On Carl Sagan
When I was eleven, I thought Carl Sagan was the coolest guy in the world. And that was because he was speaking right at me. At the age of 11, in 1980, I was a kid utterly convinced that he was going to grow up to be an astronomer — I loved the stars, I loved the science, I loved the toys — and here on my TV came Sagan, suave in his red turtleneck and buff jacket, surrounded by special effects and Vangelis music and telling everyone (but especially me) about how the cosmos is everything that ever was, everything that is, and everything that ever will be.
I fell for Carl with the sort of blissful rapture that I strongly suspect is only available to pre-pubescent geeks, a sort of nerd crush that, to be clear, had no sexual component, but had that same sort of swoony intensity. This was the guy I wanted to be, when I was age eleven. Sagan sits as a member of my triumvirate of cultural heroes, the other two being John Lennon and H.L. Mencken. It’s a odd trio of personal heroes, I admit, but then I’m still a little odd. But even among John and Henry, Carl came in first. Maybe it was the turtlenecks.
I’m a quarter century older than the eleven-year-old boy whose mother held a weekly viewing of Cosmos over his head as a bargaining chip for good behavior, and I’m still a great admirer of Carl Sagan, primarily because he did something I see as immensely important: he popularized science and with patience and good humor brought into people’s homes. He did it through Cosmos, most obviously, but he also did it every time he popped up on The Tonight Show and talked with celebrity fluidity about what was going on in the universe. He was the people’s scientist. This is not to say that you’d look at Sagan and see him down at the NASCAR race; it is to say that he could easily use a NASCAR race to explain, say, relativistic speeds and what it means for traveling through the universe.
This is important stuff. Getting science in front of people in a way they can understand — without speaking down to them — is the way to get people to support science, and to understand that science is neither beyond their comprehension nor hostile to their beliefs. There need to be scientists and popularizers of good science who are of good will, who have patience and humor, and who are willing to sit with those who are skeptical or unknowing of science and show how science is already speaking their language. Sagan knew how to do this; he was uncommonly good at it.
I find that inspirational. As it happens, I am not a scientist — the flesh was willing, but the math skills were, alas, weak — but I write about science with some frequency; I’ve even fulfilled a life goal of writing an astronomy book, The Rough Guide to the Universe, of which I am about to compile a second edition. In my writing and presentation of science, I look to Sagan for guidance. Nearly all of what happens in the universe can be explained in the way that nearly any person can understand; all it requires is the desire to explain it and the right language. Sagan had the desire and language. I like to think I do too, in part because I learned my lessons from him.
I am aware of the need to avoid hagiography. I have an idealized version of Carl Sagan in my head, one that is notably absent any number of flaws that the real Carl Sagan had to have had simply because he was human. My connection to Sagan comes from some limited number of hours of television and a finite number of books, and in both cases the man was edited for my consumption. This is one of the reasons why, unlike the 11-year-old version of me, I don’t want to be Carl Sagan, and I’m not even entirely sure I want to be much like him as a person, if only because, at the end of it, I don’t know him as a person.
What I do know is that I like his ideas. I like his love of science. I like his faith in humanity. I like how he saw us reaching for things greater than ourselves, because it was in our nature and because it was a fulfillment of our nature. I like how he shared his enthusiasm for the entire universe with everyone, and believed that everyone could share in that enthusiasm. These are things that, in giving them to everyone, he also gave to me, first as an 11-year-old and then continuing on. I’ve accepted them with thanks and made them part of who I am. If I use them well, I may be fortunate enough to share them with you, as they were shared with me.
(written as part of the Carl Sagan blog-o-thon)