Carl Sagan

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I’ve criticized Malcolm Gladwell for his oft-repeated claim that satire can’t be very valuable in the face of emergent tyranny because it didn’t prevent the rise of Nazism. Yes, that’s so, but you could say the same of diplomacy, protest, government, media and other forces that also couldn’t stem its rise. All those entities and actions retain potency despite their inability to curb the horrors of ’30s and ’40s Europe and so does satire. 

Sometimes a series of accidents and incidents defy the odds, and history finds itself adrift on a disastrous course. Given enough time and chances, that will eventually occur, and our ever-more-powerful tools and technologies will wind up in the wrong hands. From a 1996 Psychology Today interview of Carl Sagan:

Psychology Today:

You point to the statistical likelihood of people in power periodically showing up in the guise of a Stalin or a Hitler. Given this probability, and given nuclear proliferation, what are your feelings about the future?

Carl Sagan:

Well, it’s a very serious issue. We are, fortunately, in a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union are divesting their nuclear arsenals. According to the present treaties, agreed to if not ratified, each side will go down to something like 3,000 strategic weapons and delivery systems by the first decade of the 21st century, from 10 times that number. So that’s very good news. On the other hand, there are only about 2,300 cities on the planet, so if each side gets 3,000 weapons, that means that each side retains the ability to annihilate every city on earth. That is certainly not comfortable news, because if you wait long enough you are bound to have a madman at the helm in one of these countries.

Psychology Today:

Are you saying it’s inevitable?

Carl Sagan:

If you look at the history of the world, such people regularly come to power. We may comfort ourselves in the United States that it hasn’t happened to us, but even here I would say that a number of times in our recent history we’ve come close to having somebody dangerously incompetent or drunk or crazy in power in a time of crisis. Hitler and Stalin are reminders that the most advanced countries on earth can have such leaders.•

In order to reach that tipping point, however, it takes a village of citizens pulling in the wrong direction, and MAGA caps were the symbols of those dark energies at work in America in 2016. Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of our fall from grace but merely the perfect messenger to activate and embolden the ugliness that had been building for decades. It’s now overwhelmingly clear that what the Republican Party has become since Goldwater is a dirty pool.

Ronald Brownstein’s Atlantic article about young GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson looks at how some people who should know better still cling to the party even after decades of welfare queens, Willie Hortons, racist push polling, Fox News, Cliven Bundy, Trump’s white-nationalist campaign and Charlottesville, not believing what’s been in their eyes and ears forever. Anderson’s looked at the depressing numbers but still hasn’t completely gotten the memo, though she’s now considering leaving the roost for more moderate third-party options. An excerpt:

Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Illinois Representative] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”

The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.

Anderson’s gloom is understandable. Even before Trump’s emergence, the GOP relied mostly on the elements of American society most uneasy with cultural and demographic change—the primarily older, blue-collar, rural, and evangelical whites who make up what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration.” As a candidate and as president, Trump has yoked the party even more tightly to those voters’ priorities—a tilt evident in everything from his “very fine people” remarks about the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville to his recent pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.•

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A storm of ignorance has been gathering across America for much of the Digital Age, virally spreading “alternate facts” from anti-vaxxers, Birthers, Truthers and climate change deniers, among others. Even the mass murder of schoolchildren in broad daylight is considered dubious to some. The threatening skies have now unloosed a torrent that’s torn the roof from the White House, with the installation of the most anti-science Administration in modern U.S. history, maybe ever.

How could a wealthy nation with so much information wind up like this? On Twitter, NPR’s Science Friday host Charles Bergquist reached back to Carl Sagan’s 1995 Demon-Haunted World for an explanation. The late astronomer believed America might return to superstitions once manufacturing went missing and technological wealth and power was collected in few hands. He felt radically uneven distribution might give rise to prejudice.

A longer excerpt:

Popularizing science – trying to make its methods and findings accessible to non-scientists – then follows naturally and immediately. Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.

But there’s another reason: science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and
superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butt-Head remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam “to delude the people.” Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the “witchmongers” as arguing, ‘else how should these things be, or come to pass?’ For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.

Ady also warned of the danger that “the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge.” Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.•

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Carl Sagan waxing philosophically about the need for humans to eventually colonize space, to curl up like newborns on comets and fly like birds on Titan, going on after the sun dies but before the universe does.


From Zachary Crockett’s Priceonomics post which recalls a proposed mission scrubbed from the collective memory, the time when the United States considered a Sagan-aided plan to put a kaboom on the moon:

“As far back as 1949, Chicago’s Armour Research Institute (known as the IIT Research Institute today) had studied the effects of nuclear explosions on the environment and atmosphere. In 1958, the program was approached by the United States Air Force and asked to determine the hypothetical consequences of a nuclear explosion on the Moon. Sensing that national morale was low after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. government coined a plan: they’d nuke the Moon, causing an explosion so big that it’d be visible from Earth. They hoped the explosion would not only boost the confidence and approval of Americans, but serve as a show of power to the Soviets.

