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With his head in the stars

Carl Sagan led a controversial life. Forever in search of life in the universe, he was nevertheless adamantly opposed to “pseudoscience”, such as UFOlogy and crop circles. Sagan was no stranger to controversy… and in the end became a controversy himself.

Philip Coppens


Carl Sagan died in December 1996. A professor in astronomy at Cornell University, it was nevertheless not his most distinguishing accomplishment. He was a symbol of science, but to many also an irritable example of a scientist vehemently opposed to “pseudoscience”. Still, since the 1960s, he was the single most controversial scientist, first in scientific circles, then in the media, and finally in the world of politics. Whatever Sagan did or said, it somehow seemed to be controversial… sometimes without knowing it, it seems.

Sagan’s youth was characterised by an interest in science fiction. The remainder of his life was spent in an effort to try and answer the question whether or not there was life elsewhere in the universe. In 1951, when he first set foot in the halls of academia, he predicted that Mankind would set foot on the moon by 1970. It was not a scientific prediction: he just hoped that Mankind would make this important step, just like his heroes in science fiction books had done before him. The moon, then the entire solar system, and finally the entire universe had to be researched, in an effort to find life. And learn.
His first scientific writings speculated on the possibility that there might be life on Jupiter, or Venus, or Mars. Even though science constantly gave a negative answer to every question he posed, Sagan would not quit. When it became likely that the entire solar system was void of any intelligence, he felt we had to set our sights to other systems. In retrospect, such enthusiasm might seem childish. But when Sagan started his research, in the early 1960s, there really was little if anything known about the physical conditions that reigned on our neighbouring planets. Many scientists were open to the possibility that our own solar system contained other life-forms. Various UFO sightings and stories, specifically during the previous decade, seemed to underline this possibility. Sagan was initially intrigued by these accounts, but his own research convinced him more and more that the methodology used by those researchers would never lead to a satisfactory answer. He also believed that the “evidence” they presented was no evidence at all. In later years, he would try to do his best to undermine the reputation of UFOlogy, as he felt it was a powerful detraction from where the real quest for extra-terrestrial intelligence should be directed.
Sagan spearheaded the scientific search for ET, but most other scientists looked down on him and his attempts. They felt it was an endless game… the universe was simply too big to find out whether somewhere, life might have originated and be flourishing. Sagan understood the difficulty of his quest; the notion that not finding life somewhere meant that there was still a possibility elsewhere where life might exist. It was not a scientific approach, but he was inspired by his science fiction heroes from his youth, who always went further, pushing boundaries. Apart from these influences, some of his colleagues and mentors felt that life was a “cosmic imperative”, that the conditions to create life were virtually omni-present in the universe, and that hence the possibility of life elsewhere was extremely likely. The only problem was finding it.

Sagan was not so much a scientist as a promoter of science in the media and the general public. As a student, the New York Times published his opinion about the possibility of life on Mars. When he negotiated the publication of a Soviet scientist in the Western media, he was named co-author, etching out his writing career. Sagan edited the work extensively, removing sections that Sagan felt did not stand up to scientific scrutiny. He felt that he had to educate the public about the scientific methodology. The greatest threat to public opinion was that it would throw away the scientific methods because they were more alien than the intelligence he was searching for – with the public adopting “pseudoscience” as a methodology that would provide them clear, unambiguous answers to the questions they posed. He was thus instrumental in the creation of CSCICOP (psy-cop), with its quest to disable “pseudoscience”. But in the end, Sagan became disillusioned with their methods, arguing they were as unscientific as the techniques used by those who claimed to be non-scientific.

When NASA began to send missions to Venus and Mars, in an effort to map those planets, Sagan was also there to make sure he had his say. He felt that those missions had to have cameras, which most scientists felt was unimportant. What could a camera possible contribute to scientific research? At first, Sagan’s desire was not granted, but soon a camera became a standard feature on missions, to inform the general public on an accessible level of what those alien planets looked like. He was also responsible in equipping certain missions with images of Mankind. The chance that any alien being would ever see this display and be able to comprehend it, was infinitesimal, but it excited the public.
It lasted until the early 1980s before Sagan became a household name. The American television channel PBS created a 13-part series, produced by Sagan. “Cosmos” became the realisation of his dream: bringing a scientific topic into the general household… via the medium most suited for that purpose: television. As Sagan became the host of the series, he himself became a household name and national celebrity. For his scientific colleagues, Sagan had always been on the edge of science; now they felt he was more of a celebrity than a scientist. They felt scientists had to live in labs and ivory towers, never leaving them for any opinion in any show whatsoever. Science, they felt, had no requirement to be accessible to the general public.
Sagan never abused his celebrity status, despite the fact that he cherished his status. As the Cold War reignited the threat of atomic warfare, Sagan felt that the notion that an atomic war could be won – something the Reagan administration was pushing in the general public’s direction – was ludicrous. Sagan gathered a group of researchers, trying to test the assumption that a nuclear war could relatively easily be won. Sagan soon learned an astonishing truth: a nuclear war would most likely lead to a nuclear winter, changing the Earth’s climate and pushing civilisation back with many hundred, if not thousands of years. Sagan protested loudly, and was eventually heard by the American government. His actions did make him a great adversary of that same government; after all, he had proven them wrong in their campaign to convince the voters. In retrospect, we know that Sagan’s research into the likelihood of a nuclear winter convinced both sides, including Gorbachev. As a consequence, Sagan was a primary agent in the successive “détente” between the United States and the Soviet Union – the end of the Cold War.

In 1986, Sagan published a novel, Contact. The book was largely autobiographical, mapping a scientist’s quest to find extraterrestrial life. From the early 1990s onwards, Sagan knew that his life might not be long-lasting. He suffered from an illness that only bone marrow transplants would heal. It created in him a sense of urgency, resulting in many publications. It also gave his work a more religious framework. The opposition between religion, the irrational side of Mankind, and science, the rational opposite, was found everywhere, from the pages of the Demon Haunted World, to the screens on which Contact would be posthumously be projected. The movie itself was a dangerous exercise, as the subject was science. The movie wanted to convince the public of the purpose of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, but it had a single woman as the main character. She was furthermore without children, and an atheist… three characteristics that did not sit well in America… and of which Hollywood therefore had to be even more forcefully persuaded that the project had any chance of success at all. The project was given the go-ahead when Jodie Foster was retained as the main actress, guaranteeing a profit at the box office – irrelevant of what theatre goers would actually think of the rest of the movie.
The project started in 1986, shortly after the publication of the book. It would last until July 11, 1997, before the movie was seen in American theatres. Seven months earlier, Carl Sagan had died in Seattle, following a lung infection. The film was largely the work of his third wife, Ann Dryan. She was the single person who had convinced Sagan that he should not always try to bully and run over people in his effort to get his opinion across. She was convinced that Mankind could listen to his opinions peacefully… but it was a difficult battle, which had cost him two prior marriages, many friends and family members. But with Contact, many finally realised what Sagan was about… and that he was indeed a man of opposites, whereby the result was not so much important, but the methods in which we went about it were.

This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 6.1 (January-February 2000)