A good piece about Carl Sagan

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.


  1. Barry Lyons
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Yeah, “The Demon-Haunted World” is the one I always recommend. Love that story at the beginning of the book about his conversation with the taxi driver.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    The book that influenced me the most was the Dragon’s of Eden which I read around 14. Sagan was an original and he popularized science even though he faced a lot of criticism for doing so much to the delight of many who benefitted from his popular books and of course Cosmos!

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Same here. I still have the original UK pb on my bookshelves.


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        I have my original too but mine is a soft cover with yellow pages. I just looked at it & I had written “Diana the Great” in it because I always thought that was a hilarious joke when I was 14. 😀

        • Posted March 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          I have not written in mine. I was a mature 17. 😛


          PS. pb = paperback, same as soft cover; it pages are also yellowed, but still sound.

          PPS. I’d love to see an annotated version bringing the science up to date.

  3. sgo
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    It’s a great article, indeed. I also liked that Sagan used the term “Fissured Ceramics”.

    About his habit of dictating his books, the article reads “Sagan was a compulsive dictator”, and I just had to read that sentence several times before I understood it 🙂

    I am looking forward to the new series; the add that I think was posted here didn’t make me too happy, but who knows.

    It also happens (ha, probably not!) that I am now reading The Demon Haunted World. Only just started it.

    • gbjames
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink


  4. Cliff Melick
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Yes, you are absolutely right. The advent of the new Tyson Cosmos series spurred me to order the 7-disc collector’s edition of Sagan’s Cosmos, and I am happily working my way through the thirteen episodes.

    • Nwalsh
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      I also have enjoyed the 7 disc original series. I don’t know what fox have in store for us. It is hoped we are not interrupted every six minutes with commercials. I know we can pvr it but…

      • eric
        Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Pretty much all the networks will do the same level of disservice: 40 minutes of show in a 1-hour block. The only way it would be different is if one of the pay-for-view cable channels such as HBO did it.

        I only vaguely remember the original Cosmos series (we moved countries around that time), but Demon Haunted World made a big impression on me. Here’s hoping the Tyson/Druyan/MacFarlane version is a worthy successor.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted March 7, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      Why not fourteen?


  5. Pliny the in Between
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I remember watching Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski – their genuine sense of wonder in science laid waste to the ‘unraveling the rainbow’ argument.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Carl and Jacob. Admiration for any person can very rarely be exceeded.

    • Merilee
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Loved Bronowski! One of the few shows I caught back then.

  6. Andrikzen
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Where we differ is over whether the leap of faith can be justified in spite of a total lack of evidence…”

    Belief in God and an afterlife is a seductive promise that will never be fulfilled, a fool’s wager that will never pay-out.

    The great thing about dying is you won’t be around to remember it.

  7. Penman
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink


  8. Marta
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Carl Sagan was lovely.

    Always unaffected, completely authentic, he was brilliant and gentle about it. In my fictional afterlife, I have lunch with Carl Sagan every day.

  9. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink


    Where we differ is over whether the leap of faith can be justified in spite of a total lack of evidence.”

    You couldn’t justify one bunny-hop of faith without evidence. At least string theory plays by mathematical rules. The theology rulebook is a 2000+ year-old collection of goat-herder myths.

    Or perhaps this “leap of faith” lands on the Ground of All Being?

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink


      Who was it — Kierkegaard — who first made that point? The the whole point of faith was that it couldn’t be justified, so you had to take that unjustified leap.

      Assuming, if course, that you see faith as a desirable goal…


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Yes – it was Kierkegaard! I distinctly remember it from my Atheism, Skepticism & Religious faith course from +20 years ago!

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        Kierkegaard has long been my candidate for the most honest Christian, at least in reasonably recent times. (Since, say, the Enlightenment.) He realizes his religion is absurd, and sticks to it anyway, because it *is* absurd. (That is also absurd, but …)

  10. Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Let me use this as an excuse to again argue that Cosmos is the greatest epic poem of modernity, and perhaps in all of human history.

    I’m sure Neil will do just fine with the remake, but I rather doubt the poetry will rival Carl’s. I’d rather Neil did something original than re-tell a story already so well told, especially because I’m pretty sure Neil is up to the job. If the new Cosmos does nothing more than spur Neil to do exactly that, to serve as a stepping stone and gateway to some large-scale original Neil production in the future, I’ll consider it a success.