Led by renowned physicist Leonard Reiffel, a ten-person research team was formed under a rather auspicious project title: ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ (or, ‘Project A-119’). Immediately, the team began studying ‘the potential visibility of the explosion, benefits to science, and implications for the lunar surface.’ An essential element to ensuring that the explosion would be seen from Earth was determining the mathematical projection of the expansion of the resulting dust cloud in space; Carl Sagan, a young doctoral student at the time, was brought in to help find an answer.”

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As Seth MacFarlane uses some of his Family Guy wealth to reboot Cosmos on Fox, Joel Achenbach of Smithsonian magazine looks back at the show’s original host, Carl Sagan, who was something of an ambassador to his own country in the 1970s, a populist professor coaxing Americans through the shock and awe of the post-Space Race with serious scholarship, talk-show schmoozing and provocation. An excerpt:

“The Sagan archive gives us a close-up of the celebrity scientist’s frenetic existence and, more important, a documentary record of how Americans thought about science in the second half of the 20th century. We hear the voices of ordinary people in the constant stream of mail coming to Sagan’s office at Cornell. They saw Sagan as the gatekeeper of scientific credibility. They shared their big ideas and fringe theories. They told him about their dreams. They begged him to listen. They needed truth; he was the oracle.

The Sagan files remind us how exploratory the 1960s and ’70s were, how defiant of official wisdom and mainstream authority, and Sagan was in the middle of the intellectual foment. He was a nuanced referee. He knew UFOs weren’t alien spaceships, for example, but he didn’t want to silence the people who believed they were, and so he helped organize a big UFO symposium in 1969, letting all sides have their say.

Space itself seemed different then. When Sagan came of age, all things concerning space had a tail wind: There was no boundary on our outer-space aspirations. Through telescopes, robotic probes and Apollo astronauts, the universe was revealing itself at an explosive, fireworks-finale pace.

Things haven’t quite worked out as expected. ‘Space Age’ is now an antiquated phrase. The United States can’t even launch astronauts at the moment. The universe continues to tantalize us, but the notion that we’re about to make contact with other civilizations seems increasingly like stoner talk.”


In 1988, Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Hawking on God and other aliens:

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Via the excellent Browser site comes this wonderful piece from 2001Italia which recalls how Stanley Kubrick struggled mightily with realizing alien life forms in his masterful sci-fi film. An excerpt:

“According to Arthur Clarke, it was the famous scientist Carl Sagan that, asked for a suggestion on the topic, proposed to hide the aliens altogether from the movie, during a meeting at Kubrick’s house in Manhattan, in 1965. Quoted from Clarke’s biography, here’s Sagan recounting the episode thirty years later:

They had no idea how to end the movie – that’s when they called me in to try to resolve a dispute. The key issue was how to portray extraterrestrials that would surely be encountered at the end when they go through the Star Gate. Kubrick was arguing that the extraterrestrials would look like humans with some slight differences, maybe à la Mr. Spock (Ed. note: like Clindar). And Arthur was arguing, quite properly on general evolutionary grounds, that they would look nothing like us. So I tried to adjudicate as they asked. I said it would be a disaster to portray the extraterrestrials. What ought to be done is to suggest them. I argued that the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it and that the best solution would be to suggest rather than explicitly to display the extraterrestrials. What struck me most is that they were in production (some of the special effects, at least) and still had no idea how the movie would end. Kubrick’s preference had one distinct advantage, an economic one: He could call up Central Casting and ask for twenty extraterrestrials. With a little makeup, he would have his problem solved. The alternative portrayal of extraterrestrials, whatever it was, was bound to be expensive.

… And that’s the quote from Arthur Clarke, commenting Sagan’s words:

A third of century later, I do not recall Stanley’s immediate reaction to this excellent advice, but after abortive efforts during the next couple of years to design convincing aliens, he accepted Carl’s solution.”

See also:

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Pareidolia is our ability see a human face where there is none, like a religious figure in a piece of toast. Computers appear to have the same tendency. From Rebecca J. Rosen in the Atlantic:

“Pareidolia was once thought of as a symptom of psychosis, but is now recognized as a normal, human tendency. Carl Sagan theorized that hyper facial perception stems from an evolutionary need to recognize — often quickly — faces. He wrote in his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, ‘As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper.’

Humans are not alone in their quest to ‘see’ human faces in the sea of visual cues that surrounds them. For decades, scientists have been training computers to do the same. And, like humans, computers display pareidolia.”


Audi “Faces” commercial:

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Walter Cronkite’s 1966 interview with Carl Sagan about UFOs, which have never, ever visited Earth.

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Carl Sagan’s eloquent meditation on the moon landing’s significance.


In 1977, while subbing for Johnny Carson. As Denver says, “Far out!”

