The coverage of Carl Sagan by The Washington Post.
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Carl Sagan Reached for the Stars
The Final Frontier
Carl Sagan warmed the universe.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 21, 1996; Page B01
His cosmos was not cold and dark and impenetrable. He believed the universe
was surely filled with life, intelligent life, innumerable civilizations
unseen. In his younger, dreamier days, he thought advanced extraterrestrials
might know how to cruise the galaxies in ramjetsspaceships with massive
openings that scoop up hydrogen atoms from interstellar dust clouds and
use them for fuel. In Sagan's crowded cosmos, even empty space wasn't empty.
He told The Washington Post earlier this year: "Organic matter, the
stuff of life, is absolutely everywhere. Comets are made one-quarter of
organic matter. Many worlds in the outer solar system are coated with dark
organic matter. On Titan, organic matter is falling from the skies like
manna from Heaven. The cold diffuse interstellar gas is loaded with organic
matter. There doesn't seem to be an impediment about the stuff of life."
The world needed Sagan, who died December 20th of pneumonia at the age
of 62. We have needed Sagan ever since Copernicus removed us from the center
of the universe. It is a perplexing fact of human life that we live on
a rock that orbits an ordinary star on the outskirts of an ordinary galaxy
in a universe that is indescribably large. Sagan knew how to describe it,
to convey our humble position without demeaning us. With Sagan we felt
in the right place.
Humans were not small and irrelevant things in the Sagan doctrine. For
all his talk of space and stars and galaxies, his most consuming interest
may have been human beings. He won the Pulitzer Prize not for his book
"Cosmos" but for "The Dragons of Eden," about the evolution
of human intelligence. He was unhesitant to dive into the political arena,
an unabashed liberal, warning that a nuclear war would lead to a "nuclear
winter." His most recent book, "The Demon-Haunted World,"
was an attack on superstition and pseudoscience, from the UFO craze to
the excesses of the recovered-memory movement.
It's difficult to pay tribute to all of Sagan's achievements, because they
were ridiculously many (his re>>sume>> prints out to 250 pages)
and because one suspects that Sagan could have said it all better. That
was his ultimate gift. Yes, he was smarthis colleagues often said Sagan
was the smartest person they knewbut what set him apart, and promises to
make him remembered long into the future, was his uncanny ability to communicate.
He never suffered the disease of jargon. His 13-part series "Cosmos"
was remarkable not only for introducing millions of Americans to astronomy,
but also because its host was a real astronomer, someone who helped discover
that Venus was broiling hot and that giant dust storms raged across the
face of Mars.
Earlier this year he told this reporter, "I've been fantastically
I had tried to get him to admit to some resentments. Sagan had taken plenty
of knocks. He had been mocked and parodied. The millions of words he had
written had been boiled down to three in the public imagination: "billions
and billions" (which, he says, he never actually said. He'd even reviewed
the "Cosmos" tapes to make sure).
Sagan made some mistakes, reached too far, pushed himself into realms in
which he may have lacked expertise. Some colleagues dismissed him as a
"popularizer," as though this was a crime. He was turned down
for membership in the National Academy of Sciences after an unusual debate.
Never mind his work on Venus and Mars; a serious scientist is not supposed
to go on "The Tonight Show."
But Sagan betrayed no bitterness: "I've gotten so much more than my
fair share of honors and recognition," he said.
Eventually the academy gave Sagan a special award for his educational efforts.
It wasn't quite the same as accepting him as a member. Science as an industry
owed more to Sagan. He not only could explain complex information in a
simple way, he could imbue his material with joy, beauty, a sense of meaning.
Too often modern science declares the world to be pointless, to be a random
aggregation of freak accidents and mathematical principles.
Sagan said, "Everybody starts out as a scientist." Every child
has the scientist's sense of wonder and awe. Too often we beat it out of
the kid. "The job of a science popularizer," Sagan said, "is
to penetrate through the teachings that tell people they're too stupid
to understand science."
He died before he could achieve his lifelong dream of making contact with
some extraterrestrial civilization. But he also knew the joy and excitement
of being close to finding life itself. Seriously ill, he had closely followed
the saga of the Mars rock, with its possible ancient Martian microbes.
To the end he was optimistic. He felt he would live, that he had rounded
the corner on the bone marrow disease that had struck him two years ago.
In his book "Pale Blue Dot," he warns that someday the sun will
heat up, the atmosphere of the Earth will dissipate to space, the ground
will roast, the oceans boil. He said we should find a way someday to leave
the solar system, travel among the stars, keep our species alive. Sagan
believed that humans are special, noble, a piece of the cosmos too important
to become extinct.
