A New Sense of the Sacred Carl Sagan's "Cosmic Connection".
We are floating down past the sooty rooftops of the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York, in the spring of 1941. As we descend, the express train from Manhattan shocks us with its Doppler roar, barreling past us along the elevated tracks that doom broad 86th Street below to perpetual shadow. Among the sidewalk tumult of shoppers and peddlers, we find a slender woman striding purposefully with a young boy firmly in hand. She is dressed in an inexpensive but stylish outfit, impeccably coordinated gloves, hat, shoes, and matching purse--the sole perquisite of her husband's hand-to-mouth pattern-cutting job in the ladies garment industry. She holds herself high; her expression, implacable. This is the face etched by her father's cruelty and the death of her mother when she was only two. It's the face she wears with everyone but her husband and this boy. It's her dare to the world to get in her way.
She clutches the hand of her seven-year-old son, who, though tall for his age, is having a hard time keeping up with her. Why are we following them? They are so completely ordinary. Not just to us but to everyone around them. No money in the bank. No status. No connections. The multitude they move among pays them no attention, unaware that this day these two are setting forth on a cosmic journey that will traverse an incomprehensible expanse of space and time, impacting events on this world and others. Even at our remove of sixty years in the future, we know only slightly more than the unconscious bystanders of Bensonhurst that afternoon. The ultimate consequences of the journey begun this day may not unfold for a billion years, possibly culminating somewhere far, far away, in another part of the galaxy, with the decryption of a message found aboard an ancient derelict spacecraft by lifeforms exotic beyond all imagining....
And it all begins with a question posed by the boy: "What are the stars?" he asks his parents and anyone who might possibly know. His family and friends want to help but can't. They can offer nothing more satisfying than, "They're lights in the sky, kid." The boy wants to know what they really are. His mother has virtually no formal education, but she is a reader and she loves him madly, so they set out on their quest.
We follow them up the steps of and inside the Brooklyn Public Library. Standing before the librarian's desk, the boy turns to his mother, hoping she will speak for him. She gives him a look that tells him he must find his own words. He has a severe facial tic with a complex but unvarying routine. He has to wait it out before finally stammering a request for a book on the stars. The librarian nods knowingly and disappears. She returns with a book on Hollywood. Momentarily stymied, he recovers and explains that he means the stars in the sky....
Fade to the blackness of the vast interstellar ocean. Out of the darkness, a delicate, spindly Voyager spacecraft, moving at 38,000 miles per hour, zips by us on its beeline to a billion years from now. This far from home, there is no sunlight to dazzle off the golden disc that protects its precious cargo of music, images, emotions, ideas--a trove of earthly culture. From out here, the sun looks exactly like what it really is: just another star.
His was no idle, detached curiosity. It had little in common with the abstract, platonic diversions favored by the gentlemen of the academy. For Carl Sagan, it was the permanently revolutionary method of science, with its systematic and unblinking questioning of authority and dispassionate testing of all hypotheses, that promised the greatest prize of all: a deeper understanding of who, what, when, and where we are in space and time. He wanted to know the cosmos as it really was. He was completely free of the spiritual narcissism that demanded a central place in the universe for him and his kind.
If science was resented by some for devastating our species' self-esteem, then our civilization, he reasoned, would only be as healthy as our capacity to come to grips with our actual circumstances. There could be no comfort in clinging to childhood fantasies of centrality. To him, the fact that we did science was a hopeful sign that we were ready to attain some maturity as a species.
Of equal importance was his conviction that the dream of a democratic civilization, dependent on science and high technology, was, absent widespread scientific literacy, hollow. He held that it was also a prescription for disaster. Science and high technology were penetrating the fine structures of nature and taking us to other worlds. Would we stand back, he wondered, clueless and powerless, as these ancient sanctuaries were sacked for the short-term interests of the few? Global public science literacy could not come a moment too soon.
His adult life was a relentless forty-year campaign of scientific research and public education to demystify scientific processes and insights. He wanted to tear down the walls that separated science from society, knowing that both communities would benefit as a result. He respected the public and believed that, if science were widely understood, support for science education and research would grow. The public reacted with enthusiasm. The scientific community was ambivalent.
The Roman Catholic Church, a famously rigid hierarchical structure requiring unquestioning adherence to its orthodoxies, recognized in the 1960s that if it were to survive it had to conduct its rites in the spoken language of the people. How ironic that the scientific community--the most powerful, explicitly anti-authoritarian engine of radical change the world has ever known--was, even thirty years later, still punishing members of its own priesthood who would divulge its mysteries to the uninitiated. The very word popularizer--a label frequently applied to Carl Sagan--is redolent with contempt, and tellingly there is no other word I know of besides the nonspecifically scientific educator or communicator.
