Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Voyage Among the Stars

"For small creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love."
Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996)

I first became familiar with Carl Sagan in the same way most people have done - through his award-winning television series Cosmos and its companion volume. The PBS series melds astronomy, biology, physics, history, literature, philosophy, geology into a grand summary of what humanity has learned over the centuries.  Sir Terry Pratchett calls it the best work of popular science in existence, and according to the official Carl Sagan website, it has been seen by over a billion people (suitable number!)  It is considered to be the most widely viewed documentary of all time, and made Sagan a cultural icon for his generation.

I then proceeded to read his numerous and excellent best-selling educational books (currently, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), which helped convert me from a fear-driven and superstitious perspective to a calmer, more rational way of looking at the world.  I fell in love with Sagan's warm, knowledgeable presence (on page and on screen), and I was enchanted by the mingled charity and erudition with which he discussed and explained popular superstitions like New Age, various fundamentalisms, and the like.  The man seemed humane, reasonable, and inhumanly knowledgeable.  His accomplishments include almost single-handedly popularizing space research, helping create and secure funding for SETI (especially after its NASA disavowal), popularizing science and rationalism (along with literature) to millions of readers, and (perhaps most impressively), finally finding true love in his middle age.

That's why I was thrilled to read Keay Davidson's excellent biography, Carl Sagan: A Life (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999)  One of the most thoroughly researched contemporary biographies I've had the privilege of reading (430 pages of body, 70 pages of endnotes, and an 18 page small print bibliography), it sheds a great deal of light on Sagan's incredible life and career, illustrating not only his triumphs but his failures.  The book is another fascinating illustration of the rise of a meteoric personality - as Malcolm Gladwell is fond of reminding us, there are no self-made men.  A host of people and experiences, mentors, successes, failures, and happy accidents go into making a generation-defining man or woman.  Nonetheless, the key ingredient, without which such factors are worthless, is hard work.
"By the end of his graduate student years, he would be on a first-name basis with at least three Nobel laureates (H.J. Muller, Joshua Lederberg, and Harold Urey) and one future Nobelist (Melvin Calvin).  Rather than waste his summers relaxing and partying, he spent them working for top scholars."
Sagan began life in New York City with loving parents Sam and Rachel.  Sam, who worked in the Garment District, imparted to his son a sense of kindliness and the value of people.  Sagan's brilliant but emotionally unstable mother Rachel imparted to him a love of learning and a sense that he was capable, one day, of being great.  (I couldn't help but notice the similarities between Rachel Sagan and Chrisopher Hitchens' mother Yvonne).  This was a two-edged sword: Sagan's self confidence led to a spectacular career as an astronomer, founding father of Exobiology, writer, presenter, activist, and public intellectual.  It also made him self-centered (like many great people).  It took decades, two failed marriages, and the love of his life to draw him out of himself and soften his egotism.  Rachel's other gift was optimism, protecting the young Sagan from the disturbing events of the Second World War:

"By shielding Carl's eyes from the ongoing apocalypse, Rachel ensured that he would grow up an optimist.  Emotionally, that optimism would be his greatest strength; intellectually, it would be his greatest liability.  It was a mental blinder that kept him politically naïve until he was in his fifties, when he finally opened his eyes and faced the dragon in his mental Eden: the nuclear age, the threat of global annihilation.  Carl inherited this mixed legacy from Rachel."

After a brilliant high school career in an underfunded public school (he once covered every blackboard in an empty classroom with details of classical mythology), Sagan had to overcome the fact that his parents couldn't afford to send him to a school for the gifted.  He was forced to work hard to catch up to his brilliant peers in Chicago's grueling Hutchinson program, which (Davidson notes) gave him the classical education and grounding to help him become a true lover of culture rather than merely a scientist. Indeed, Sagan was the rare polymath, committed to attempting to gain proficiency in every discipline.  As Will Durant was fond of noting, wide learning should be the goal of every person with the means, and an understanding of all knowledge used to be the definition of philosophy.
Rare is the scientist with world-class understanding of two broad disciplines, say, astronomy and biology.  Sagan was one of the rare ones.  The Hutchins program gave him the confidence to straddle disciplines.
Throughout his career, his broad interests (true to Davidson's model of contradictions) would make him vastly popular, grant him innumerable opportunities, and also stress his credibility on detail work (he once mixed up the mixture of time-measuring radioactive materials on Voyager, rendering them useless).
Moreover, Sagan continued his lifelong habit of networking - Davidson notes that from a young age, Sagan corresponded with the great astronomers and planetary scientists.  He would befriend (and even work with) the greats, from Harold Urey and Stanley Miller to Gerard Kuiper.  Despite his rise in prominence in the science world, including unprecedented newspaper publicity and a cross-country trip to California to drop in on Linus Pauling for an impromptu chat, Sagan started out as an enthusiastic believer in UFO's
.  It was only after reading rationalist texts like Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds that Sagan began to turn on his old beliefs.  This was one example of Sagan's interior contradictions (again, redolent of Hitchens' note in his memoir Hitch-22 that nearly everyone "keeps two sets of books").