Among members of that species he was surely one of the finer specimens.
By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 21, 1996; Page A12
Carl Sagan, 62, the charismatic apostle of popular science who brought
the marvels of the universe and the mysteries of creation to a worldwide
audience of hundreds of millions, died of pneumonia yesterday at the Fred
Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where he was being treated
for bone marrow disease.
An astronomer, astrophysicist and the director of the Laboratory for Planetary
Studies at Cornell University, Sagan (right) was more popularly known as
a gifted and enthusiastic storyteller and showman
who described cosmic phenomena with a childlike sense of awe and wonderment.
He took great delight in explaining the most complex scientific concepts
and theories in compelling, graphic and easily understandable language,
often drawing on images from literature, music and the arts to illustrate
An estimated 500 million viewers all over the world saw his 13-part 1980
public television series, "Cosmos," which covered the 15 billion-year
history of the universe, from the "big bang" of creation to the
present. It was filmed at a cost of $8 million over three years in 12 countries
and included a spectrum of nature from solar black holes to the intricacies
of a living cell. With his third wife, novelist Ann Druyan, he wrote the
bestselling book "Cosmos" to complement the television series.
He also wrote "The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution
of Human Intelligence," which won a Pulitzer Prize for literature
in 1978, and "Broca's Brain," a popular 1979 book in which he
traced the evolution of the human brain. His 30th book, "Demon Haunted
World," a polemic against pseudoscience, was published in 1995.
He had written and lectured extensively on the likelihood of advanced civilized
life elsewhere in the universe and warned of the dangers of a "nuclear
winter" in the aftermath of even a limited nuclear war. In this scenario,
a cloud cover of smoke, dust and debris would form, absorbing light for
months or more. Photosynthesis would not occur, and freezing temperatures
would destroy crops and animals.
These pronouncements made Sagan a champion of organizations advocating
a ban on nuclear testing and a halt to development of nuclear weapons.
He became an unofficial spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists
and an opponent of the Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative during the
Reagan administration. He was arrested in Nevada for protesting nuclear
For the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sagan was an adviser
on the Mariner, Voyager and Viking unmanned space missions. He also briefed
astronauts on journeys to the moon. But he had no interest in a space voyage
himself. "To be in a tin can 200 miles up is not my idea of adventure,"
he said. The primary benefit of space exploration, he argued, was humanity's
changing perception of the universe and, consequently, of itself.
As a young scientist, fresh from the University of Chicago with a doctorate
in astronomy and astrophysics in 1960, Sagan challenged the prevailing
theory on the lightening and darkening surface of Mars. This effect was
caused, he contended, by windstorms, a view that was confirmed years later
by the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter. He did landmark studies of the structure
of the lower atmosphere of Venus and the organic haze on Titan, one of
the moons of Saturn.
In recent years, he had worked extensively in the emerging science of exobiology,
the study of extraterrestrial life. He estimated that there may be as many
as 1 million advanced civilizations in this galaxy alone. In 1985, he wrote
the novel "Contact," about the receipt of the first bona fide
message from a civilization on another planet.
He forecast in another book, "Pale Blue Dot," that there would
be a future for the human species not only far beyond the planet Earth
but beyond the solar system and the Milky Way. There may be space vehicles
capable of traveling at the speed of light within the next few centuries,
he said. "Unless we destroy ourselves first, we will be inventing
new technologies as strange to us as Voyager [spacecraft] might be to our
hunter-gatherer ancestors. . . . We will begin to soar through the light-years
and, as St. Augustine said of the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans,
colonize the sky."
His commercial and popular success did not win unanimous support from the
community of scientific professionals. "Sagan is an enthusiast, and
that may be why many of his fellow scientists regard him with suspicion,"
Eliot Marshall, a staff writer for Science magazine observed in a Washington
Post review of Sagan's book "Cosmos."
" . . . His glib style and self-absorption are at times annoying.
Professional scientists, who are leery of popularizers in any case, certainly
are skeptical. . . . His peers are likely to see in this book the confirmation
that he is a promoter rather than an originator of ideas, and an eccentric
one at that. They may also envy his tremendous success. . . . He has plainly
transcended his academic beginnings. He has become not so much an entertainer
as a prophet of science."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to an American mother and a Russian immigrant father,
Carl Sagan was a self-described science fiction addict from his childhood.
Since learning that each star in the night sky represented a faraway sun,
he had been fascinated by astronomy.
