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The Cosmos and Carl Sagan


"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
~ Arthur C. Clarke

A good way of understanding the compulsions of Carl Sagan’s life-long affair with the
cosmos would be to look at the great spiral galaxy in Andromeda. Part of our Local Group of 30
galaxies, this breathtaking cosmic spectacle is estimated to be 200,000 light years in diameter.
To an astronomer, it is tantalizingly close…a mere 2.2 million light years away from our own
galaxy, the Milky Way. It would take a ray of light from this galaxy—travelling at its usual
speed of 186,000 miles per second—only 2,200,000 years to reach Earth: a distance of 13
thousand quadrillion miles! It is our nearest galactic neighbour in an ever-expanding universe
that may contain considerably more than the 125 billion galaxies posited by astrophysicists
monitoring the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. But we may never know: as the universe
expands and galaxies recede from us at speeds approaching that of light, we will not see them as
their light would never reach us.
Galaxies come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and ages, and may range from dwarf galaxies
of fifty million stars to giants like Messier 87 (also known as Virgo A, a gigantic elliptical galaxy
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some sixty million light-years from Earth), which may be comprised of up to three trillion stars,
as compared to ‘only’ four hundred billion in our (barred spiral) Milky Way galaxy. A dim idea
of the immense size of Carl’s cosmic playground begins to form. This was his home turf for
about forty years as physicist, astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, philosopher and teacher.
It takes a special sort of person to function simultaneously in all these roles. Quite apart
from the rigorous academic grounding and discipline required, the mind must be trained to
register the astronomical scales involved, and to realize that, as one peers into the sky, one is
actually looking back at a distant past, to things as they were billions of Earth years ago.
Cosmological problems need to be re-examined, a priori, in the light of latest discoveries,
theoretical models constructed, and conclusions reached. The universe is a big place: the
cosmologist usually decides his area of area of interest and proceeds to single-mindedly devote
the rest of his life to it. Carl Sagan developed a wide-angle vision that accommodated the whole
picture. He focused narrow, moved the field around rapidly, and thought w-i-d-e.
He was born Carl Edward Sagan in Brooklyn, N.Y. on November 9, 1934. After a self-
confessed ‘unremarkable’ school experience, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in
physics (in 1955 and 1956 respectively) from the University of Chicago, following them up with
a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics (in 1960) from the same institution. Before coming to
Cornell in 1968, where he became a full professor in 1971, he taught at Harvard University.
It was perhaps due to his penchant for teaching that this yearning to share his vision with
others developed into a best-selling book, and landmark television series, both called simply
‘Cosmos’. It is not an easy feat for a cosmologist to step down from the stars and speak of them
to ordinary men. To convey the excitement of events that happened far, far away and long, long
ago, in an engaging and comprehensible manner, is not a task for the faint-hearted. Few have
succeeded. Carl Sagan did…beyond his wildest dreams. The book’s publisher had planned an
initial print run of 10,000, with total print-job estimated at 50,000 copies. It sold in millions!
Cosmos (1980) was the best-selling science book ever published in English, staying on The New
York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks!
It became the most watched series (it was seen by more than 500 million people in 60
countries) in public-television history, capturing the public imagination and winning Emmy and
Peabody awards. A television audience is critical and fickle, apt to quickly switch channels at the
first sign of ennui. Carl’s audiences clamoured for more, hypnotized by his soft, relaxed delivery,
smooth narration, supreme command over his facts, and superlative picturization. His sincerity
and obvious love for his subject were infectious. He became an overnight celebrity to a global
audience as, starting with the ‘Big Bang’ (estimated to have
happened about 14 billion years ago), he showed how huge
clouds of hydrogen, drawn together by gravitational forces,
condensed into stars, and how those stars created in
themselves the heavier elements, only to spew them billions
of miles into space when they exploded. Over eons, the
matter thus created condensed and re-condensed into galactic
and planetary systems.
He portrayed the march of astronomy as Man came
to understand the solar system, and the uniqueness of the
insignificant little ‘pale blue dot’ we live on (he persuaded
NASA, launching Voyager I, to get the cameras to look back
and photograph Earth from beyond Neptune, millions of
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miles out in space against the dark cheerlessness of the void). “Our planet is a lonely speck in the
great enveloping cosmic dark”, he wrote in ‘Reflections on a mote of dust’. “In our obscurity – in
all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building
experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits
than this distant image of our tiny world”, he cautioned. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human
Future in Space appeared on best-seller lists all over the world and was selected as one of the
"notable books of 1995" by The New York Times. He showed how rare was the home-planet
that Man – in his supreme ignorance – treated so shabbily. Equally rare was the life that had
evolved on it. ‘The Dragons of Eden (1977), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, presented his
views on human evolution.

