Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Remembering Carl Sagan

It's hard to believe that Carl Sagan has been gone for ten years. In remembrance of him, a memorial "blog-a-thon" is happening today, and I'd like to add my voice to the chorus.

When I was a physics major in Pittsburgh in the early 1970's, I was also working full time on the night shift at a psychiatric hospital, oddly enough. It was normally quiet enough that I could do most of my physics and Russian homework and studying in between my rounds and charting, and sometimes even have time for some extra reading. One book that kept me awake and fascinated for many nights was Intelligent Life In the Universe, a 1966 book by I.S. Shlovskii and a very young Carl Sagan (Sagan greatly expanded a translation of Shlovskii's original book which had been published only in Russian). The scope of this book was amazing - astronomy, astrophysics, biology, evolution, and much more, and it was quite a ride. These were minds that were thinking big and speaking clearly. I had become a physics major because I had an interest in understanding the universe from the most basic level, though I was also very interested in biology, psychology, computer science, languages, and much more. Sagan was showing that it was possible to think and write clearly about how all these things are connected, and of how humans are connected to the universe. Not in a supernatural way, of course - the results of physical laws interacting at so many different scales of space and time provide more than enough wonder for anyone who wishes to look closely at the universe, as Sagan demonstrated in this first book and in the many that followed.

So I became a Sagan fan, and through the seventies and beyond, I bought and read every book he wrote. In the nineteen eighties, I was living in Pasadena, California and in 1980-1981 I was writing some book reviews for the LA Weekly. Cosmos was out, so Sagan was very much in the news, and he was also in town for the Voyager encounters with Saturn (I forget whether this was November 1980 for Voyager 1 or August 1981 for Voyager 2). I got the idea to use my minimal LA Weekly "credentials" to try to set up an interview with Sagan. I contacted his publicist but it never worked out - he was just too busy at JPL and too in-demand in general. He didn't especially need coverage in the LA Weekly (I had some angle that I thought was unique, but I guess it wasn't unique enough).

I would have loved to have met him, but through his writings and television appearances, I feel as if I got to know him a bit anyway. He certainly influenced my thinking on many subjects. It's sad that we lost him so early, but he lives on through his writings and through the many people he influenced. He made a real difference. As he said in Cosmos:
We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.
Carl Sagan certainly lived those words.


Unknown said...

A fine tribute, Bruce, and I'm pleased to see we both have such good associations with the Intelligent Life in the Universe book. I still think it's one of the best things Sagan ever did, and leaf through it on occasion with great pleasure.

Anonymous said...

I have only just found the delights of Carl Sagans cosmos and although this work my be nearly 30 years old, it has explained to me the wonders and truth behind the universe. I would urge every single person to sit and view the series cosmos to gain a true perspective of when and where you belong in this thing we call existence.