Tribute to Carl Sagan

I first saw Contact at a small cinema in eastern Australia when I was 14. I remember that it appealed to me because of Robert Zemeckis, still one of my favourite directors, as well as the obvious charms of Jodie Foster, but the film completely blew me away – far more than I was expecting. I’ve seen it many times since, and pick up on more with each screening, but one particular scene has stuck with me from that first time. During the last act Ellie Arroway looks through her spacecraft window to see the Milky Way. And it’s wondrous. The filmmakers got it just right, and I remember my breath catching at the awe-inspiring sight. The movie ends with the words ‘For Carl’, which I didn’t understand at the time.

A year or two later I came across the novel, which expands upon the film’s many themes and adds much more scientific detail. I found it a fascinating read, and was intrigued by the short biography of its author, a scientist called Carl Sagan. Who was this guy? Since when did scientists write fiction? And not just any old fiction, but stories of aliens and messages from other planets! Isn’t that scientific heresy?

His name turned up from time to time as I grew up, until I became properly interested in science at 19 and suddenly he was everywhere. It seemed that in the US he was responsible for inspiring a whole generation of scientists in a tv show called Cosmos. I felt like I’d missed out. If the show ever made it to the UK, I’d never seen it mentioned. I’d never seen his books on the shelves either, yet again and again I came across the same sentiment: read The Demon-Haunted World.

Not really available in the UK, the book languished on my wishlist for a while. I finally picked it up at a Kansas bookstore in 2004. I was reading it when ambushed by an evangelist in a Yosemite laundrette – I figured it would have been a betrayal not to fight back – and finished it on the flight home as everybody around me slept. Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, recently told an interviewer that The Demon-Haunted World was written as Carl underwent three bone-marrow transplants. The host was audibly shocked, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

The Demon-Haunted World is an impassioned plea for reason, for the inherent virtue of truth and the power of skepticism. Along the way he demolishes, politely and eloquently, tales of alien abduction, ghosts, telepathy and other popular fictions. But more importantly The Demon-Haunted World is an ode to wonder. Carl Sagan was primarily an astronomer, and more than anybody I’ve read he manages to evoke in words a fraction of the feeling you get when looking at the stars. His enthusiasm for life oozes from every page:

The blueprints, detailed instructions and job orders for building you from scratch would fill about 1,000 encyclopedia volumes if written out in English. Yet every cell in your body has a set of these encyclopedias. A quasar is so far away that the light we see from it began its intergalactic voyage before the Earth was formed. Every person on Earth is descended from the same not-quite-human ancestors in Easy Africa a few million years ago, making us all cousins.

Whenever I think about any of these discoveries, I feel a tingle of exhilaration. My heart races. I can’t help it. Science is an astonishment and a delight. Every time a spacecraft flies by a new world, I find myself amazed. Planetary scientists ask themselves: “Oh, is that the way it is? Why didn’t we think of that?” But nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant than we are able to imagine. Given our manifest human limitations, what is surprising is that we have been able to penetrate so far into the secrets of Nature.

Ellie represents us all when she gazes into the galaxy. Contact the novel ends with the discovery of a message encoded in the digits of pi, not because Carl believed in a higher power but to blast open by an order of magnitude the wonder we could appreciate. Imagine if we discovered evidence that the base laws of nature had been deliberately constructed – it doesn’t mean we have to start worshipping anything, it means that we get to explore further than we ever thought possible. It’s akin to Hubble realising the smudges in his telescope were not fuzzy stars but entire galaxies. Reality just squared itself. Googoled itself, perhaps.

But coupled with this celebration of the universe is a fierce adoration of our own experience. Like Richard Feynman, Carl despised the idea that explanation reduces wonder. Even if we can one day fully explain a mother’s love for her child, it’s still love and no less beautiful for it. More so, in fact, because we can look in awe at its workings.

This is what Carl Sagan means to me. To talk of awe and love is considered almost childish in the current climate, and cynicism and pessimism often rule the day. I’ve seen nobody who stood more firmly and brightly against it. One of the final sentences of Contact always brings me to tears:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

Carl died ten years ago today, and this post was written as part of the the memorial Blog-a-thon. Thanks, Carl.