To get an idea of just how deep this anti-democratic bias runs, let's do a thought experiment. Professor X was generally acknowledged as a pioneer in more than one area of scientific investigation, published 500 papers in scientific journals (including thirty-seven in Science and thirty in Nature) and consistently played a leading scientific role over four decades in the National Aeronautical and Space Administration's spacecraft exploration of the solar system. All this while directing a university laboratory and editing an international scientific journal. During this same period he taught at some of the most respected universities on the planet, and many of his former students became the most distinguished space scientists of this generation. The question is: was Professor X a "real scientist"?
If Carl Sagan's vita ended there, he undoubtedly would have been spared the frequent belittling of his scientific standing--an injustice that even after his death continues as a plodding backbeat to the first two attempts at a full-length biography. His transgression was to also write, cowrite, or edit thirty-one books and 1,380 articles; to give countless public talks and radio and television presentations, including the world's most successful science television series; and to cofound the Planetary Society, the largest public space-interest organization on Earth. All of the above aimed at engaging public awareness of and respect for the scientific enterprise.
It's hard to think of any other field in which such a person would be thanked by colleagues for so protean a labor of love with disparagement and even, on occasion, exclusion. Why? Some of the animus stemmed from his public stands on the nuclear arms race, the ballistic missile defense scam, and inadvertent climate modification, including global warming and nuclear winter. Others were discomforted by his efforts to extend the range of scientific investigation to subjects once thought scandalously outre, such as the search for extra-terrestrial life and intelligence. However, this would seem to contradict a widespread and unflattering myth about him: Carl Sagan as the ruthlessly ambitious careerist.
If it was "careerism" that truly motivated him, surely he wouldn't have turned down three dinner invitations to the Reagan White House. That's the equivalent of landing on Boardwalk for careerists. Instead, he was a man who consistently rejected opportunities to be coopted by the rich and powerful. He was the young postdoctoral student who lectured at the all-black college in Alabama in early 1963, years before there was any large-scale organized white commitment to end American apartheid. His typically apt choice of topic was the search for intelligent life on Earth, which must have had special pungency to that audience, at that place, in that time--and he maintained that commitment over the years.
He was the world-famous scientist who consistently went where careerists generally only venture for photo opportunities The media knew nothing of his trips to the inner-city kindergarten, the pep rally for the district's teachers on the day before school started, and the ceremonies to naturalize new citizens--all to share his love of science and to encourage the questioning of authority. No careerist would have resigned from the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and voluntarily surrendered his top-security clearance in protest over the American war against Vietnam. A careerist would have played the game to get tenure at Harvard, and believe me, if that's what Carl Sagan had been about, he would have kept his controversial head down and done it brilliantly. A careerist would have welcomed the lucrative offers for commercial endorsement instead of turning down every single one of the scores that came his way.
Carl Sagan was my husband. We were inseparable, in love and work, for twenty years. Although we had passionate disagreements, there was not a moment of that time that I did not consider myself most fortunate to be with him.
Some of the hurt and indignation you hear in my voice is undoubtedly due to my bias. But I claim there's more to it than that. It has to do with a deeper issue: the tragic disconnects between heart and brain, goodness and knowledge, and skepticism and wonder that have afflicted Western civilization from the time of its first story, Genesis. The unmistakable biblical message of our expulsion from paradise is that happiness can only be achieved in a state of thoughtless obedience and ignorance. Now that our civilization rests so heavily on the lever arm of science and high technology, this ancient cultural dysfunction enters its acute stage.
Scientific biography is symptomatic in its Oberammergau-like two-dimensionality. We are told Albert Einstein was a lousy husband. Why do people find this kind of information so satisfying? It relieves them of the daunting burden of comparison with his achievements and it affirms the inverse square law between scientific genius and the capacity for love. In this cultural atmosphere, the life story of a scientist becomes little more than a harvest of resentments from the insecure and unrequited.
To me, Carl's integrity, kindness, gentleness, and courage were every bit as off-scale as his intellect. In our twenty trips around the sun together' I don't recall him even once saying anything that he didn't believe was true. In fact, the only surviving element of his severe childhood facial tic was a telltale twitching of the nose that was always triggered by the need to refrain from speaking his mind so as not to wound another person. I invite you to scour his mountain of published work to find a single betrayal of anyone who had ever entrusted him with a confidence, or even one mean-spirited passage meant to settle a score. He was a man who never shrank away from taking a public stand on the great issues of his day. He was incapable of keeping his mouth shut about a matter of principle when it was in his own self-interest to do so. How do we square the notion of him as a "driven careerist" with his consistent lifelong pattern of choosing a course that was, to say the least, problematic for his career?
