With Neil deGrasse Tyson’s presentation of “Cosmos” (produced by Ann Druyan and Seth MacFarlane) set to premiere this Sunday, people are harking back to the original “Cosmos” of Carl Sagan. That original ran for 14 telvision episodes at the end of 1980, and I remember it well. Sagan was mesmerizing, and his excited presentation didn’t seem an affectation, like that of some science gurus, but a true reflection of his personality.
One of the best retrospectives I’ve read is a piece in the new Smithsonian by Joel Achenbach, “Why Carl Sagan is truly irreplaceable“. Have a read when you have some leisure time and (preferably) a good libation.
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff: about Sagan’s meeting with Timothy Leary, in prison for LSD use, about Sagan’s habit of dictating his books, and about his own prolific use of marijuana (I didn’t know that he was such a stoner). I’ll quote only one part, about Sagan’s death and atheism. I suppose, as I get older, I get more fascinated with how people face the end of their lives. Sagan appears to have done it with courage and aplomb:
Sagan became gravely sick with the blood disorder myelodysplasia in 1994, and underwent a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Cari. Sagan, then 60, wanted everyone to understand that although he was facing the possibility of a premature death, he would not seek comfort in some traditional religious belief in an afterlife.
In 1996, a man wrote to him asking about the distance to heaven. Sagan’s response: “Thanks for your letter. Nothing like the Christian notion of heaven has been found out to about 10 billion light years. (One light year is almost six trillion miles.) With best wishes…”
When a religious couple wrote to him about fulfilled prophecies, he wrote back in May 1996: “If ‘fulfilled prophecy’ is your criterion, why do you not believe in materialistic science, which has an unparalleled record of fulfilled prophecy? Consider, for example, eclipses.”
Sagan became agitated after reading a new book by the legendary skeptic Martin Gardner, whom Sagan had admired since the early 1950s. It suggested that perhaps there was a singular God ruling the universe and some potential for life after death. In November 1996, Sagan wrote to Gardner: “[T]he only reason for this position that I can find is that it feels good….How could you of all people advocate a position because it’s emotionally satisfying, rather than demand rigorous standards of evidence even if they lead to a position that is emotionally distasteful?”
Gardner responded: “I not only think there are no proofs of God or an afterlife, I think you have all the best arguments. Indeed, I’ve never read anything in any of your books with which I would disagree. Where we differ is over whether the leap of faith can be justified in spite of a total lack of evidence…”
I interviewed Sagan that spring in Seattle, where he was undergoing medical treatment, and although chemotherapy had ravaged his body he had lost none of his volubility or his enthusiasm for science, reason and the wonders of the cosmos. He felt confident that he could beat his disease.
We talked a lot that day about extraterrestrial life.
“I’d rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I’d hate to die and never know,” he said.
While he was in Seattle, his secretaries sent a fax daily to Druyan with a rundown on the mail, calls that had come in, speaking invitations, requests for interviews, requests to contribute a piece of writing to some upcoming anthology. Sometimes Sagan would annotate these faxes with a few instructions. Toward the very end he would sometimes merely cross out a paragraph. Couldn’t do it. He was out of time.
Sagan died shortly after midnight on December 20, 1996. He was 62.
I’m 64, and could never imagine being able to do what he did, even if I had three lifetimes. If I could write just one book as good as The Demon-Haunted World, I could die happy. (Well, not really; nobody dies happy.) Sagan was a natural.