    • Nilou Ataie
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps we should send him a giant bong? I hope Neil can let go like Carl could…

    • darrelle
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I agree. I really like NdGT as a science communicator and speaker in general. I thought his Nova episodes were pretty good. I think he is well capable of doing a fine job with this new Cosmos.

      But, he is not at the same level that Carl was. Carl had a certain combination of qualities that resulted in something extra ordinary. That is not a slur in any way against NdGT. Carl was exceptional even among the exceptional.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Neil’s still reasonably young and has a lot of a potential career ahead of him in the science advocacy and education business. I agree that I don’t think he’s quite in Carl’s league, but he’s not all that far from it and could still potentially climb to those rarefied heights. The odds, of course, against any single individual doing that are slim, but Neil’s in a better position to beat those odds than most.

        If he does well with the revised Cosmos (as I’m pretty sure he will) and if he lands some big project as a result (which is not at all an unreasonable suggestion)…if he then hits an home run with that big project (which is the big “if”), that could do it.

        Even if not, I’d be thrilled simply to have an army of Neils even if we never got another Carl. The problem, of course, is in finding an army of Neils….


  11. Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars and commented:
    The new COSMOS is coming, and there are some really great pieces reminiscing about the late Carl Sagan. We all await to see his legacy continue this Sunday.

  12. NoAstronomer
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    1977 Carl presented the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. I was 15 and just awe struck by both the topic and the man. Those lectures were a major part decision to study astrophyics in university. Cosmos came out in the fall of my first year at college, it was a good time to be an astronomer.


    • darrelle
      Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Any idea if those lectures are available in any media? Video or even merely print?

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Oh, yeah…


  13. Richard Olson
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Letting go of notions about anything supernatural happened for me IIRC almost precisely when I realized there is no Santa. I can’t trust my memories any time, and especially of an event 5 decades past, but I retain none of regret, loss of hope, or of any form of despair.

    Realizing god isn’t real was just one more fact to accept, like knowing summer where I grew up was hot and sultry and winter was cold with snow, and I had 7 years more to go before high school graduation. Discarding belief faith was no more momentous for me then than dressing every day, and it is beyond my personal ken to understand the craving for faith a Martin Gardner harbors.

    I invest no feelings and have no emotional stake in atheism. Feelings are the bedrock mainstay of theistic belief, though, and lack of such feelings is regarded as a weakness, if not something sinister, by believers. I’ve been accused of having faith in my atheist beliefs even as my bewildered accuser scorns me for my lack of feelings. They should experience such relief from the burden they toil beneath.

    • Posted March 4, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Whatever faith I had (I doubt I had much) just crept out in my later childhood, and quietly closed the door. It was so gradual that I never even noticed it had left.

      • Posted March 4, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Nice turn of phrase! Consider it stolen.

        I think mine was in a huff because of von Däniken, Asimov and Clarke.


  14. darrelle
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Damn, that brought a tear (a few actually) to my eye. The poignancy evoked surprised me. As much as I can be said to have heroes, he certainly was, is, one of mine.

  15. tombesson
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    “(Well, not really; nobody dies happy.)”

    Agreed, but I just returned after my 93 year old mother-in-law’s death with her four adult children sitting calmly at her side. She passed peacefully. I’d say she was content. If only we could learn to be content, then maybe the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t seem so important.

  16. penguin0302
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Shortly before the age of widespread internet, Demon-Haunted World was the book that definitively and irrevocably convinced me to back away, sometimes slowly, from supernatural anecdotes.

  17. Nilou Ataie
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Carl wasn’t afraid to use interspecies collaborations to enhance ideas. I like that better than stoner.

  18. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The Varieties of Scientific Experience is another excellent book by Sagan, edited post-humously by his widow Ann Druyan. ISBN-13: 978-0143112624

  19. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Sagan stumbled occasionally. The Amniotic Universe, which appears as a chapter in Broca’s Brain was pretty awful.

  20. Posted March 4, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    The first Cosmos series ran before I was born and I did not grow up in a community where science was celebrated. I came to learn about Sagan as an adult and I’m so glad that I did. It’s also really great to be able to read the things written by those who knew and met him.

  21. Edward Hessler
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Rebecca Mead wrote a great essay about Neil deGrasse Tyson in the New Yorker (Feb 17 2014).

    I learned quite a bit about him that I hadn’t known and it reminded me of his remarkable talents and some of their sources. I admire his work and am glad he is around.

