Recently, I noticed that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was available on Netflix and I was blasted back to my 8 year old self, stumbling into the living room while my parents watched Carl wax eloquent from his dandelion-shaped starship. I have a few flashbulb memories from the show, such as Carl calculating the total number of alien civilizations that might be likely given the trillions (now known to be sextillions) of stars. Even more I remember him calculating the number of those civilizations that would have self-destructed once they were able to destroy themselves with nuclear weapons. The show was nothing if not reflective of its late cold war context. Only a few years later the country would be transfixed in front of The Day After, the ultimate downer of a made-for-tv movie that summed up the flip-side of Reagan’s “morning in America.”
So it was with these complicated feelings that I sat Quinn, my eleven year-old, in front of the TV and made him watch with me. What struck me these many years later was not the cold war mood, but the deep spiritual feeling that Carl brought to his exploration of science. His lecture on discovery and the vastness of space is a secular sermon, and an incredibly moving one at that. As the first episode went on, this feeling only deepened, and my sense of loss of Carl in the world deepened with it.
In college, at the University of Iowa, I saw Carl give a lecture once. I’m ashamed to say I only remember two things about it. 1. He asserted that he never actually used the words, “billions and billions” which the SNL-caricature of him famously used. It seemed to really bother him (to be fair, I have heard him say “Billions” in precisely the way the caricature does, just not in its doublet form). 2. A guy stood up during the Q&A portion and proceeded to talk for several minutes about nothing anybody in the audience could understand. We thought it must be something too smart for our liberal arts ears. Then Carl responded: “I have no earthly idea what you just said, but I thank you for your comment.” We felt in good company!
So I had some personal connection to the man, but we never really got close.
The next week after watching the first few episodes, Quinn went to school, where he and his peers were visited by a geologist. They talked about the history of the universe, the earth and life. Quinn was proud that he had command of many of the ideas fresh on his mind. He came home ready to watch more episodes.
While poking around YouTube together that night he spotted a video of Carl Sagan from 1966. What a find it was. A fresh-faced Carl sitting next to a large, eye-patch wearing CIA operative being interviewed by Walter Cronkite about the rash of recent flying saucer sightings. The CIA guy said a few words and then let the young Cornell professor explain his research findings.
He easily demolished the “evidence” and logic of the UFO sightings. But what really stood out was his explanation: the reportings of alien visitations had a pattern—the aliens were deeply concerned with the fate of humanity, were virtually omnipotent with the unimaginable powers, and they came in white robes. This was religion, not science! he said. In the scientific age people could no longer believe in a personal God, so they were transferring the deep desire for one onto a pseudo-scientific alien race.
After the explanation, Walter Cronkite thanked them and said, “there you have it folks. The best science in the world concludes that there are no flying saucers.” It was a response almost impossible to imagine a major network news anchor having today to an objectively stated atheistic statement. The impression I have watching this archival video is that this was an age with much more mainstream respect for science as a fundamental way of understanding the world.
If scientists in 1966 had broadly stated a climate change threat our response likely would have been very different than the broad denial we see today (we did respond to Sputnik by putting men on the moon, after all). I hate to think it but maybe climate change hit forty years too late for us to have the cultural intelligence to respond to it. Perhaps Carl’s worry about nuclear Armageddon was only slightly misplaced.