frequently refused to pull the chain; in one experiment, only 13 percent would do so; 87 percent preferred to go hungry. In comparison, Sagan and Druyan briefly mention the 1963 Milgram experiments at Yale University that, in an attempt to understand the Holocaust, tried to understand people’s willingness to follow orders. “Naive” subjects were asked to administer increasingly severe electric shocks to a “victim” using a simulated generator with clearly marked voltage levels from 15 to 450 volts.
The results: “Of the 40 subjects, 26 obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, proceeding to punish the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the shock generator.”
Then there is the story of Imo, a really clever four-year-old macaque, whose experience suggests attitudes that human females often encounter, especially in the workplace.
On the Japanese island of Koshima, the macaques’ food — sweet potatoes and wheat — was dumped on the shore. Imo figured out that if she rinsed her food, she wouldn’t have to eat the sand that clung to it. Gradually, her playmates, then her relatives, began to copy her. And after further delay, the adult males began to rinse their food. Three years later, Imo figured out how to separate her wheat from the sand by using a variation of the technique miners use when they pan for gold.
Sagan and Druyan report: “Adult males were the slowest to catch on, obstinate to the last; a female invented the process, then it was taken up by adult females and youngsters of both sexes. Eventually, infants learned it at their mother’s knee. The reluctance of the adult males must tell us something… if they were to imitate Imo, they would be following her lead, becoming in some sense subservient to her and thereby losing dominant status. They would rather eat sand.”
Testosterone may not be an evolutionary mistake, but as Sagan pointed out, male-dominated societies and nuclear weapons are a prescription for disaster. Following his logic, I asked him whether, since male-dominated societies suffer from “testosterone poisoning,” we should start manipulating genetic materials and play God.
“As soon as you open up the possibility of forcing people into your mold, then what is there to prevent someone from forcing you?” he responded. Druyan added: “There are other ways to get people to change. We shouldn’t consider anything like altering people chemically.”
Druyan and Sagan believed the best way to change people is through education and the democratic political system. “We love the Bill of Rights and we think it’s like science. The best argument should carry sway. Not authority. Not because I say so.’”
Intellectual and academic understanding of life is one thing, the realities of life is quite another. What do you tell a stressed-out Daddy? That he’s crazed from a molecule?
“Wow, what a molecule!” Druyan exclaimed.
“That works as well as telling a woman she has PMS,” Sagan noted wryly.
But how do we get the information we need to make the world a better place “out there,” where it can be used? Should we issue each kid a computer with all the information from Shadows and other related sources?
“No. Issue each kid a set of competent parents. That same human fallibility you were talking about is the reason we’re too dumb to be able to do hormonal and genetic engineering. It’s too dangerous.”
O.K., but kids don’t come with manuals. “That’s the whole point,” Sagan said. “There is no ‘orphan’s file.’”
“We have to fill in the missing pages,” Druyan explained. “‘No orphan’s file’ means that we are like an infant left on the doorstep with no note. We have to find out who we are.”
The prologue to Shadows is called “The Orphan’s File.”
Billy was incredibly quiet for about two hours. Then he started kicking me under the table. He was trying to get me back on track. Time was running out and I still had a lot of material to cover. Our conversation touched on many subjects:
Politics, Hollywood, Vietnam, slavery, the Middle East, UFOs, and child-rearing in The Mall Age.
What did Carl Sagan think about as a kid when he was riding the roller coaster on Coney Island? “I was thinking about not growing up.” And how did he get turned on to science? “The stars were there. I asked what they were and nobody could tell me. ‘They’re lights in the sky, kid.’ I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were they? Somehow they called to me.”
When he was 12, his grandfather, who came to America from Austria-Hungary, asked him in Yiddish what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I answered,’an astronomer.’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but how will you make a living?’ Ambitious kids in my neighborhood were told to think about being doctors and lawyers. But science grabbed me. I didn’t intend it. It just happened.”
Druyan thinks his grandfather would have been pleased.
