There’s a telling moment during an interview between CNN founder Ted Turner and cosmologist Dr. Carl Sagan. As Sagan contains his anger at America’s refusal to distribute wealth fairly Turner asks him if time travel is possible. Before answering, Sagan offers a wry grin at Turner’s obvious discomfort and his clumsy attempt to change the subject, and in that grin we see inside a man who was nobody’s fool. Sagan was not just an eminent scientist, he was a humanitarian.
The interview was recorded in 1989, and the issues raised by Sagan are as urgent now, more urgent, than when he brought them to the attention of an out of his depth media mogul. Climate change, poverty, lowering standards of education, Sagan could be on the ball on planet Earth at the same time as being in the centre of a black hole billions of light years away.
I would be guilty of melodrama by saying Carl Sagan saved my life. In retrospect the cynic in me could say he ruined it, but in 1980 I was travelling head first into the scrapheap of life. At school there were great expectations that I would sail through the many exams I was sitting. I walked away with three exam passes (one being a skin-of-the-teeth Maths CSE), and an Unclassified in French. The only way to get lower than an Unclassified is to not turn up for the test.
But something happened. As I drifted empty-headedly through the summer after leaving school a television programme came on. It was called Cosmos and was fronted by a Muppet-voiced boffin called Carl Sagan.
Sagan, unknown to me, was born in Brooklyn. According to biographies his analytical mind came from his mother, and his amazement at the universe around him from his father. Gifted and inquisitive Sagan breezed through every academic level (unlike me) and ended up at Cornell University where he was made director of planetary studies. This was after a varied career as an adviser to NASA and consultee on the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book, studying reports of UFO sightings.
But you wouldn’t know this from watching him presenting Cosmos. His ability to present facts in a clear and unhysterical way transported not just his knowledge, but his enthusiasm to communicate and entertain with information. For me, he made learning interesting. And his wonder at the universe was infectious. I caught the bug.
I watched the series, bought the book (and read it), bought the soundtrack (and listened to it), and for several years threw myself into a feverish outpouring of art, writing and studying. I found myself in thrall to education and after a three year hiatus in work I decided to ‘go a bit Sagan’ and return to college and then onto university.
Fast forward many years and the Cosmos series is on my shelf on DVD. There’s a knock on the door and there stands a Jehovah’s Witness. This guy had a passion for motorbikes and I came to know him for that. One day he slipped something to me, some Witness literature that supported proof of god’s existence with a quote by Carl Sagan.
To say I was angry was an understatement. I knew the quote, I knew the paragraph it came from; a paragraph which was saying the exact opposite to how the Witness literature was trying to present it. Sagan was a lifelong agnostic. He believed if there was a god it was in the sum total of nature and the universe, not an Anglo-Saxon white man with a beard sat on a cloud stroking tigers.
In a recent job interview I was asked who I would like to be trapped in a lift with. I said a lift engineer, but what I should have said was Carl Sagan. To be trapped indefinitely in a lift with a man who could talk forever and never be boring is no bad thing. Carl Sagan was not infinitely clever, but he wasn’t far off because he predicted so much. You can see it in his 1988 interview. And the real tragedy is not that Sagan died at the stupidly young age of 63, but that his intelligence didn’t move forward from that interview with Ted Turner; instead we’re saddled today with Turner’s corporate ignorance that is ruining the world and exacerbating the warnings Sagan offered in the interview.
Looking back on life I regret my decision to go to university. I came out with a useless degree in landscape architecture. But that wasn’t Carl Sagan’s fault, it was mine for choosing such a wretched profession. Astronomy, that’s the way I should have gone. Followed in the man’s footsteps and looked out into space wondering if his golden plaques on Pioneer and Voyager will ever be picked up by intelligent life. It makes you wonder what they’d make of the author.