Related posts:

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In “Mr. X,” an article written in 1969 and published two years later, Carl Sagan wrote about his use of marijuana, which apparently was a part of his life for more than four decades. The opening:

It all began about ten years ago. I had reached a considerably more relaxed period in my life – a time when I had come to feel that there was more to living than science, a time of awakening of my social consciousness and amiability, a time when I was open to new experiences. I had become friendly with a group of people who occasionally smoked cannabis, irregularly, but with evident pleasure. Initially I was unwilling to partake, but the apparent euphoria that cannabis produced and the fact that there was no physiological addiction to the plant eventually persuaded me to try. My initial experiences were entirely disappointing; there was no effect at all, and I began to entertain a variety of hypotheses about cannabis being a placebo which worked by expectation and hyperventilation rather than by chemistry. After about five or six unsuccessful attempts, however, it happened. I was lying on my back in a friend’s living room idly examining the pattern of shadows on the ceiling cast by a potted plant (not cannabis!). I suddenly realized that I was examining an intricately detailed miniature Volkswagen, distinctly outlined by the shadows. I was very skeptical at this perception, and tried to find inconsistencies between Volkswagens and what I viewed on the ceiling. But it was all there, down to hubcaps, license plate, chrome, and even the small handle used for opening the trunk. When I closed my eyes, I was stunned to find that there was a movie going on the inside of my eyelids. Flash . . . a simple country scene with red farmhouse, a blue sky, white clouds, yellow path meandering over green hills to the horizon. . . Flash . . . same scene, orange house, brown sky, red clouds, yellow path, violet fields . . . Flash . . . Flash . . . Flash. The flashes came about once a heartbeat. Each flash brought the same simple scene into view, but each time with a different set of colors . . . exquisitely deep hues, and astonishingly harmonious in their juxtaposition. Since then I have smoked occasionally and enjoyed it thoroughly. It amplifies torpid sensibilities and produces what to me are even more interesting effects, as I will explain shortly.•


A 1988 panel discussion about the origins of our universe and more, with an amazing lineup: Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Hawking.

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Borman: Felt the scorn of the longhairs.

I never knew until recently that astronaut Frank Borman, after completing his Apollo 8 mission in 1968, became a target of anti-authority campus radicals. A post-mission tour of American universities didn’t go splendidly for Borman, and Carl Sagan apparently didn’t help matters when the spaceman made his way to Cornell. An excerpt from Collect Space about the ill-fated meeting:

“After Borman returned from Apollo 8 NASA sent him on a good will tour of colleges and universities across the country. Borman took his wife Susan along so she could share in the event. At Columbia no sooner than Borman started to talk, the audience started pelting him with marshmallows and two students dressed in gorilla costumes climbed onto stage with him to reenact the opening of the movie 2001.

But as Borman said, ‘Then there was Cornell.’

At Cornell Borman and his wife Susan were guests of Carl Sagan. Sagan invited them to his house for the evening so that they could meet some of the students from Students for a Democratic Society. Sagan explained that he was their faculty advisor.

As Borman explains it, they spent the evening sitting on the floor of Sagan’s living room where Sagan orchestrated an attack, egging the students on when they asked questions such as, ‘Col. Borman, were you aware that on such and such a date American troops massacred hundreds of helpless Vietnamese woman and children? Just what is your opinion of this heinous atrocity? Surely you must have some thoughts on the subject!’

I always wondered why Sagan (a very well-loved man) set Borman and his wife up like that. The best answer I have been able to come up with is Sagan saw Borman as a trespasser. Sagan made no secret of the fact that as a university professor he saw himself as superior to any military officer.”


Apollo 8 crew reads biblical passages from space on Christmas Day 1968:

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Orson Welles picked up some wine money for his participation in the 1975 documentary, “Who’s Out There.” It features cool interviews with Americans who were scared to death by Welles’ famous radio hoax about an alien invasion, War of the Worlds. Welles also explores, with the help of Carl Sagan, among others, whether actual extraterrestrials exist.

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"There were greetings in many different languages on the disc, and my folks thought it would be nice to have a kid represent one."

IEEE Spectrum has an interview with Nick Sagan, the writer and son of astronomer Carl Sagan, about NASA’s Voyager mission, a pair of unmanned space probes launched in 1977. The probes visited Jupiter and Saturn, before heading to the outer solar system. Each carried  a golden record, which contained pictures, recordings and a greeting from Earth. Carl chose the record’s contents; Nick, who was then a child, taped a message for the disc on behalf of the planet’s children. An excerpt from the Spectrum piece:

IEEE Spectrum: What do you remember of the Voyager project?

Nick Sagan: It was very quick and mysterious to me. There were greetings in many different languages on the disc, and my folks thought it would be nice to have a kid represent one. My dad plopped me down in front of a mic in a room at Cornell University, where he taught, and asked me what I would want a visiting extraterrestrial to know. I came up with ‘Hello, from the children of Planet Earth.’

IEEE Spectrum: None of it struck you as odd?

Nick Sagan: These questions were normal in my home. When your dad is an astronomer, there’s a certain focus on this. We’d go out and look at the stars, and there were often astronomers and science fiction writers, like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, over our house for dinner.

At the time, I was too young to fully understand what Voyager was. But now I’m humbled to be part of it. There’s a possibility that a piece of me will exist long after I’m gone and the Earth ceases to exist. It’s a kind of immortality.”


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