Who were his mentors? “Books, really. I sat around in Bensonhurst and read a lot of books.” Did he start with science fiction? “Oh, no. I was interested in science before I was interested in science fiction. But science fiction convinced me there were other people who shared my interests and introduced me to all sorts of ideas I certainly wasn’t being taught in school.”
He went to high school in New Jersey and attended the University of Chicago.
Sagan and Druyan were lucky with their parents, and the Sagan children, Alexandra, and Sam were lucky with theirs. What about all those who aren’t so lucky?
Sagan and Druyan are deeply concerned about how we nurture children. How do we solve the problem? “Politics. The problems are all political,” they both answered.
But they don’t want to be politicians. “I think in terms of playing a constructive role in society, Annie and I are much more effective doing what we’re doing,” Sagan offered.
“You see,” Druyan added, “we don’t look at this as a leadership problem. We look at it as a followership problem. In a democracy, you do your best to educate, to get your message to the people and then things will follow from that.”
Shadows is the first of a three-volume project. The second book, now underway, will be about how humans began and what life was like most of the time that humans have been on earth. The third will be about civilization.
Shadows concludes with a warning:
“We can solve our problems only if we know who it is we’re dealing with. To balance whatever dangerous tendencies we perceive in ourselves is the knowledge that in our ancestors and close relatives violence is inhibited, controlled, and, in encounters within the species at least, devoted mainly to symbolic ends;
that we are gifted in making alliances and friendships, that politics is our business, that we are capable of self-knowledge and new forms of social organization; and that we are able, better than any species that ever lived on Earth, to figure things out and build things that never were….
“If intelligence is our only edge, we must learn to use it better, to sharpen it, to understand its limits and deficiencies — to make it the tool of our survival.”
After getting my beat-up copy of Shadows autographed and gushing our thanks, Billy and I, lost in thought, boarded the station wagon to find our way home. Billy was grateful he wasn’t disappointed — his hero’s feet weren’t made of clay. I was impressed with how genuine and open our hosts were.
Both of us, exhausted and elated, knew we had touched the very best America has to offer.
THE SECOND INTERVIEW (ca. 1994–95)
CARL SAGAN: THE UNIVERSAL PERSPECTIVE
When we left Carl Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, on the shores of New York’s Cayuga Lake in the winter of ’93, they were enjoying their new baby and setting ready to do a sequel to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. That book traced the development of mankind from the big bang to the nuclear bang in an attempt to discover why humans choose to self-destruct. The next book was supposed to be about hunters and gatherers. It didn’t work out that way.
Shadows took 12 years and 25 drafts to write, so no one expected to hear from the Sagans any time soon, when his new book (a sequel to Cosmos, not to Shadows) appeared with pictures taken in heaven itself and text that makes the unknowable understandable. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space made the best-seller lists in no time.
In a New York Times cyberchat with America Online subscribers, Sagan took questions from the largest online audience ever (until that time). One subscriber asked what Sagan would say to the first extraterrestrial he met. Answer: “What took you so long?”
Pale Blue Dot is not just about the heavens. It’s about us and the planet we live on. It is full of observations about survival on a tiny floating world with a fragile atmosphere. Sagan’s advice drives the point home: examine your own world in relation to the rest of the Universe, or rather, Universes.
Pale Blue Dot has incredible photos taken by Hubble, Voyager, and other spacecraft — and photos taken through the most powerful telescopes on Earth. The frontispiece is a tiny spot on a dark field caught in a sunbeam. It’s a photo of Earth taken at Sagan’s behest by Voyager I from beyond the orbit of Neptune. The opening offers a full-page starfield painted by Jon Lomberg, with a square surrounding something almost invisible. Like a shopping mall map, it says. “You are here.”
Where? On a pale blue dot instead of a big blue marble.
“The reality.” says Sagan. “is that we live on a tiny planet that goes around an obscure sun that is one of 400 billion other suns that make up the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn, is one of about a hundred billion other galaxies that make up the Universe, which may be one of a very large number, maybe an infinite number, of Universes. And in that context, to think that we are the center of — much less the reason for — the Universe, is pathetic.”
