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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 6.1 (January-February