Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dr. Sagan

A few of the science-themed bloggers I read are taking part today in the Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon, marking the tenth anniversary of the astronomer's death. Dr. Sagan meant something to me, so I thought I'd contribute as well.

I first came across Carl Sagan in the early 1970s, before his television series Cosmos, around the time of the Pioneer probes to Jupiter and Saturn and in preparation for the Viking probes to Mars. These were also the years when the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) first began to be taken semi-seriously as a scientific pursuit; along with Frank Drake, Sagan was at the forefront of that effort.

Those were my early and mid-teen years, an impressionable time when a lot of young people figure out what their passions are and how they'd like to direct their lives, and Dr. Sagan was a big part of that process for me. Also around that time, my parents had a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog that, as I recall, featured a poem by Dr. Sagan on its back cover:

There is a place with four suns in the sky:
red, white, blue and yellow.
Two of them are so close together they touch,
and star-stuff flows between them.
I know of a world with a million moons.
I know of a sun the size of Earth
and made of diamond...

To a kid who grew up mesmerized by Chesley Bonestell's amazing art when it was the only glimpse available at what might lie beyond the Moon, that piece was pretty evocative and moving. Even inspirational. I was ready to go see that stuff. Since then, thanks to the robotic probes that Dr. Sagan and his peers, colleagues, and successors built, I have seen some of it, with promises of more to come.

Dr. Sagan's longest-lived legacy will be the plaques he designed and placed on two Pioneer probes, and the similar plaques plus record albums on two Voyager probes, that are now plying their way through the trackless nothing beyond our solar system. Millions of years after the Pyramids have eroded to dust, the sights and sounds of Earth that Dr. Sagan pressed into those plaques and gold-plated records (along with the attached custom phonograph stylus and pictographic instructions for putting the record player together!) will still be drifting among the stars.

Plaques attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes illustrated the hyperfine transition of nuetral hydrogen (upper left) to serve as a yardstick for the other images, which include a map of our Sun's position relative to several pulsars, a drawing of which planet in our solar system the probe came from, and drawings of a man and woman relative in size to the spacecraft itself.

I've had the opportunity to talk to a couple of people who worked with Dr. Sagan on a professional level, and they paint a more complex picture of the man. Frankly, they didn't like him. One made an arch comment about a book written by "Carl and one of his several wives" (he had three). Maybe Sagan was a pompous jerk, and maybe they were jealous of his fame disproportionate to what they considered his scientific accomplishments. I found it interesting that I heard almost identical comments from people who'd encountered paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, another great popularizer of science. I wish Sagan had resisted later urges to dabble in sociology and politics, where I think he was out of his depth. And there's the well-known story about Sagan suing Apple Corp. to stop them from using his name as the internal company code name for a new computer system; Apple promptly changed the project's code name to "Butt-Head Astronomer," and he sued them for that as well.

Regardless, becoming aware of his blemished reputation in at least some quarters tarnished him only slightly in my eyes, and I think his critics missed a very important point: how the public views, understands, supports, and applies science can in the long run be just as important as the science itself. In that, Sagan's contributions were unique and immense. Working that seam where science and society intersect is still something I hope to dedicate my own time and effort to.

Finally, near the end of his life when I was all grown up and thought I'd wrung just about all the inspiration from Dr. Sagan that I could, he wrote a book titled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, that is just about perfect. This is one of my desert-island books, the one that most perfectly captures my own thoughts about how a person ought to think about and approach the universe. It is a stirring defense of the beauty and utility of science, reason, and skepticism. I think it's a great work. If not for those plaques already beyond the orbit of Pluto, it would be a perfectly suitable monument to the man.

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time--when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

1 comment:

Mike Lynch said...

Great posting.

My Dad used to live a couple of miles from where Sagan did in Ithaca, NY. Once we drove through the very, very nice neighborhood where he lived. I never met him -- this all was after he had passed away.

The quote from Sagan at the end of your blog is, of course, coming true -- we are lost as a people. In darker moments, I think the only thing most people think about is consumption: Wal-Mart, TV, food, etc.