He was convinced that there was intelligent life elsewhere in universe, but was definitely
not the first astronomer-philosopher to make such speculations. As early as 95 BC, Lucretius of
Rome wrote "...since infinite space stretches out on all sides, it can be in no way considered that
this is the only heaven and earth created... ...we must realize that there are other worlds in other
parts of the universe, with races of different men and different animals... ...don't be frightened by
the novelty of an idea...”

Similarly, the sixteenth-century philosopher Bruno observed "... …there is not merely
one world, one earth, one sun, but as many worlds as we see bright lights around us (in infinite
space)... it is impossible that a rational being... can imagine these innumerable worlds...destitute
of similar or even superior inhabitants..."

However, despite the endless attempts through the platform of SETI (The Search For
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project, not a shred of acceptable evidence could be found for life
elsewhere other than on Earth. “The significance of a finding that there are other beings who
share this universe with us would be absolutely phenomenal, it would be an epochal event in
human history”, he once said wistfully. The failure all the more aroused his reverence for
terrestrial life, and made him a vocal anti-nuclear war protagonist. He coined and popularized the
term ‘nuclear winter’…the after-effects of a light-absorbing, post-nuclear-war cloud that would
terminate photosynthesis, and ultimately, all life on Earth. “The flip-side of not finding life on
another planet is appreciating life on Earth,” he emphasised. His book Contact, and the motion
picture of the same name (completed after his death under his wife’s supervision) based on the
book, negotiates this subject.
Now the world's foremost science popularizer, he reached out to people everywhere
through the media. He was catholic in his tastes and his books cover not merely (!) science but
his views on a wide range of subjects. Broca’s Brain and Billions and Billions are compilations
of articles and lectures that skip from football, chess, and the possibility of life on Mars to global
warming, international relations, and abortion. He steadfastly maintained his belief that we can
transform our own lives: “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the
depth of our answers”, he felt. Carl Sagan always thought of man’s origins in cosmological
terms. “Starstuff, calling to starstuff…across ten billion years!” were the goose-bump-raising
opening words of Cosmos, predicting Man’s drift to the outer planets en route to the stars.
Sagan began researching the origins of life in the 1950s and went on to play a leading
role in NASA’s interplanetary missions, designing experiments for the Mariner, Viking,
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Voyager, and Galileo space probes. Focusing on planetary research, he predicted the greenhouse
effect on the super-heated Venusian surface, the chilly Martian surface that Mars probes
confirmed, and the presence of large bodies of water on Titan, Saturn's moon, where, he felt, life
may flourish. "We have looked close-up at dozens of new worlds. Worlds we never saw before,”
he said. “And unless we are so stupid as to destroy ourselves, we are going to be moving out to
space in the next century. And if I'm fortunate enough to have played a part in the first
preliminary reconnaissance in the solar system, that's a terrifically exciting thing." "We have
swept through all of the planets in the solar system, from Mercury to Neptune, in a historic 20
(to) 30 year age of spacecraft discovery," Sagan once said. As Man ventures out into the cosmos,
the extent of Carl’s contribution to cosmology and on human society will continue to unravel
itself.
But the years of toil had taken their toll on his personal life, wrecking two
marriages. Then, when he was in his 47th year, he met and married Ann Druyan. The fairytale
romance lasted fifteen years, till his death. Definitely his soulmate, she collaborated with him on
many of his book and other projects. Ann Druyan wrote later that their obviously deep
commitment to each other imposed a kind of ‘oppressive tyranny’ on other team members whose
own relationships were hardly in the same league. Then the fragile bubble burst. Carl was
diagnosed as suffering from myelodysplasia, a form of anemia also known as preleukemia
syndrome that obliged him to undergo several bone-marrow transplants from his sister. As the
disease gradually dragged him down, Sagan clung to his dream of Man drifting to the stars. "We
will look for the boundary between the solar system and the interstellar medium and then we'll
voyage on forever in the dark between the stars”, he said. Prophetic words, indeed.
He maintained his innocent atheism, however, even in the face of death. Some people
were skeptical of this attitude: "Many of them have asked me”, he explained, “how it is possible
