When it came to earthly obsessions, Carl Sagan took the long view
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 23, 2006; W15
We moved offices, and I began to purge files, stuff I don't need and haven't looked at in years. Digging deep, I came across a fat file marked "Sagan." The astronomer died in December 1996.
Save? Throw away?
From the documents, a voice emerged.
"Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that there is anyone who will come and save us from ourselves."
Carl Sagan! You could hear those explosive consonants. Who else could utter a phrase, with a straight face, like "the great enveloping cosmic dark"? Sagan insisted that we think bigger. Look upward and outward, he said. Get cosmic.
It's something you don't hear so much these days, and not just because the space program is in a funk. Our concerns are extremely terrestrial: war, disease, hatred, poverty. The preoccupying figure of this decade is not the astronaut but the terrorist.
Sagan cared about earthly subjects, too. He was your basic progressive liberal, a college professor, a peace advocate. But he saw our human obsessions as trivial in the grand scheme of things. The universe isn't about us, he would say. He railed against human arrogance, against "our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe."
And yet the voice in the file is that of a person who liked human beings, who rooted for them. Perhaps because Sagan had seen so many desert worlds out there in our solar system, so many cold, airless, sterile planets and moons, he appreciated the one place where we know life has proliferated, and where intelligence has somehow appeared. Here's Sagan explaining why he wouldn't ban all medical research using animals: "I'm sure if I were a lizard, I would be arguing about sacrificing the humans so we can get better medicine for the lizards. I'm sorry. I can't help it. I'm a human."
Throughout his career, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Sagan was fascinated with life beyond Earth, a subject that carries with it the hazard of sounding very silly. In a Scientific American article, he wrote, "If a silicon-based giraffe had walked by the Viking Mars landers, its portrait would have been taken." Sagan didn't actually think there might be silicon Martian giraffes, but he was glad that the Viking landers would be ready to take pictures of any animals bounding around.
Here's a 1981 letter from Sagan to someone who thought alien life forms would be very much like creatures on Earth. Sagan disagreed:
"We have a worrisome tendency to think that what we see is all that can be. . . But why five fingers? Why fingers rather than tentacles? Why the agonizingly slow data processing in our neurological systems? Why not multi-spectral infrared sensing? It's easy to think of a wide range of anatomies, physiologies and sensory modalities that have not been adopted by humans or indeed by any other creatures on the Earth."
Which is a much more elaborate response than simply, "Thank you for your interesting letter."
Sagan would be so useful today, what with all the debates about science and religion. By most definitions he would be called an atheist, but he hated the term. "An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid."
He didn't think science drained any of the majesty from the universe, but quite the opposite.
"The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos."
Here's Sagan's text for a statement he persuaded President Jimmy Carter to include on the Voyager Record, a disc designed to be heard by an alien civilization should it ever intercept the Voyager spacecraft:
"This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America, a community of 240 million human beings among the 4.2 billion who inhabit our planet Earth. We are still divided into nation states, but are rapidly becoming a single global civilization which covers our tiny but very beautiful world . . . We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems which face us, to join a community of galactic civilizations."
We haven't solved our problems. Some people on Earth aren't even fully ready to join human civilization, far less a galactic one. Sagan would be saddened by much of what he sees today.
But he'd be out there fighting for science and the human future, imploring us to be smarter, braver, more cosmic. So the Sagan file will stay. Some people you need to keep around forever.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.