When Sagan was 12 years old, his grandfather asked him what he wanted to
be when he grew up. "An astronomer," replied the boy without
hesitating. His grandfather then asked, "But how will you make your
In high school, Sagan discovered that it was possible to draw a salary
as a full-time astronomer by serving on a university faculty, and he resolved
to do just that. He won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, which
he entered at age 16. He was 19 when he received his first bachelor's degree
from the university, and he went on to receive a second bachelor's degree,
then a master's degree in physics and, at age 25, his doctorate in astronomy
and astrophysics. His doctoral thesis was titled "Physical Studies
of the Planets."
As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley, he
did studies concluding that conditions for life on Venus were extremely
unfavorable. He later served a year on the faculty at Stanford University,
then took an appointment on the staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical
Observatory and was an assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard. He
was named director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell in
As a young scientist and academician, Sagan wrote more than 100 articles
for scientific and professional journals. But in the late 1960s, he also
began writing for a more popular audience. He wrote an article, "Mars,
a New World to Explore," for the December 1967 issue of National Geographic
magazine. He wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana
and for the Time-Life Science Library series. With the Russian astronomer
I.S. Shklovsky, he wrote the book "Intelligent Life in the Universe,"
which consisted of arguments and speculations for the existence of extraterrestrial
civilizations trying to contact Earth.
He believed deeply and passionately that the public should understand and
appreciate science. "Science is a basically human enterprise. . .
. It's not an activity of socially inept people who live in ivory towers,"
he once said.
As a guest of Johnny Carson's on NBC television's "Tonight Show"
and as host of science programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation,
Sagan preached the gospel of scientific exploration and discovery. He appeared
on Carson's show 25 times, and he was interviewed extensively by major
newspapers and national magazines. "My only secret in being able to
talk to others about science is to remember what it was like when I didn't
understand whatever it was we were talking about," he told Playboy
To create the series "Cosmos," he formed his own production company.
Grants from philanthropic foundations and private corporations, including
$3.5 million from Atlantic Ridgefield, paid production expenses for the
"Cosmos" series. The telecasts propelled Sagan to star status.
"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be," Sagan
declares in his opening narration, in which viewers are taken on a historical
tour of the universe. Ports of call on the voyage include 12th-century
Japan to illustrate a point about natural selection, Mars, 17th-century
Holland for a meeting with astronomer Christian Huygens and Sagan's home
town of Brooklyn.
The final chapter, "Who Speaks for Earth," covers the 15 billion
years from the big bang of creation to the present, using a calendar year
as a point of reference. In this scenario, with Jan. 1 as the big bang,
dinosaurs do not appear until Christmas Eve and the written record of human
history occupies only the final 10 seconds of Dec. 31.
"That we came along late doesn't mean that we don't have meaning,"
Sagan tells his audience. " . . . It's up to us to give meaning to
our lives, individually and as a species. The dinosaurs were around for
180 million years. They had every reason to think they were the be-all
and end-all of existence. But there aren't any more dinosaurs."
In the early 1990s, Sagan nearly died of a bone marrow disease called myelodysplasia.
A bone marrow transplant from a sister saved his life. "I would recommend
almost dying to everybody," he said this year in an interview with
Psychology Today magazine. "You get a much clearer perspective on
what's important and what isn't, . . . the importance of family and of
trying to safeguard a future worthy of our children."
Sagan had been divorced twice, from biologist Lynn Margulis and artist
Linda Salzman. He met Ann Druyan in 1974 at a dinner party given by author
Nora Ephron. Survivors include five children.
� Copyright 1996 The Washington Post
The Final Frontier?
All Carl Sagan Wants to Do Is Understand the Universe. All He Needs
By Joel Achenbach Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 30 1996; Page C01
� The Washington Post
The man who answers the door does not look, at first glance, like Carl
Sagan. The chemotherapy has eliminated the thick brush of black hair. He
is bald, bony. He appears old, too old to be Carl Sagan.
But then the words rumble forth at a familiar frequency, low and deep,
the syntax and vocabulary chosen with scientific precision. He takes a
seat on the couch, and within minutes is speaking of the dimensions of
the universe. Then comes a word, a verbal signature: "billions."
The first consonant is explosive, a rocket whose payload is the soft vowel
It's Sagan, all right.
Myelodysplasia, a life-threatening blood disease that causes a catastrophic
failure of the immune system, has twice brought the celebrity scientist
to the edge of death. He needed a bone marrow transplant and two rounds
of chemotherapy. But he seems to have it beat.
