It’s the birthday of the man that Smithsonian Magazine called “truly irreplaceable”: that’s astronomer Carl Sagan (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1934). Sagan was a popular guest on TV shows, especially The Tonight Show, but he was also a serious scientist who worked as a consultant on several unmanned NASA missions. Sagan was involved in the “Golden Record” project associated with the Voyager missions. The record was imprinted with images and recordings from Earth, in case it should be discovered by a form of intelligent life. It was on this project that Sagan met Ann Druyan. She was the creative director of the project, and eventually Sagan’s wife. Druyan later said: “Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.”
Most people know him best as the co-creator and host of the hugely popular PBS show Cosmos, which aired in 1980. Sagan originally planned to call the show Man and the Cosmos, but he considered himself a feminist, so he decided to leave off the “man.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy and a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, collaborated with Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, to bring Cosmos back to television in 2014. MacFarlane also donated money to the Library of Congress, so that the library could purchase Sagan’s papers from Druyan. And there were a lot of papers: almost 800 boxes.
Sagan received a lot of fan mail over his career, many letters from people who shared their dreams and experiences, or their theories of extraterrestrial life, or simply thanked him for teaching them about astronomy. The more “out there” of the letters were filed in a box labeled “F/C,” which stood for “fissured ceramics” — Sagan’s code name for “crackpots.” People wrote to him about aliens that they had imprisoned in their basement, or the planets they had discovered. He was also approached by Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor, and leader in the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Leary wanted to build a kind of “space ark” and transport hundreds of people to a different star, and he consulted Sagan to find out which star he should aim for. Sagan had to tell him that the technology to pull off such a feat did not currently exist. Leary wrote back: “I am not impressed with your conclusions in these areas,” and suggested that all that was needed was “exo-psychological and neuropolitical inspiration.”
Sagan died in 1996, of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. He was 62. He didn’t believe in life after death, and once told his daughter, Sasha, that it was dangerous to believe in something just because you want very badly for it to be true. But he also told her, “We are star stuff,” and made her feel the wonder of being alive.
From Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), the title of which refers to a photo of Earth taken from billions of miles away: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives […] [E]very king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”