Science Strikes Back: Carl Sagan’s Acts of Resistance and Assistance
Running a booth at atheist conventions usually consists of sitting by yourself for fifty-five minutes in an empty hall followed by five minutes of beautiful pandemonium trying to talk to everybody at once, until the next talk begins and you’re left to yourself for another fifty-five mind-crustifying minutes. To pass that time I play a number of games, one of which is Sagan Clock. To play Sagan Clock, just march to one end of the convention, pull out your stopwatch, and walk at an even pace through the aisles, resetting the stopwatch every time you see or hear something to do with Carl Sagan—a tee shirt with one of his sayings, a poster with his image, a group of people talking about watching Cosmos as kids, or a monitor playing a clip from Contact.
I’ve been playing Sagan Clock for five years now, and that stopwatch has never gone higher than twenty seconds. Twenty years after his death, we continue to revere Sagan with a steady intensity we usually reserve for the likes of Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton. He is everywhere. Most of his popular science books, in spite of being decades out of date, are still in print, because the unique taste of his prose and the scope of his wonder are things we’ll never voluntarily part with.
Some years ago a new Cosmos television series came out (hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson), catching us up on the thirty-five years of research that separate Sagan’s original series and the present day. It looked prettier. The science was better. Tyson was engaging, fun, and poignant. But damn it, when it’s one in the morning, and you’re hanging out with some science nerd friends, and somebody says, “We should watch Cosmos,” it’s always the Sagan run they mean. The shape of Sagan’s phrases, sung out in his particular oratorical rhythm, delivered from an age that was desperately trying to hold onto its sense of grandeur while the world was anything but, is a touchstone experience for us all, something that connects us with the best of our hopes for the human project.
As a result, Sagan the experience has come to dwarf Sagan the scientist or Sagan the man.
In part, that’s to be expected. As an artful popularizer of science, presentation and contagious enthusiasm were Sagan’s most powerful tools in focusing the attention of an embittered and disillusioned generation on the hard-fought scramble of scientific progress. But the scientist and the man were fascinating figures as well.
Everything intensely frustrating and undeniably inspiring about Sagan stems from, I believe, one basic fact: as a child, Carl Sagan was well loved. His father was deeply proud and supportive of him, and to his mother, he was perfection itself, a brilliant child for whom she did everything so that he could concentrate on developing his mind. Predictably, Carl grew up self-confident to the point of brashness, with a firm, unconscious belief that everybody in his life was there to wax the rails of his success and an intellectual vorasciousness that sought to consume a bit of every branch of knowledge. That confidence, imagination, and omnivorous curiosity would make him a great public proponent of science, but the entitlement and intellectual diffusion over many topics made him a tough husband and a frustrating scientific colleague.
As a scientist, he came of age during the tentative infancy of exobiology, a field that sought to determine whether life could arise on other planets and, if so, what that life might be like. As a college student, he worked with some of the greatest names of his time: with Harold Urey and Stanley Miller right at the moment when they were demonstrating that amino acids, the building blocks of life, could be created by purely mechanical processes; and with Gerard Kuiper, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and Dale Cruikshank as they made Yerkes Observatory a world center of astronomical research.
Faced with so many intellectual delights, Sagan spread himself thin, a habit that would mark much of the first decades of his career. He studied chemistry and biology so as to participate in the origin of life research that fired his imagination, but also physics and earth science to understand better the planets and how their constitutions might or might not support life. Buoyed by the Urey-Miller results, he hypothesized giddily in the 1950s about life on Venus, the moon, and Mars.
Those theories would turn out entirely untrue, but they led him to analyses of our celestial neighbors that produced some of the most important ideas of mid-century planetary science. Looking at the radiation data from Venus, he noted its great heat and created a model of its atmosphere whereby water vapor and carbon dioxide combined to create a massive greenhouse gas effect, producing a planet so hot that lead melts at its surface. He overshot the mark on the water vapor content, it turned out, but the overall theory about the Venusian atmosphere is fundamentally the one we have today, a cautionary tale of global warming gone out of control.
He also produced the correct explanation for the seasonal darkening of Mars, a phenomenon that had been explained previously as a result of seasonal vegetation but that, less dramatically, Sagan ascribed to massive windblown dust cycles. And not only that, but he contributed to the solution of the Young Sun Paradox, which pointed to the troubling fact that the young Sun was less radiant than it is today, and yet the young Earth was warm enough to create life. Sagan found a solution to the paradox by having his team investigate how miniscule amounts of atmospheric ammonia might keep heat trapped on Earth.
This was solid science, and that it was carried out while Sagan was giving lectures, advising NASA on probe designs, teaching (first at Berkeley, then Harvard, and finally Cornell), promoting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and writing increasingly popular accounts of scientific research, is astounding. How did he find the time to combine five or six careers’ worth of work in a single lifetime?
