Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Carl Sagan’

13 NOVEMBER, 2013

Do Something Meaningful: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan on Carl Sagan

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“Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others?”

As a boundless admirer of the late and great Carl Sagan, I was thrilled to attend a special event at the Library of Congress celebrating their historic acquisition of his personal papers — 1,705 archival boxes of materials, to be precise — thanks to support from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s charitable foundation.

Sagan was our civilization’s greatest yenta to the marriage of skepticism and wonder. As Bill “Science Guy” Nye so eloquently put it at the event, “Carl Sagan emboldened us to know our place among the stars, our place in space.” More than that, however, he empowered us to know our place within ourselves — to be our highest selves, to inhabit the stardust of our own ephemeral human lives with the greatest possible eternal light. This enduring aspect of his legacy was most powerfully captured by two exceptional people who share a very different kind of closeness with Sagan: Neil deGrasse Tysonmodern-day cosmic sage, science champion, masterful communicator, unrelenting genius, perhaps our generation’s closest thing to Sagan himself — and Ann Druyan, the love of Sagan’s life and his longtime creative collaborator, who hosted the Library of Congress event and whose own papers are also included in the archive.

Drawing by young Carl Sagan, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Druyan adds to Sagan’s own meditation on the meaning of life with an anecdote that captures the essence of his ethos, and his greatest gift to us:

Referencing the 1997 movie Rebecca, titled after a character who had died before the plot begins, Tyson, with his signature mesmerism of expression, captures Sagan’s undying legacy:

Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are! We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be — we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others.

Thank you for everything, Carl.

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22 JULY, 2013

Isaac Asimov’s Fan Mail to Young Carl Sagan

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“You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”

Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov first met in the 1960s. “I visualized him as an elderly person (the stereotype of the astronomer at his telescope,)” Asimov recounted in his autobiography, “but what I found him to be was a twenty-seven-year-old, handsome young man; tall, dark, articulate, and absolutely incredibly intelligent.” The two went on to be good friends for more than 25 years as Asimov’s first impression was not only confirmed but amplified.

From the altogether fantastic Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), edited by Asimov’s younger brother Stanley, come a few short and infinitely delightful letters Asimov wrote to and about Sagan over the course of their friendship, brimming with equal parts good-natured humor and overwhelming respect.

There’s so much to love in this note Asimov sent to another friend on March 22, 1966:

Sagan has read half through my book on the universe and has caught one fundamental error so far. In my rendering of Eddington’s theories on stellar structure, I talked of radiation pressure. Apparently, I didn’t have to. Fortunately, it just means correcting a sentence here and there.

But that’s what I need Sagan for. Anything he doesn’t catch isn’t there to be caught. If only he were a little faster about it. I said to him I realized he was awfully busy, too, but then I added with my particular brand of ingenuousness, “But then, what is your work compared to mine?”

And he said, “You say it in such a way that I can take it as a joke. But you really mean it, don’t you?”

So I made the best of it. I said, “Yes, I do.”

A very smart fellow, that Sagan.

Jest aside, however, Asimov held profound admiration and respect for Sagan — but never revealed it in the raw, uncushioned by that same “particular brand of ingenuousness.” On December 13, 1973, he sent Sagan a short note of appreciation, with the appropriate twist of affable irreverence:

I have just finished The Cosmic Connection and loved every word of it. You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.

One thing about the book made me nervous. It was entirely too obvious that you are smarter than I am. I hate that.

Asimov and Sagan at a banquet celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mariner 2, December 14, 1982

On June 15, 1985, Asimov sent another admiring note:

I just heard your talk on nuclear winter on Public Broadcasting. I am so proud of you, I almost burst with it. It was absolutely the sanest best speech I could imagine on the subject. It delighted me so much to find that I was on your side in every sentence of your talk.

But most heart-warming of all is this short limerick Asimov sent on the occasion of Carl Sagan’s marriage to Anne Druyan, one of the most epic love stories of modern history, in 1980:

Three loud cheers for Carl Sagan and Ann
Who today have become woman and man.
Be your lives bright as day
As the broad Milky Way
As the Big Bang with which all began.

One final note on the affectionate faux-rivalry between the two appears in a letter Asimov sent to another friend on March 15, 1986:

Half a year ago, Carl Sagan published Contact and that knocked half the sales off Robots and Empire. (These days, who can afford to buy two hard-covers?)

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters is full of many more such gems from Asimov’s singular mind and heart. Complement it with Asimov on curiosity, risk-taking and the value of space exploration in this magnificent interview by the Muppets and Carl Sagan on the meaning of life.

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08 JULY, 2013

Carl Sagan on the Meaning of Life

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“We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock.”

Carl Sagan was not only one of the greatest scientific minds in modern history, he was also an unrelenting humanist with profound insight on spirituality, psychology, and even literature. From The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — the same wonderful 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existence from such luminaries as John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski — comes a remarkable contribution from Sagan, an anchoring reminder that rings with exquisite timeliness:

In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

The Meaning of Life is superb in its entirety. Pair it with Sagan’s reading list, his gentle warning to future Mars explorers, and his superb advice on mastering the vital balance between skepticism and openness.

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