Carl Sagan Unfiltered

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I was first introduced to Carl Sagan in New Zealand, in the spring of 2012. It was a Monday and I had that blah-Monday feeling – vaguely tired, uninspired to do productive things like laundry or grocery shopping or homework (even New Zealand has its fair share of unexciting afternoons). So I went over to Lisa’s. Lisa is a great friend because she knows how to take almost any mood and make it a good one, and that day she decided we should watch Cosmos. I had no idea what that was but it sounded cool. She and my friend Laura and I made a bunch of coffee in a French Press, drew the curtains, turned off the lights, and flicked on the first episode of Sagan’s famed TV series.

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Carl Sagan amidst the Cosmos.

Within an instant, my Monday was the opposite of blah: it was exploding with stars and galaxies, deep history and deep time, the meaning of human evolution, visions of the eternity of space! Transfixed by Carl Sagan’s soothing voice, I was immersed in an entirely new mindset – one which escaped my tiny pinprick of a cranium and expanded into the grandness and vastness of the universe. I left Lisa’s flat feeling new, awake, and alive – a feeling that no other TV show will ever be able to give me, nor scientist, for that matter; and a feeling that many people have experienced similarly from Sagan’s enchanting spell.

Fast forward 15 months, and I’m sitting in the basement of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, underneath fluorescent lights, and still amidst Sagan’s philosophies – but this time, it’s unmasked, un-TV’d, un-done Sagan, Sagan stripped to his true self. I’m sitting with the letters from his life, preserved in approximately 2,000 boxes (each box containing at least a dozen file folders of dozens of documents), which the library has made public as of last month. Within the boxes contain letters to friends, notebooks, old photographs, provocative science articles, to-do lists, report cards, t-shirts, you name it. Anyone can have access to this collection, provided they live in Washington DC and have enough free time to go down to Capitol Hill, deal with the bureaucracy of the LOC, and then navigate the files… a challenge which I will get to in a minute.

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Also provided that you can read his handwriting, in rare cases when he doesn’t use a typewriter. If you can decipher these cryptic sentences and symbols by all means please let me know.

I will admit to being a huge nerd and being SO excited upon opening my first box of Sagan papers, and unearthing my first Sagan letter. This was the real deal! This is the original paper that Sagan sent! These little black letters CAME OUT of the pen that SAGAN held with his very own hand! And more than marveling at my own absurd luck, I was overwhelmingly impressed with Sagan himself. How did he have time to write all of this? After seeing my first few boxes, it dawned on me just how many letters he wrote in his lifetime – often dozens a day. He must have been profoundly dedicated to corresponding with anyone and everyone who sent him mail.

So I peeled through the papers one by one.  A note here to a professor. A thank-you there for a visit. A technical debate over something involving the atmosphere on Venus. A snide letter involving financial matters. Quickly my nerdy excitement faded into subdued intrigue; and then, slowly, my intrigue slowly faded into a vague disenchantment. I noticed scribbled notes on the margins of certain letters and realized that his secretary, not him, wrote many of the letters. I read his blunt and often cold responses to people who poured their hearts out on paper to him; his generic one-sentences to students who told him that Cosmos converted them to astronomy; and his dismissal of ideas thrown his way by average Joes or confused fans. His letters were often short, to the point – if he responded. He rarely cracks jokes, or shows any emotion whatsoever, in a typical letter. There weren’t any love-type-letters about the universe; his style was pragmatic and often emotionally distant from his correspondences.

It’s strange, because Sagan clearly had a God-given talent for connecting with people on an emotional level about science. But after a month of looking through his letters with people – approximately several thousand of them at this point – I’m convinced that he didn’t use letters to do the same, and that was a letdown.

Part of my problem with it, I’ve realized, is my preconceived, “millennial” notion of a “letter.” When I hear that word, I think of something long, thoughtful, and time-consuming; therefore, something gracious and a genuine attempt to connect with someone. But to Sagan, a letter was an email. A letter could take two minutes to pop out, serving the purpose of securing logistical details, not inspiring fans and professors to look at the universe in a new way.