"No myelodysplasia. No anomalous cells. Nothing," he says.
Sagan, ever the scientist, talks about his body in dispassionate, clinical
terms. Of myelodysplasia he says, "There is some faint evidence that
it is due to benzene and other aromatic hydrocarbons, but that's merely
The man who wrote the "Life" entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
and who has spent much of his career searching for life on other worlds
has struggled with the very mundane, terrestrial problem of keeping his
own heart beating.
It seems almost impertinent of Nature to confront Sagan with the question
of life on such an individual scale. He has scrutinized images of Venus,
Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. He has flown, empathetically, with
robotic probes that have reconnoitered the outer limits of the solar system.
He has pointed giant antennas at distant stars and tried to tune in radio
signals from advanced galactic civilizations. He believes, to the extent
that a strictly rational scientist holds beliefs at all, that life is abundant
in the cosmos. He estimates that our galaxy alone holds 1 million technological
And yet he now has to face the frustrating possibility that he will never
be able to prove it. It seems likely to most scientists that, among the
billions and billions of stars in each of the billions and billions of
galaxies, there is life, even intelligent, technological, gregarious life
that could transmit messages throughout space. But so far there's no trace,
not even a microbe. Mars is a frozen desert. Venus is Hell. Our solar system
is a collection of dazzling but inanimate objects, apparently lifeless
but for the blue planet whose distance from the sun is in the narrow range
where water neither instantly vaporizes nor turns to ice.
Sagan did, once, pick up some static with his alien-finding antennas. The
provocative chirps sent chills up his spine, but the signals were not repeated.
Was that an alien empire communicating? Or some meaningless experimental
glitch? Sagan doesn't know.
"If we find it, it will revolutionize our knowledge of the universe
and ourselves. If we don't find it after a really systematic search, then
it underscores something about the rarity and preciousness of life,"
He'd like to find it.
"I'd rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime
than not," he says. "I'd hate to die and never know."
As a boy, Carl Sagan would go into a field and lay his head on a log or
a pillow and stare into space. He'd try to situate himself so he could
see only stars, no trees or buildings, just the raw spectacle of the heavens.
Supine, he traveled in space. He is one of those people who do not view
things like stars as fixed objects on a dome above us, twinkling cutely.
He can feel the immensity of the universe, the raw power of stellar fusion,
the violence of supernovas, the irreversible darkness of black holes. His
gift is the ability to communicate a sense that all these planets and stars
and galaxies actually mean something, that there is significance in ancient
light from things so very far away.
Sagan often points out that every single one of the heavy atoms in our
bodies -- all of our carbon and oxygen atoms, for example -- were once
jettisoned from the interior of exploding stars. We are "starstuff,"
to use a classic Sagan word. This is not just a glib remark: It's Sagan's
deeply felt connection to other worlds. Sagan can locate himself and his
species in this immense place called the universe; it's his home.
No one of course can really envision it all, not even Sagan, who can only
imagine little models of galaxies -- "toys," as he puts it. Even
the Sagan brain can't really picture billions and billions of stars.
"I can imagine that the Milky Way galaxy is over here and that the
galaxy in Andromeda is over here and" -- he is gesturing, making an
invisible model in the air -- "that they are a few centimeters away
from each other. Here they are sitting in the air in front of me and then
I can imagine the Magellanic clouds, which are satellites of our Milky
Way. I know it contains 400 billion stars, or whatever the right number
is, but I surely don't have a picture of those 400 billion in my head."
Some cultures, he points out, have no numbers bigger than three.
Sagan is probably the country's premier science popularizer (a term that
is a pejorative among a certain furrowed-brow breed of scientist). When
he became an astronomer he chose to study planets, even though at that
time planetary science was considered a fringe field, damaged by the peculiar
imaginings of astronomer Percival Lowell, who thought there were canals
on Mars, the handiwork of Martian engineers. Serious astronomers studied
distant galaxies, quasars, the background radiation that permeates the
universe, the large-scale structure of the cosmos. "There was a kind
of view that the seriousness of astronomy was proportional to the distance
of the object," Sagan says. "The planets are too close."