    As Mr. Goren remarked above we need him and more like him around now and in future.

  22. strongforce
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Carl probably had more impact on my life than any other person outside of my family. Watching Cosmos made me feel like I wasn’t alone in my worldview. I think I cried half a dozen times with joy while watching the series.

    I was on xmas break trip to Mexico when I learned of the news. Standing on the shore in Akumal Bay later that night, by myself, looking up at the magnificent black sky full of stars I cried and thought of him again.

    I didn’t realize how poetic he was until a second viewing of Cosmos many years after the first. When I was a science teacher I used many of his words to relay the sense of awe and wonder in science and our existence to my class.

    Ok,ok I am tearing up now.

  23. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I vaguely recall Richard Dawkins saying he wished he had written “The Demon-Haunted World”, and I suppose it having been taken, his own “Unweaving the Rainbow” was the substitute/followup.

    I especially liked Sagan’s chapter in DHW on “The Marriage of Skepticism and Wonder”. He argues scientists must both be willing engage in wild imaginings (that seem to be against common sense) AND to rigorously test them, two qualities he thinks come from somewhat opposed personality types.

    I only recently tackled his Gifford lectures on Science and Religion published as “Varieties of Scientific Experience” which are also quite on target, polite but firm!

    • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      “Audacy in conjecturing, cautiousness in testing.” is what Bunge says. It seems to be a common sentiment; but I think “all” it reflects is that a soaring imagination is as much a part of science as it is of, say, art.

      • Posted March 5, 2014 at 10:30 am | Permalink

        I’d absolutely agree with that — but I’d also posit that it’s the “cautiousness in testing” that separates the sciences from the arts (and everything else).

        Flights of fancy are wonderful when you’re looking to escape reality, but science is about grounding one’s self in reality. Without that tether of empiricism, whatever you’re doing isn’t science and can’t be considered rational knowledge of reality, even if you have fun doing it, even if it later turns out to be useful in unexpected or even hoped-for ways.



  24. hazur
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    I was 15 when Cosmos came out in Argentina and if I remember correctly, the episodes would go on Saturdays from 3 to 4 pm. I managed not to miss a single episode. Later I would to study physics not in small part thanks to it.
    I’d like to voucher Pale Blue Dot as a phenomenal way to say goodbye. Few things more touching that the last chapters of Sagan followed by the last one by Ann Druyan telling the story his last moments alive. Also, the beginning of the book with the description of the picture of the earth from the border of the solar system is as poetic and inspirational as anything anyone ever wrote.

  25. Ronaldo
    Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t seen it, there is a short video on youtube that uses Sagan’s voice in “A Universe Not Made For Us”. It’s quite well done, if you liked Carl, it will bring tears to your eyes…

  26. Posted March 4, 2014 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    I think Demon Haunted World was what got me into skepticism/new atheism.

  27. Cornelius
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Cosmos was always a must see in our household. Loved the opening theme from Vangelis (Heaven and Hell)it used to send a shiver down the spine. Nicely ironic.


  28. Posted March 5, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    //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…”//
    Sounds a bit like Francis Collins’
    //But reason alone cannot prove the existence of God. Faith is reason plus revelation, and the revelation part requires one to think with the spirit as well as with the mind. You have to hear the music, not just read the notes on the page. Ultimately, a leap of faith is required.//

  29. Posted March 5, 2014 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Carl Sagan is one of my heroes. And that mellifluous voice and clarity of thought! He and Richard Feynman are among the best ‘explainers’.

  30. Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I saw Sagan’s Cosmos as a kid and it changed my life. Never before has someone been able to clearly impart the sheer wonder of the universe around us. I’m glad there are folks out there like Neil deGrasse Tyson still trying to carry the torch of popularizing science, but Carl really was one of a kind. I wear my Sagan / Slayer shirt first pay after a wash every time! Source: http://monstersofgrok.com/design/sagan/

  31. Stephen
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I saw Cosmos when I was 17 or 18. I was hooked on Carl Sagan from then on. I read the book based on the serie then Dragons of Eden, Broca’s brain and so on. I even wrote him a letter regarding the Viking probes. I received a letter from his secretary. She wrote that Dr Sagan was really busy and couldnt respond to my letter but she told me about The Planetary Society wich I joined and was a member for many years. Carl Sagan opened my eyes and mind to the beauty of the univers. A lesson of humility through beauty.

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