The answer is, of course, that he shifted everything about his life not connected to his research or increasing fame onto the shoulders of others. The self-absorption he had learned in the all-nurturing nest of his parents continued during his first two marriages, and he became emotionally and physically abusive when he did not get his way.
It took a third marriage to change him into the person we know and love, the man who was not only a great scientist and popularizer, but a good human as well, with deep commitments to improving life on Earth as well as an understanding of the cosmos. Ann Druyan is unilaterally given the credit for making Sagan turn his intellect back homewards, causing him to reflect upon his faults, and compelling him to try to atone for his previous shortcomings as a father and friend. Together, they produced Cosmos, the smash television hit that boosted Sagan to international acclaim as somebody, perhaps the only somebody, who could redeem science in the public’s eyes.
After the disillusionment of the 1960s and ’70s, a generation had come into its own that viewed science as little more than the bristling handmaiden of the military industrial complex. War, nuclear proliferation, political scandal, racial tensions—there seemed nothing to be optimistic about as humanity dragged its feet through the grey morass of the Seventies. And then came Carl Sagan in his Spaceship of the Imagination, teaching the world, in terms they could understand, about Earth’s place in the cosmos, and humans about their position in the grand story of evolution. Millions upon millions saw that series, and Sagan used the fame gained from it to direct attention to NASA’s new efforts in robotic exploration (which the media had been reluctant to cover), and at preserving the SETI effort (which Congress had been inclined to defund). But perhaps most importantly, he used his brilliance and his fame to talk Russia and the United States out of their love affair with nuclear weapons.
He publicized the results of his colleagues who had analyzed the types of smoke that would be sent into the atmosphere by a city set to burning in the wake of a nuclear strike. Cities burn differently than forests. The plastics and synthetic compounds send up a smoke entirely their own, one which does not dissipate or fall with ease but rather chokes the atmosphere, preventing heat from arriving to the surface and plunging the world into a “nuclear winter” that would make agriculture all but impossible, and would ultimately doom humanity. NASA, fearful for its budget at the hands of a Reagan administration that had warned against releasing any science detrimental to its nuclear dreams, initially tried to gag the nuclear winter research, but Sagan promoted it and as a result the world came hard against the reality that a nuclear war could not be won. The military strategists who had spent decades compiling scenarios whereby a mere twenty million or so might be killed, while the country as a whole survived, suddenly were faced with the realization that any large scale use of nuclear arms would doom target and aggressor alike. There was no way to win such a war except to never start one.
And that’s why we’re all not dead. Luckily, we learned our lesson from the experience, that when you try and gag scientific agencies for political reasons, disaster generally follows that ultimately hurts everybody, even the short sighted and self-serving Orwellian politicians who originated the ban. Good thing we’d never repeat those mistakes again.
Sagan was also a tireless advocate of increasing the representation of women in science, and the only feature film he had a hand in making, Contact, had as its protagonist a woman atheist SETI researcher. His books explored the dark dichotomies of the human mind, our reptilian weakness for alluring irrationality, and the power of a steadfast adhering to a humanistic reason laced with empathy. Some say he made science into a religion, with alien life replacing gods, and belief in progress the new unchallengeable faith. But Sagan himself fought against that tendency by his very example. Though an advocate of the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, he was unsparing in debunking UFO theorists, and he advanced his windblown dust theory for Mars in spite of the fact that the vegetative hypothesis was a powerful tool in attracting funding for exobiological studies. In the end, truth mattered more to Sagan than comfort.
When his end came, at the hands of pneumonia, leukemia, and blood disease, he looked into the eyes of the wife he adored, and told her and his family that he loved them, and knew full well that he would never see them again. These were to be their ultimate last moments together, an honest parting that put a full end to the beautiful time they had shared, unsullied by false hopes or beautiful untruths. In the end, the brash and selfish astronomer and exobiologist had found a way to love, and be loved, and to let go of the life he lived so fully with a stoic bravery we might all hope to emulate when our turn comes. And until that day, we have his words, and his images, and his encouragement to wonder, and resist, and work, on the shores of the cosmic ocean, where the water seems inviting.
Further Reading and Viewing
Keay Davidson’s Carl Sagan: A Life (1999), written three years after Sagan’s death, is a masterful biography that spares none of his frustrating traits and tendencies while giving full credit to his scientific work and public accomplishment. I’ve read it three times, and hope to read it three more before the Reaper comes for me. As to Sagan’s own work, Cosmos can seem hokey and out of date today, but at its best, it still sends shivers. Bookwise, that’s tough. I suspect Demon Haunted World is a humanist’s best entry point—a series of essays about what role science could and should play in a world given over to its worst instincts. In Trump’s America, the book is perhaps more important than ever.