Sagan made his mark early. In the 1950s his research helped show that Venus,
under its thick cloud cover, is scorching. He probably peaked as an icon
in 1980 when he hosted the epic PBS series "Cosmos," but it is
dangerous to try to summarize his career too quickly. This is a man who's
won a Pulitzer Prize (for "The Dragons of Eden," a book on the
evolution of human intelligence), published a couple of hundred scientific
papers, founded the Planetary Society for people interested in space science,
written articles regularly for Parade magazine, and recently finished collaborating
with his wife, Ann Druyan, on the screenplay for a movie based on his novel
"Contact" (Jodie Foster will star). Oh yes, he also has an asteroid
named after him, has won a Grammy for an audiocassette reading of his book
"Pale Blue Dot," has just put out a new book, "The Demon-Haunted
World," a polemic against pseudo-science, has finished a book of essays
and is working with his wife on another novel, a romance. Plus there's
his full-time job: professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. The
list goes on, a crushing output. It is hard to get a printed copy of his
curriculum vitae, because it runs about 250 pages. His office is happy
to provide it in the form of two computer disks.
All that work, and he's most famous for three words: "Billions and
billions . . ."
"I never said it at all," he says. "I never said `billions
and billions.' When we updated and reconfigured `Cosmos,' I had to go through
the whole business and one of the things that I was watching is did I ever
say it. And I never did."
Not only that, but he wouldn't say such a thing.
"It's so imprecise. How many is billions and billions? One or two?
While Sagan's interests have led him in many different directions, his
abiding passion is the search for intelligent life in the cosmos. When
he started as an astronomer in the '50s, he says, "an interest in
life elsewhere was a disreputable idea." In the mid-1970s Sagan was
one of the most vocal proponents of the notion that life might be detected
Growing up, Sagan had read the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In the novels, Carter is suddenly, mysteriously, paranormally transported
to the red planet, where he fights and romances amid a dying civilization.
The science of Burroughs was thin, but Sagan never forgot Mars. He was
part of the imaging team for the Viking lander in 1976; he wanted to study
the pictures in case life was so precocious, so rambunctious, all you had
to do to detect it was to look at it. He wanted Viking to have a flashlight
in case Martian critters came out at night.
Colleagues thought he was a dreamer and laughed at such Saganesque notions
as putting edible paint on the landers for the Martian life to lick. In
the 1960s Sagan had gladly collaborated in the work of a Russian colleague
who thought Phobos and Deimos, the quirky, potato-like Martian moons, showed
signs of being artificial satellites, possibly the remnants of a Martian
civilization gone extinct. Sagan's brand of science is full of possibilities,
things not yet ruled out, marvels still conceivable. A 1976 New Yorker
profile, not entirely flattering, quoted him as saying, "Someone has
to propose ideas at the boundaries of the plausible, in order to so annoy
the experimentalists or observationalists that they'll be motivated to
disprove the idea."
The Viking lander found a sterile planet.
Was the problem simply that Viking landed in the desert? Could there be
some form of life under the soil? Sagan's voice gets enthusiastic when
he talks about the evidence that millions of years ago there were rivers
flowing on Mars. Where there was abundant water there may have been abundant
life. Dead life is better than no life at all.
Sagan has the distinction of co-authoring the first message to extraterrestrial
beings. It was a gold-anodized plate affixed to the Pioneer 10 spacecraft,
launched in 1972 and bound for the asteroid belt, Jupiter and then interstellar
space. The plate showed, among other things, a spacecraft emerging from
the third of nine planets around a star. Sagan's wife at the time, Linda
Salzman Sagan, added a line drawing of a nude man and woman; much public
debate was aroused by the fact that the man had genitalia but not the woman.
It was while working on another message to aliens, the "Voyager record"
placed on the two probes a few years later, that Sagan fell in love with
Ann Druyan. She was creative director of the project, he the producer.
They declared their love for one another on June 1, 1977.
"The revelation of being in love with each other was like the discovery
of a scientific truth," Druyan says. "It was like Eureka, it
was like Archimedes. It was like truth."
Dazzled by Stardust
Sagan remembers the first time he listened to the Andromeda galaxy. It
was in 1975. SETI -- the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence -- was
a young and brash experiment.
Astronomers refer to the Andromeda galaxy as M31 -- the 31st in a series
of nebulae catalogued by Charles Messier in the 19th century. For hundreds
of years these nebulae were mere smudges in telescopes, their composition,
dimension and significance yet unfathomed. Only in the third decade of
this century did Edwin Hubble, the astronomer for whom the famed space
telescope is named, discover that most of these smudges were choked with
stars. They were galaxies, island universes far outside the confines of
the Milky Way, a Holy Cow revelation of cosmic proportions.
So Sagan and a colleague, Frank Drake, aimed a radio telescope at M31 and
listened on a particularly quiet frequency that would seem, for any intelligent
species understanding the electromagnetic spectrum, an obvious choice for
sending a how-de-do.
They heard only static.