All his life, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomies - between reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism.  The dichotomies clashed within him.  He yearned to believe in marvelous things - in flying saucers, in Martians, in glistening civilizations across the Milky Way.  Yet reason usually brought him back to Earth.  Usually; not always...

This vision blinded Sagan, sometimes, to the needs of the people around him.  These included friends who worshiped him, although he hurt them; wives who were entranced by his passions, although they were enraged by his absenteeism and often illogical "logic"; sons who were enthralled by his example, even as they struggled to escape his shadow; and colleagues who envied and honored him, even while they scorned his wilder notions and mocked his pomposities.  Hardly anyone who knew Carl Sagan intimately has an unmixed opinion of him.  In the final analysis, he was the dichotomy: the prophet and the hard-boiled skeptic, the boyish fantasist and the ultrarigorous analyst, the warm companion and the brusque colleague, the oracle whose smooth exterior concealed inner fissures, which, in the end, only one woman could heal.
 Sagan met Ann Druyan when she was still in love with Timothy Ferris, a notable science writer and correspondent for The Rolling Stone.  It was not long, however, before a special chemistry emerged, a chemistry that was cemented after working together on the Voyager project.  Druyan's assignment was to find suitable music to represent the cultures of the world.  The record was meant to symbolize the very best of what it means to be human - art, science, culture, love, etc.  As Druyan notes in the afterward to my edition of Sagan's posthumous masterpiece, Billions and Billions:
In the course of my daunting search for the single most worthy piece of Chinese music, I phoned Carl and left a message at his hotel in Tucson where he was giving a talk.  An hour later, the phone rang in my apartment in Manhattan.  I picked it up and heard a voice say: "I got back to my room and found a message that said 'Annie called.'  And I asked myself, why didn't you leave me that message ten years ago?"  Bluffing, joking, I responded lightheartedly.  "Well, I've been meaning to talk to you about that, Carl."  And then, more soberly, "Do you mean for keeps?"  "Yes, for keeps," he said tenderly.  "Let's get married."  "Yes," I said and that moment we felt we knew what it must be like to discover a new law of nature.  It was a "eureka," a moment in which a great truth was revealed, one that would be reaffirmed through countless independent lines of evidence over the next twenty years.  But it was also the assumption of an unlimited liability.  Once you were allowed into this wonder world, how could you ever again be content outside of it?  It was June 1, our love's Holy Day.  Thereafter, anytime one of us was being unreasonable with the other, the invocation of June 1 would usually bring the offender to his or her senses.
Thus began, in some ways, one of the great love stories, a union worthy to accompany the romances of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, Sheldon and Davy Vanauken, or Christopher Hitchens and Carol Blue. Davidson carefully chronicles Druyan's work in helping Cosmos become a reality, in helping Sagan craft several best-selling works of popular science, in mending relations with various of Sagan's children from previous marriages, in pressuring Sagan to make his political principles into action (protesting nuclear weapons, campaigning for social equality, etc.)  She made him more human, in other words.  I wish, in a sense, that Davidson had spent even more time on this section of the book - after all, a third of Sagan's life was dominated by his relationship with Ann Druyan.  Nonetheless, Davidman (true to purpose) is not writing a hagiography, and he reveals the negative aspects of the relationship as well - the painful, ugly, litigious divorce from a hurt and angry Linda Salzman, the long-term resentment of children (especially his son Dorion), and the fact that Ann had been with a mutual friend (the writer Timothy Ferris) for years during their growing mutual attraction.  Davidson's candor is difficult - I think Sagan stopped being a glowing hero of mine when I read that Lynn Margulis alleges that Sagan refused to help around the house, resented her attention to their son, and even hit her at times.  At that moment in the narrative, I firmly disliked Sagan.  Thankfully, my impression was much salvaged later on.