Activist is the right word to apply to Carl. However, it too has its negative connotations in science. The legitimate fear is that the scientist will distort science and subordinate it to political imperatives. Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Josef Mengele, and Edward Teller come to mind for good reason. However, the critical question is which comes first? If political aims drive science, science will inevitably be tainted. However, if scrupulous science results in conclusions with serious implications for our future, what is the ethical response? What should we expect from the scientist who grasps a danger brought about by science? Should he or she hide silently and safely behind the protective wall? Most of us are scientifically illiterate. We can be conned. I believe all governments lie, and few of them have ever demonstrated a concern for the future beyond the next election. If scientists must refrain from activism, or even public education, how can we hope to successfully avert these dangers?
Carl's childhood coincided with a brief historical moment when science could do no wrong; it was stainless, clean, like the glass and steel of the futurism it inspired. By the time he was eleven, that aura had turned to the rubble of Nagasaki. Through the ensuing arms race, which in its late stages employed more than half of the world's scientists, the good scientist all but vanished from the popular imagination and was replaced by an archetypical enemy of the people, evil and insane.
A family trip to the movies to see the latest sci-fi blockbuster was inevitably marred by Carl's squirming. It tormented him to see how riddled with errors the "science" was. Hollywood loves the jargon of science because it provides an illusion of reality to the experience. However, filmmakers and audience alike are so alienated from science that there is no perceived need to get it right. And most people don't seem to notice, but Carl did. Equally painful to him was the popular depiction of the scientist. You know what I mean: the genius in the laboratory who's willing to destroy everything that is precious to the rest of us in the pursuit of ungodly, monomaniacal research. Carl would shift uncomfortably in his seat. He didn't want to spoil the movie for the kids, but it was almost more than he could bear. His nose would twitch wildly.
He knew that popular culture was not the problem but merely the messenger, a reflection of widespread perception. It wouldn't be enough to start writing movies about good, humane, conscientious, decent scientists. The burden to change was not only on Hollywood but also on the uncommunicative and completely self-absorbed scientific community. It was-those impenetrable walls that insulated them and created an ideal culture medium for the growth of public mistrust. The walls had to come down.
In some sense, Carl's arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience at the Nevada nuclear test site after Mikhail Gorbachev's unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing; his briefing of the Central Committee of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the U.S. Congress, and the pope on the possible climactic consequences of nuclear war; his early and frequent sounding of the alarm on global warming; his indefatigable combat against the hydra of the Star Wars missile defense scheme (whose many heads have grown back once again, only this time, lamentably, in a world without a Carl Sagan)--these were a scientist's acts of redemption.
Redemption? It's a word from the vocabulary of the soul and it brings us to what is, perhaps, the toughest and most dangerous wall to scale: the one that divides the scientific from the sacred. It is here, I believe, that Carl's influence on our civilization will be most profound and lasting.
It is claimed that science has nothing morally or spiritually to tell us. Remember the Earth revealed to us by the Voyager spacecraft taking one last look from out past Neptune. Not the Apollo frame-filling Earth, but the Earth that is a single pixel in the context of the vast cosmos. This is the Earth that Carl Sagan made us see: "the pale blue dot." Stare at this image of our tiny planet in its larger context and do your best to remain a militant nationalist, a zealot willing to drench this tiny mote in blood, or a capitalist who places the bottom line above all. Is this piece of scientific evidence really value-free, lacking in moral and spiritual implications?
Carl's respect for the foundational significance of religious tradition is evident throughout his work. He was a lifelong scholar who frequently surprised the faithful in debate with his encyclopedic knowledge of their sacred texts. His initiatives to unite the communities of science and faith in defense of the environment continue to flourish and produce results. His writings are enriched by epigrams from the world's religious traditions.
What is "A Transitional Animal" (the first chapter of his 1974 book The Cosmic Connection) if not an attempt at a new genesis--an account in biblical cadence of local cosmic evolution, the reconstruction of our origins made possible by the diligence, fearlessness, and continuity of generations of science. It is informed by and strictly bound to verifiable reality; neither perfect nor eternal, but always subject to revision, an endless search.
The tone of The Cosmic Connection evokes the Old Testament, but the content declares a radical bifurcation. It is not only a demolition kit aimed at the weight-bearing structure of the wall but also a revelation of a spiritual and ethical perspective made possible by its collapse.