So thinking about this reprieved Sagan slightly. Also, recognizing how insanely busy Sagan must have been, and who has time to write lengthy responses to random penpals? But I still felt somewhat disenchanted by his cold correspondences. So what really did it for me, what really restored my admiration, was this little file called “Ideas Riding”. Keep in mind: this collection has almost 2,000 boxes full of files, requiring a 300-page navigational directory, and even the directory itself is dense and confusing. Fortunately, on the first day I ever stepped into the Library of Congress, I met someone who had worked directly with the collection and told me about the “Ideas Riding” file. Being me, I didn’t listen right away – but eventually I recovered the files, and almost as soon as I started reading them I was smiling. Here was the kooky, inspired, deviously smart Sagan who I originally found so endearing, the Sagan who had a myriad of ideas and theories about the world, the man who quoted masters of poetry to express scientific phenomena next to ancient philosophers, geologists, you name it.

Let me back up though – what the heck is “Ideas Riding”, anyway? It’s Sagan’s more private side; not quite a journal, but not quite a blog, the Ideas Riding files essentially contain Sagan’s idea-explorations, or bits and pieces of information he’s acquired (with the ideas riding off another…. in true hippie fashion). Many of the ideas in these files wind up in his books. Sometimes a page will only include one sentence (for example, on New Years Day, 1981, Sagan wrote “Chocoholic is to alcoholic as cheeseburger is to hamburger.” Don’t know what this means? Neither do I). Sometimes they include quotes or poems; Keats is in there a couple times, as is his quote that good writing “should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thought, and appear almost a remembrance.”

But mostly, they’re Sagan’s theories about almost anything ranging from geology to human evolution to social constructs. He comes up with ideas for why women wear lipstick and why men wear neckties, why we need to stop our dependence on fossil fuels, why the dinosaurs may have gone extinct (a pollen allergy, in case you’re curious); why males and females can be distinguished in their speech, why pheromones could explain asexuality, why the Anasazi civilization crumbled… This file will make you realize that Sagan is not just an astronomer. He is a thinker, a writer, a public speaker, a developer of ideas on all scientific platforms. And that’s what makes Sagan so special. He’s the scientist that covers a full spectrum of theories, and makes bridges between people and ideas that would normally remain isolated.

Once I had this file in my head, I realized that it’s not so much the content of each individual letter that Sagan wrote to these people, but the incredible variety of his correspondents that’s impressive. He attracted not just astronomers but famous biologists, musicians, sci-fi writers, kids in Korea, chemists, and “alien-abducted” (aka deranged) citizens. Within his life he wrote to people of almost every background. The diversity of his files speaks to his incredible appeal and ability to synthesize every corner of the world. In this way, it’s not Sagan’s original letters, but the mail he receives, that makes me admire him even more.

So after about 1300 words here, I’m kind of back where I started: still in reverence of Sagan, still awe-inspired by his accomplishments, thoroughness and dedication to his work… but with perhaps a more grounded view of him as a person. He is not an idol to be worshipped. He is not a celebrity of a scientist. He’s a normal person with normal flaws; someone who can be cold, makes promises he can’t keep, and probably let a lot of people down in his life. But his is still one of the greatest scientists to ever live, in my opinion. Not many other scientists can claim a career with similar variety and depth as Sagan’s.  If anything, the collection inspired me to learn from more kinds of people. And to watch Episode 2 of Cosmos.

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A portrait of Carl Sagan from his collection in the Library of Congress. In case I didn’t make it clear enough, it truly is an honor to be able to hold in one’s own hands the work and products of an extraordinary scientist.

p.s. If you’re still somehow with me here and want more, here’s a classic snippet from the “Ideas Riding” file, an emblem of Sagan’s philosophies and writing.

“Superstition [is] cowardice in the presence of the Divine.” So said Theophrastus, a contemporary of Aristotle and Alexander. We live in a universe where atoms are made in the stars; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Galaxy; where matter can be put together in so subtle a way as to become self-aware; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times; a universe of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies; where they say black holes and other universes and intelligent beings so far beyond us that their technology will seem to us indistinguishable from magic. How pallid by comparison are the pretensions of superstition and pseudoscience; how important it is for us to pursue and understand science, that characteristically human endeavor – imperfect and incomplete surely… There is no aspect of nature which fails to reveal a deep mystery, to touch our sense of awe and wonder. Theophrastus was right. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who wish to pretend to non-existent knowledge and control and a Cosmos centered around human beings, will prefer superstition… Superstitions may be comforting for a while. But, because they avoid rather than confront the world, they are doomed. The future belongs to those able to learn, to change, to accommodate to this exquisite Cosmos that we have been privileged to inhabit for a brief moment. –Carl Sagan in “Ideas Riding” circa September 21, 1979

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