"Okay, it's very far away, as we were saying before, so you have to
have a very fancy civilization. But in 100 billion stars there's not one
civilization? I can't imagine. I can remember being not so much disappointed
as surprised," Sagan says. "I thought, you know, I thought there
ought to be, and there weren't."
He once told an interviewer that he was literally depressed for a week
by the result.
More tantalizing were the results of Project Meta, a broader SETI search
conducted in the late 1980s by Sagan and astronomer Paul Horowitz. On several
dozen occasions they detected strong, brief electronic signals of . . .
something. Most could be explained away as malfunctions of their instruments
or interference from some terrestrial object, such as an airplane. But
the five strongest signals came from the general direction of the center
of the Milky Way galaxy.
He tells a reporter that the chance of this being accidental is "something
like half a percent," and then hastens to add: "That's not strong
enough to be sure. It's certainly suggestive. You know, it sends a kind
of chill down your spine, your palms get moist, your breathing gets heavy."
Sagan has several possible explanations for why alien signals have proved
so elusive. Maybe it's just the energy requirement of sending signals in
all directions across such vast distances. Or maybe the aliens don't want
to communicate with primitive creatures like us, and are intentionally
bypassing the obvious frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum, choosing
instead a medium that we have yet to discover, like "Zeta waves."
Sagan says, "I don't know what Zeta waves are, but they're much better
Or maybe: "No civilization survives long enough to develop power levels
adequate to make such communications. All civilizations destroy themselves
shortly after achieving a technological level consonant with radio astronomy."
Three years ago NASA canceled its SETI program. The search for extraterrestrial
signals is entirely a private obsession now, largely funded by millionaires
with an interest in making contact. But the optimists may have to deal
with the possibility that this universe is not amenable to interstellar
socializing. The fate of any intelligent species may be loneliness.
In the fall of 1994 Sagan was busy conducting "his usual five careers
at a time," in the words of his wife, when she noticed a bruise on
his arm that was slow to go away. She encouraged him to get a blood test.
The doctor called Druyan while her husband was on the road.
"Is Carl in bed?" the doctor asked.
No, he's traveling, she said.
"That's a relief," the doctor said, "because these blood
tests are the result of a gravely ill person. The person with these blood
results couldn't possibly be on the road."
Sagan was retested. In December 1994, Sagan and Druyan were on a conference
call with some Hollywood people, talking about the screenplay they'd written
for "Contact." They heard a beep signaling another call. They
were expecting to hear from Sagan's doctor.
"I've got bad news for you," he said.
Myelodysplasia. Sagan had never heard of it. But the facts were clear:
Both his white and red blood cells were severely depleted, and he'd die
if untreated. Might die anyway. He'd need a bone marrow transfusion.
They hung up with the doctor, got back on the line with the Hollywood people,
and, Druyan says, continued talking about the movie.
Leaving his home in Ithaca, Sagan temporarily settled in Seattle to be
treated at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. His sister, Cari,
donated the bone marrow he needed to stay alive. To prevent his body from
rejecting the marrow, he had to take, in one sitting, 72 pills labeled
"BIOHAZARD." These essentially wiped out his immune system, and
would have killed him outright had he not had the bone marrow transplant
immediately. In the meantime he could have been killed by a single rogue
microbe -- some humble expression of the diversity of life.
Sagan seemed to have recovered from the disease when he learned, this past
December, that he had fast-growing "anomalous" cells in his blood.
Cancer, in other words. That meant more chemotherapy. He returned to Seattle.
From his hospital bed he wrote a moving piece for Parade Magazine: "There
are scientific problems whose outcomes I long to witness -- such as the
exploration of many of the worlds in our solar system and the search for
Sagan will not give up the dream of going to the stars. Maybe we can turn
asteroids into spaceships, and mine them for energy sources as we trek
across the void. Maybe our destiny is to evolve, among the stars, into
something beyond human, becoming enlightened beings, a cosmic consciousness,
the mind of the universe. Sagan is a visionary. But he also knows the cold,
hard facts. For the foreseeable future, human beings are stuck on a rocky
planet around a yellow sun on the Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way
galaxy. The credible goals for the human race are more limited than they
were three decades ago.
Just staying alive, for starters.
Fluff or Fact?