Sagan pointed out that from Voyager, you can’t even tell Earth is inhabited.
The dot, to us, is everything. Sagan writes: “On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
“The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines . . . every hopeful child, inventor and explorer . . . every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan wants us to think of the rivers of blood that were shed and cruelties visited upon others by the inhabitants of one corner of this planet on those of another.
He writes: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. … In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
…He was still at Cornell…
****Sagan said he was busy teaching and “doing lots of research, understanding things I didn’t understand before.”
Since March, however, Sagan took a temporary leave of absence from Cornell to be treated for a rare. curable bone-marrow disease. “I fully expect to be back at Cornell by next semester.” he said. He explained his condition was not cancer, but might develop into cancer if it remains untreated. Sagan continued to supervise his research program but canceled his speaking engagements. (He died on December 20, 1996.)
As always. Sagan and Druyan were still promoting ethical science, world peace and interplanetary studies. They were writing and co-producing a Warner Bros. movie based on Sagan’s novel, Contact. starring Jodie Foster, that was supposed to be released in 1996. (The film was dedicated to him.)
And they’re developing books and interactive CDs about science for very young children. “There is nothing on the market that really catches what science is about in a way that excites most kids.” Sagan believed.
Sam, then 4 years old, affected their priorities. Pale Blue Dot’s dedication reads: “For Sam. another wanderer. May your generation see wonders undreamt.”
You need a good education to make dreams come true. But in the current political climate, a good education will be harder to come by. Cutting back on funds for education in favor of defense weaponry has always been a concern for Sagan, who warned us about nuclear winter, Star Wars and global warming. He worries about our legacy to future generations.
“The idea of an attack from another superpower with 10,000 warheads aimed at the U.S. is now much more implausible than it was at the height of the Cold War,” he says. “The biggest threats these days are said to be from countries like Iraq, Iran, North Korea or Libya. But they have no nuclear weapons — and at most, they will obtain a handful in the foreseeable future. Why are we spending — when hidden costs are allowed for — over $300 billion a year on defense? What is it we are defending?
“The whole issue has not been discussed in a lucid and coherent light, which was one of my main objections to Mr. Reagan’s Star Wars.”
There are other objections: in the early “80s. Sagan notes, the defense establishment felt Russians might use worldlets — Sagan’s term for celestial bodies less than a kilometer wide — as first-strike weapons and suggested that the U.S. learn how to manipulate them as weapons, too.
Nuclear weapons technology might also be used to pulverize or deflect asteroids threatening to smack into Earth. According to the Defense Department, in the last 20 years hundreds of small worldlets have hit the atmosphere with no damage to the planet.
Civilization-threatening impacts are created by bodies “several hundred meters across or more.” Sagan says. “They arrive something like once every 200.000 years. Our civilization is only about 10.000 years old, so we have no institutional memory of the last such impact.” That summer’s fiery impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter was a reminder of the possibility.
Congress has asked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Defense Department to work with other countries’ space agencies in tracking the orbital characteristics of all Earth-approaching “comets and asteroids that are greater than one kilometer in diameter.” Sagan savs.
After those outer-space neighbors are cataloged, he and three colleagues — Alan Harris and Steven Ostro of the Jet Propulsion Labs and Greg Canavan of Los Alamos National Laboratory — predicted it might take only a year before one could be sent crashing into Earth.
Some scientists have suggested pushing worldlets closer to us and braking them in Earth’s atmosphere in order to be able to mine rare metals from them. Don’t even think about it, cautions Sagan. “This is one activity where errors in navigation or propulsion or mission design can have the most sweeping and catastrophic consequences.”
Another danger, one Sagan said is often dismissed by bureaucrats and politicians, is the one he calls the “only-a-madman argument” — only a madman would misuse this technology. He reminds us that “this is the century of Hitler and Stalin.”
The risk of being hit by a civilization-destroying asteroid in the next thousand years, Sagan said was less than the risk of asteroid-moving technology falling into the wrong hands.