The epigram from Cosmos that begins this essay is a moral statement. It is essentially "Thou Shalt Not Kill" but without the authoritarian "because I say so" of the original commandment. It is not fear-based but a moral imperative derived from the accreted evidence of more than one scientific discipline. Rather than damning us for our curiosity, as is the case in Genesis, Carl presents us with a bounty of discoveries made possible by our naturally human need to know. Rather than a separately created race of overseers, appointed to crack the whip over the rest of nature, he shows how we are interwoven into the much more ancient and surpassingly intricate fabric of life.
In The Cosmic Connection, Carl envisions a new concept of human progress--the extension of our "identification horizon": the category of beings who we are willing to treat as we wish to be treated. This pioneering insight that expands our sphere of fellowship may come in the form of a perspective-shifting epiphany. For example, Herman Melville's prescient "I don't get it" tone of voice when asking, "Why don't the Tahitians send missionaries to New Bedford?" Or the taking up of an unpopular cause, as in Frederick Douglass' extrapolation, from his own experience of voiceless enslavement, that his struggle extends to the emancipation of women. Sometimes it is a radical innovation in a scientific approach--as in Jane Goodall's commitment to study the lives of our closest relatives in their natural environment rather than, as had always been done before, as uprooted prisoners, many of them serving grim life in solitary. Each of these insights is another brick removed from the wall that divides us from each other and blocks our view of nature's glorious immensity.
For Carl this shift in ethical perspective was a natural byproduct of science. To discover what the stars really are and how big and old the universe might be, to behold the exquisite interconnectedness of life on Earth and to trace its origins all the way back through cosmic evolution, had revolutionary spiritual and ethical implications, unanticipated by our prescientific Western religious traditions. It wasn't going to be enough to merely update old textbooks (although there are those who aren't even willing to go that far). This radically changed understanding of who, when, and where we are called for new psalms, new moral imperatives, and, most urgently, a new sense of the sacred. How could it not?
In the final pages of The Cosmic Connection, Carl introduces the image of human beings as "starstuff," a theme he returned to when we collaborated with astronomer Steven Soter to write the Cosmos television series. We are starstuff. You, me, and everybody. Not the failed clay of a disappointed creator but literally, down to every atom in our bones, the ash of stars--as Carl wrote in Cosmos, we are the "starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose."
The underlying scientific insights of his work are, of course, the work of many others, most pivotally Charles Darwin. However, the coherent expression of this science-based, rigorously skeptical, yet awe-filled perspective belongs to Carl. He used his gifts to touch multitudes of the previously alienated among all ages and cultures, giving us the soaring spiritual high that is science's overarching revelation-- our oneness with the cosmos.
Carl understood that tacit intellectual public acceptance of the claims that science makes, though devoutly to be desired, would not be sufficient. He grasped that our future depended on whether or not we would take this new universe revealed by science to heart and make its methods for testing reality our way of thinking. "You Are Here" read the little sign on the appropriate arm of the Milky Way galaxy in the first slide of his lectures. What haughty compartmentalism can long withstand that reality once we take it within?
When I imagine the hunt for the truth about the stars
that began for him in earnest with his mother Rachel on that day in Brooklyn, I always go in for a long, tight closeup of his small hand in hers. There's the original connection that potentiates all others. A child's question is honored and a loving adult joins in the quest for an answer. In that commitment the gateway to the universe may be found, becoming what Carl Sagan envisioned we could become: conscious, wise, compassionate, energetically curious, eternally skeptical; immune to the manipulations and intimidations of the powerful, free of the walls that imprison and divide us; awe-inspired by the beauty of an ever-broadening identification horizon, welcoming of its expansion; no longer stunted by the old primate hierarchies but, instead, proud of our capacity to care for each other and to discern our tiny, utterly decentralized place in the fabric of nature, space, and time; secure enough at last to embrace the wonder inherent in this reality, awakened to our responsibilities as a link in the generations past and future, at peace with our self-knowledge, alert to a heightened and consequential sense of the sacred; long-term thinkers, solid citizens of the planet and the cosmos--as Carl was, fully alive and completely connected.
Ann Druyan served for ten years as secretary of the Federation of American Scientists and as creative director of the National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Voyager Interstellar Message Project. During her twenty-year collaboration with Carl Sagan, she co-created Contact, the Warner Brothers motion picture, and co-wrote the Cosmos television series, several books, and numerous articles and speeches. Druyan is founding president of the Carl Sagan Foundation and chief executive officer of Cosmos Studios, which produces science-based entertainment in all media. The studio's first release will be the long-awaited Cosmos series on home video and DVD, and a two-hour national broadcast of "The Best of Cosmos" will be aired by PBS on November 25, 2000. This article is copyrighted 2000 by Ann Druyan and adapted from her introduction to the new Cambridge University Press edition of The Cosmic Connection by Carl Sagan.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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