True to the cliché and a popular song, people change, and it seems that Druyan truly brought out the best in her husband.  A famous opponent of nuclear proliferation, he was an early public proponent of Nuclear Winter theory (he helped in its development, though he was most instrumental in his public avowals of it).  He famously and vehemently criticized the work of Edward Teller, and vehemently debated him in print and in person on multiple occasions. By this time, his nomination to the National Academy of Sciences was underway, and it was none other than Lynn Margulis (by then a famous biologist in her own right) who fought hard to affirm his nomination to the National Academy of Sciences.  Dozens of colleagues, however, were jealous of Sagan's fame and wealth, and despite the advocacy of many famous friends, Sagan was never nominated (though they did later award him a prestigious prize).  Margulis wrote him a passionate letter, angry with the academy: "In summary you deserved election to the National Academy years ago and still do; it is the worst of human frailties that keeps you out: jealousy."  It was Margulis's forgiveness of Sagan's bad points that tempered my earlier dismay and dislike - every person has great successes as well as terrible shortcomings, to say nothing of downright nasty moments.  What counts is changing one's ways.  Indeed, Druyan notes that before Sagan's last illness, the entire extended family had gathered for Thanksgiving (including all the children and grandchildren from previous marriages).  "By unanimous acclaim it had been the best Thanksgiving we'd ever had."

The book is filled with fascinating context.  One finds a mini-bio of Sagan's childhood hero, Edgar Rice Burroughs, an explanation of Nuclear Winter theory, a discussion of the covert wartime exploits of Gerard Kuiper in the Second World War, a delightful discussion of the mighty H.J. Muller's public attacks on Oparin in Soviet Russia and desperate flight to the West after a stint in the Spanish Civil War, and countless other tidbits.  One of my favorites, besides the Muller biography, was a discussion of Lynn Margulis and the Gaia theory - seeing life as a unified whole.  This meshed nicely with the idea of Life as a heuristic (learning, problem solving) entity - Sagan more than once referred to Dawkins' gene-centric approach to evolutionary biology.  My absolute favorite was a discussion of Sagan's friendship with Isaac Asimov, who once congratulated Sagan on his book.
Isaac Asimov wrote to Sagan that he had just finished The Cosmic Connection and "loved every word of it."  He also commented, flatteringly, that the only thing that disconcerted him about the book was that it showed that Sagan was smarter than he was.
If you want to learn more about Sagan's unprecedented career, his inch-thick resume, his friendship with Johnny Carson (who hilariously parodied Sagan in addition to boosting his fame through interviews), his early love of science fiction (culminating in his own novel, Contact), his anonymous essay endorsing marijuana use (space-age pseudonym: Mr. X), his relationship and falling out with Lester Grinspoon, and his fight against myelodysplasia, you really must read Keay Davidson's remarkable biography.  At the end of it, I think I've come to appreciate Sagan as an educator, a passionate admirer and student of the cosmos, a brilliant, witty, and ultimately kindhearted soul, and (after some necessary mellowing) an eminently human individual - in the new Cosmos series, host Neil DeGrass Tyson tells the beautiful story of his friendship, as a precocious child, with Sagan.  After a snowy journey to the bus stop after a day at the observatory, Sagan gave Tyson his home phone number and invited Tyson to stay with his family for the night if there was any trouble with the bus.  That day, Tyson says, set his course to being the astrophysicist and popularizer he is today (he retells the story in an interview here).  Indeed, Sagan's greatest contribution was to inspire me (and countless millions of others) with a passion for the truth and (by extension) a hunger for knowledge and impartiality.  And unlike certain other popularizers and public intellectuals (Dawkins, cough cough), Sagan engaged with those who disagreed with him in a calm, respectful, and rational manner.  Perhaps his true love, Ann Druyan, puts it best in her memories of their last night together during Carl's battle with terminal illness.
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.  For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better.  Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching.  As we looked deeply into each other's eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever...
As I make the changes in proof that Carl feared might be necessary, his son Jeremy is upstairs giving Sam his nightly computer lesson.  Sasha is in her room doing homework.  The Voyager spacecraft, with their revelations of a tiny world graced by music and love, are beyond the outermost planets, making for the open sea of interstellar space.  They are hurtling at a speed of forty thousand miles per hour toward the stars and a destiny about which we can only dream.  I sit surrounded by cartons of mail from people all over the planet who mourn Carl's loss.  Many of them credit him with their awakenings.  Some of them say that Carl's example has inspired them to work for science and reason against the forces of superstition and fundamentalism.  These thoughts comfort me and lift me up out of my heartache.  They allow me to feel, without resorting to the supernatural, that Carl lives. 

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