Sagan addressed another aspect of the children-vs.-defense debate over how best to provide for the future: There are a growing number of American children with short attention spans and serious learning disabilities. Some say it’s because “Sesame Street” and other TV shows teach kids in short, ten- to thirty-second takes. Sagan, a fan of “Sesame Street,” said it’s partly because of perinatal malnutrition.
“If we don’t give our newborns enough to eat, they acquire irreversible learning disorders. That’s why cutting aid to dependent children and school nutrition programs is suicidal. It’s a way of guaranteeing that many, many more children will not be able to learn. You don’t have to have a compassionate bone in your body to recognize the importance for our future of making sure that every child has enough to eat.
“With a few exceptions, all politicians care about is getting re-elected — their perspective is limited to two to six years into the future, their term of office. Making sacrifices now that will benefit the country 20 years from now is almost never on the agenda.”
How will we meet the needs of the global marketplace if our kids aren’t capable of holding highly skilled jobs? asked Sagan.
“America is a nation in decline. You have 200+ countries on the planet. Those that can’t take care of their future, decline. There’s rapid high-tech industrialization going on in the Pacific Rim. China may be the wave of the future. Germany and Japan are doing quite well. They’re educating their children much better than we are.
“You don’t find widespread learning disorders in those countries. Their kids get enough to eat. They go to school much more, and there are much greater rewards for doing well in school. Some countries know how to do this and others won’t. I’m hopeful that the U.S. will understand its obligations to its own children and to its own future, and turn itself around.” he says. “If not, other nations — ones that understand these matters better, ones that are capable of long-term thinking — will rise to pre-eminence.”
The current political climate isn’t helping: “When you say, ‘Feed our children.’ there are people who say, ‘It’s not our job. It’s up to the parents to feed the children.’ “
And if they can’t? Newt Gingrich tells Americans to send them to orphanages.
If you don’t like that, Sagan suggested you contact President Clinton. “A lot of the dismay should be directed at Mr. Clinton, because if he were a stronger figure, if he were more courageous, you would not have to worry so much about Mr. Gingrich.
‘’We have a responsibility — in infant mortality, in perinatal malnutrition, in preschool education — to make sure that the poorest children among us get adequate care.
‘’A lot of people are mad at poor people for being poor and for having children. On some level, they figure it’s appropriate to punish the children for the presumed misdeeds of their parents. That is extremely imprudent for the future of the country and contrary to the charitable religious traditions of even one of the great world religions. And yet there are powerful people today who believe in cutting Head Start, Aid to Dependent Children, and school lunch programs.” Sagan said.
(Sam wandered in. He settled on his father’s knee and listens to grown-ups talk.)
So what can we do?
“Equip yourselves with baloney-detection kits so you know when you’re being lied to, which is very often. Make sure your representatives and senators know what your views are and that you will work to defeat them if they ignore you. Join environmental organizations and organizations concerned with the future of children. Let your newspapers know what your views are. Call radio programs and give a little counterbalance. Talk to public affairs people at your local TV stations. Try to get on public access TV. Try to reach children in summer camp or in school. I think everybody has a responsibility to do something.”
What does all of this have to do with Pale Blue Dot?
“There are three parts to the book. The first is a discussion of a transcultural human conceit — that we are at the center of the Universe, or worse, that we are the reason there is a Universe. And that, of course, comes straight from the Jewish tradition. But there’s no excuse for it now. The Universe is not ours.
“The second part is an attempt to look at our own solar system — our local swimming hole in space — because we are now nearing the end of the age of preliminary reconnaissance of the solar system. We have swept through the system. We’ve examined seventy-odd worlds close up by spacecraft, and we’ve learned a fantastic amount. We understand the magnificence of these worlds, and we can also, in many cases, apply what we have learned about them to the Earth. The greenhouse effect on Venus and the absence of an ozone layer on Mars — are direct cautionary tales about what foolish things not to do on Earth.”
Like depleting the ozone layer? “It renews itself. Just leave it alone for a hundred years. The problem is that the damage lasts three, four, five generations into the future. We’ve made some headway, and there’s no need to despair, yet.