to face death without the certainty of an afterlife. I can only say that it hasn't been a problem.
With reservations about 'feeble souls,' I share the view of a hero of mine, Albert Einstein: 'I
cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that
we experience in ourselves. Neither can I – nor would I want to – conceive of an individual that
survives his physical death. Let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts.
I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of
the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny,
of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.'"
In the epilogue of Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death on the Brink of the
Millennium, Ann Druyan later wrote: "Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was
no deathbed conversion, no last-minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an
afterlife." She rejoiced that many people had written to say that Carl's example had inspired
them "to work for science and reason, against the forces of superstition and fundamentalism.
These thoughts comfort me and …allow me to feel, without resorting to the supernatural, that
Carl lives."
A grateful planet showered him with recognition. The awards are almost too numerous to
list. They include the NASA Apollo Achievement Award for his significant role in NASA’s
Mariner, Viking, Voyager and Galileo expeditions to other planets, two NASA Medals for
Distinguished Public Service, and NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement award. Among
his other awards have been: the John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award of the American
Astronautical Society; the Explorers Club 75th Anniversary Award; the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Medal of the Soviet Cosmonauts Federation and the Masursky Award of the American
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Astronomical Society. He also received the prestigious Public Welfare Medal, the highest award
of the National Academy of Sciences, "for distinguished contributions in the application of
science to the public welfare." He was chairman of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the
American Astronomical Society, president of the Planetology Section of the American
Geophysical Union, and chairman of the Astronomy Section of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science. For 12 years, he edited Icarus, the leading professional journal devoted
to planetary research. Yet he still found time to teach at Cornell!
He received 22 honorary degrees from American educational institutions for his
contributions to science, literature, education and the preservation of the environment. Many
awards accrued to him for his work on the long-term environmental consequences of nuclear
war, reversing the nuclear arms race, and the origin of life on Earth. He co-founded The
Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the world with over 100,000 members. The
society supports major research programs in the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the
investigation of near-Earth asteroids and several unique projects including a solar sail that was
due for launch in 2001 but faltered without him, and the development of robotic exploration of
Mars. He was also Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the legendary JPL (Jet Propulsion
Laboratory) in California. He was contributing editor of Parade magazine, which published
many of his articles about science and about the rare form of cancer he had to fight.
Right till the end, Carl Sagan maintained his atheistic integrity. He lived and died the first
sentence of Cosmos, the book: “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever
will be.” (Now please read the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter VII, verse 7, and chapter IX, verse 4).
Though he professed to be an atheist, it can also be maintained that, in celebrating the creation,
he probably ended up celebrating the creator. It is a measure of his humility – not arrogance –
that he was content to marvel at the product, eschewing the presumption of genuflecting to its
producer. He was happy – indeed overjoyed – with his cosmic toy.
On December 20, 1996 at Seattle, Washington, USA, with anxious messages pouring in
from all over the globe, gently holding his true love’s hand, Carl fell back into the Cosmos from
which he’d sprung. Starstuff returned to starstuff, rejoining the mainstream of the Greater
Scheme of Things.

There comes a time, for blessed few,


When the veil parts, and anew
The soul, unfettered, roams afar,
In the playground of the stars.

Dedicated to the Sacred Memory of

Carl Sagan

Astrophysicist, philosopher, and magnificent human


being.
November 9th 1934 - December 20th 1996

…Subroto Mukerji
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November 9th 1934 - December 20th 1996