In 1983 Sagan co-authored a highly publicized scientific paper arguing
that nuclear war would culminate in a "nuclear winter" in which
global temperatures would fall so dramatically that human life might become
extinct. The paper inspired angry debate. Some accused Sagan of overstating
the case. Eventually, more sophisticated computer models showed a less
severe drop in global temperatures. Sagan and his colleagues had to revise
their conclusion. Nuclear winter looked more like nuclear autumn. Sagan
got the essence of the situation correct, but the error of proportion added
to suspicions that anyone so smooth on TV must be a lightweight. (Sagan
had been on Johnny Carson so many times, he became known as the Joyce Brothers
In 1992, Sagan's name was one of 60 nominated for membership in the National
Academy of Sciences. The other 59 made it without a hitch. But someone
objected to Sagan.
Sagan's case was argued by Stanley Miller, a chemist who did pioneering
work on the origin of life. He believes Sagan's scientific work, such as
his research on the atmosphere of Venus, is often overlooked. The anti-Sagan
faction countered that if the fluffy stuff of Sagan's career were swept
away, there wouldn't be enough hard science underneath.
One member who was present says, "If he had not done television, he
probably would be in the academy."
Sagan was voted down.
Sagan swears he doesn't dwell on the insult. He says he had assumed years
earlier that he'd never get in.
"It seemed quite late," he says. "To discover that it was
still a live issue surprised me more than learning that there were people
opposed to my membership."
Druyan says of that period: "It was painful. It seemed like a kind
of unsolicited slight. We hadn't done anything, he hadn't done anything.
It was clear from people who were present at the time that there was something
venomous about it."
It's just jealousy, she says. "I think there are few people who thought,
`I wrote a book, why wasn't that a bestseller?' "
Sagan concedes that his phenomenal range can be seen as a weakness.
"It's a question of the balance between breadth and depth," he
says. "Everyone has limitations of time and ability. Certainly it's
true that if you spend a lot of time on breadth, you must be losing something
on depth. . . . But I also see scientists who are bummed out after a while,
and their productivity declines in their narrowly circumscribed field."
The academy's rejection of Sagan can be read as, if nothing else, a startling
case of ingratitude. Sagan, more than almost any scientist alive, has tried
to promote science, portray it as romantic and interesting, make people
"There's a suicidal aspect of it," he says. "Here's science
dependent as never before on public funds, and so continuing science depends
on public support. And how's the public going to support it if they don't
A couple of years later, the academy did make Sagan an honorary (and nonvoting)
member when it gave him the Public Welfare Medal, an award for his educational
efforts. The citation read: "No one has ever succeeded in conveying
the wonder, excitement and joy of science as widely as Carl Sagan and few
His new book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the
Dark," is his most coherent promotion of the scientific method. It's
a collection of mini-essays on the boneheaded notions of pseudo-science,
ranging from alien abductions to "recovered" memories of Satanic
ritual child abuse. It's also darker and graver than Sagan's other work,
with a touch of frustration, as though Sagan is astonished that despite
2,500 years of scientific inquiry since Aristotle there remain people who
don't get it, who reject science in favor of myth, superstition, the paranormal.
The man who searches for their signals from outer space is alarmed that
so many people think the aliens have beamed them aboard their flying saucers,
performed surgical experiments on them or mated with them. Hasn't happened,
"A lot of the most fundamental physics can be written in the terms
of prohibitive acts," Sagan says. "Thou shalt not travel faster
than light. Thou shalt not measure the position and momentum of an electron
simultaneously to whatever accuracy you want. Thou shalt not build a perpetual
motion machine. . . . A lot of people -- new agers, for example -- are
annoyed. They think everything can be done."
Sagan doesn't think everything can be done, but he does think everything
can be questioned -- even God. This is a delicate area for Sagan, who denies
that he is an atheist.
"An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone
who knows there is no God."
When he wrote of his disease in Parade he received hundreds of letters,
many of them challenging him for questioning the existence of a Creator
and life after death. They told him that someday he will die and will find
himself before God. They asked: "What are you going to say to Him?"
Sagan already knows: "What took you so long?"
For Sagan, it's simple: A scientist needs evidence of things. Faith is
not part of the game.
The axiom applies in matters both great and small. One day while Sagan
was talking long-distance to a reporter there was, in the background, the
sound of a doorbell. An exterminator had stopped by to spray for carpenter
ants. Sagan could be overheard grilling the guy:
"What are you spraying? What chemical? You know its structure? You
know its chemical formula?"
The exterminator gave the name of a chemical.
"That's just a name," Sagan says. "You have a structural
diagram of the molecule?"
The exterminator eventually produced a diagram. Sagan approved the molecule.
In many ways, Sagan is already a man of the past. As he looks forward in
time, and out into space, he is one of the guiding spirits of the Space
Age -- which, in a sense, is already over, a historic period starting in
the late 1950s and ending sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. In 1962, NASA
had a plan to send an eight-man mission to Mars at the end of the 1970s.