“Part three is a discussion of what the subtitle suggests: a vision of the human future in space — the reasons for robots and, eventually, humans on other worlds: some of it connected with dangers down here and some of it for quite other reasons. It ends with a very long-term view, hundreds. or even thousands of years into the future.”
Sagan is a pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). (The movie Contact is about such a search.) In the early 90s, he and Druyan persuaded Steven Spielberg to give the non-profit Planetary Society (which Sagan heads) money to organize the most sophisticated search ever attempted. Sagan — with Harvard physics professor Paul Horowitz — found something that still gives him goose bumps.
“We have a set of criteria by which we distinguish sources of terrestrial radio interference — glitches in the electronics and so on — from genuine extraterrestrial signals of intelligent origin. We found 11 cases that satisfied all our criteria — and what’s more, the five strongest such signals lay in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, where the stars are — just where you might think alien civilizations would be. So that does raise goose bumps.
“But none of those signals ever repeated, not minutes later, not months later, not years later. It’s not a scientific demonstration. If it doesn’t repeat, it’s not science.”
Perhaps “they” didn’t repeat because they caught the Army/McCarthy hearings, as Sagan liked to joke.
***We have a lot to learn about ourselves. Sagan felt. No one is perfect, including the Jewish people. He would like every Jew to carefully read the book of Joshua and the second half of the book of Numbers, where there are accounts of sanctioned murder and genocide. Says Sagan: “It is very important for Jews to understand that all of us are capable of participating in genocide — that this is a trans-cultural problem.”
Sagan’s grandfather was a beast of burden in Austria-Hungary, a human ferry who carried passengers on his back across a creek. America was a haven when he came to escape a murder rap. It allowed his grandchild to follow the stars.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the ’30s and ’40s, Sagan lived in a community of Jews and Italian Catholics. He didn’t know what a Protestant was until he was almost a teenager. “Each group had traditions that some maintained and treasured, but the idea for us kids was to lose our accent and become instant Americans. There is a downside to that. Losing your language and your roots and your culture, being embarrassed about your mother’s accent, is tragic.
“The ideal situation is to respect everyone else’s culture and learn from them — strength from diversity. Somehow we lost that idea.
“When I was a teenager, this is what I heard from grown-ups: ‘We came to this country dirt poor. We had nothing. Through hard work and dedication and working Sundays, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and did things other ethnic groups were not willing to do. Now “they” want us to pay for them to have a decent standard of living, when no one helped us.”
“The people making this complaint came to America with an intact cultural tradition. They had a religion. They knew their names. They were literate, even if not in English. They had a set of work traditions — the garment industry, jewelry — that could be plugged into the broad American culture.
“Then I look at African-Americans, who came with their culture beaten out of them, prevented from using their own names, forbidden to speak their own language, the death penalty imposed on any white with the temerity to teach them to read. There were systemic, long-term, brutal attempts to deprive them of self-esteem or ambition. This was done by whites in the U.S. for hundreds of years.
“Then culminating with the Civil Rights Act of the ’60s we say, ‘Sorry, that was all a mistake — you’re free to go now and make a living.’ But if you grow up in a house where the social fabric is destroyed, where nobody reads, where there are no books and no tradition of reading, how are you going to read? Where do you get the skills?”
Sagan spoke of a midrash on Genesis. “In the Garden God tells Eve and Adam that He has intentionally left the Universe unfinished. It is the responsibility of humans, over countless generations, to participate with God in a glorious’ experiment — completing the Creation.”
Is there a role in that midrash for part three of Pale Blue Dot — settling other worlds?
“Peopling other worlds unifies nations and ethnic groups, binds the generations, and requires us to be smart and wise. It liberates our nature and. in part. returns us to our beginnings.” says Sagan.
The off-world pioneers of the future will gaze up at the pale blue dot, Sagan writes, and “they will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life there may be, the only humans in all the Universe come from Earth.”
If we don’t destroy ourselves first.