In his 1973 book "The Cosmic Connection," Sagan predicted that
there would be semi-permanent moon colonies by the 1980s, with moon children
eventually referring to Earth as "the old country." His optimism
was nothing compared with Stanley Kubrick's: In the late 1960s, according
to Sagan, the filmmaker asked Lloyds of London to insure "2001: A
Space Odyssey" against the possibility that extraterrestrial life
would be discovered during the filming of the movie. Kubrick feared that
alien contact would ruin the film's plot, in which contact is made in 2001.
Now such dreaming seems so quaint. NASA put its money into the go-nowhere
space shuttle. The Space Age is a '60s conceit, and the term itself is
kind of campy. (We've moved on to the Information Age.)
Sagan has written that human beings are "like a toddler who takes
a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety
of his mother's skirts."
Yet it was not just lack of courage that halted manned exploration of outer
space; there were fiscal, political and even astrophysical realities that
caused our retreat. The Apollo program, everyone now realizes, was an extension
of the Cold War, and in the post-Soviet era there is no short-term political
or economic reason to spend $100 billion to go to Mars or any other distant
world. Space has apparently become inaccessible again. The Apollo astronauts
are old and gray.
Still, Sagan refuses to be disappointed by the unrealized expectations
of the Space Age.
To explain why, he ticks off what he believes are the three major scientific
revelations in planetary science in the post-Apollo era. Only the first,
the dearth of obvious life forms in our own solar system, is disheartening.
But the second discovery is that space is permeated with organic molecules
-- that is, carbon molecules, big, heavy structures thought to be essential
or at least highly conducive to the origin of life.
"Comets are made one-quarter of organic matter. Many worlds in the
outer solar system are coated with dark organic matter. On Titan, organic
matter is falling from the skies like manna from Heaven. The cold, diffuse
interstellar gas is loaded with organic matter," he says. "There
doesn't seem to be an impediment about the stuff of life."
And then comes the third revelation: That this stuff of life has plenty
of places to land, accrete, do its business of turning into self-replicating,
mutating, evolving organisms. Astronomers now have abundant evidence that
planetary systems are commonplace around stars. Five new jumbo planets
-- or objects that behave very much like planets -- have been discovered
around other stars in just the past six months.
So Sagan is bullish on life -- as optimistic as he was in the 1960s.
"Nothing has changed," he says.
Sagan holds out the hope that there could be life on the Jovian moon Europa,
or on Saturn's huge moon Titan. Or maybe the probes now voyaging to Mars
-- there are about 20 unmanned missions from various countries planned
in the next few years, a veritable armada of spaceships -- might unearth
(so to speak) the signs of ancient Martian life.
And if not, Sagan remains philosophical. He says the current absence of
evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system is actually an additional
motivation to send humans to other planets; the sterility of those environments
eliminates the danger that we might inadvertently kill precious, exotic
alien life forms by infecting them with stowaway microbes. And he's been
trumpeting the practical benefit of settling on other worlds as an insurance
policy against a possible catastrophic impact on the Earth by an asteroid
"As nearly as we can tell, so far at least, there is no other life
in this system, not one microbe. There's only Earthlife," he writes
in "Pale Blue Dot." What follows is a classic Saganism: "In
that case, on behalf of Earthlife, I urge that, with full knowledge of
our limitations, we vastly increase our knowledge of the Solar System and
then begin to settle other worlds."
Someone has to speak for Earthlife. Might as well be Carl Sagan.
A few weeks ago Sagan returned home to Ithaca, his blood scoured of anomalies,
his hair growing back. He knows he could get sick again. He could die.
Druyan says she's had the wits scared out of her. She says she's betting
her husband will make a full recovery, because he has so much to live for
-- so many unanswered questions.
He is working feverishly again. He has worked on a paper titled "On
the Rarity of Long-Lived, Non-Spacefaring Galactic Civilizations."
His laboratory is trying to re-create the atmosphere of Titan. There may
not be life but there are lots of organic molecules. "Titan's tremendously
exciting in that context," says Sagan.
In the meantime he remains grateful for Earthlife: his own, his family's.
After 62 fascinating years, he has five children, including a 5-year-old
son and 13-year-old daughter, and a wife of whom he once wrote: "In
the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is still my joy to
share a planet and an epoch with Annie."
On this planet, in this epoch, Carl Sagan's search for life goes on.
� Copyright 1996 The Washington Post
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