Take a Personal Voyage for Carl Sagan’s Birthday

Carl Sagan on Mars. Just kidding; he's in California. NASA photo.

Corduroy-jacketed ├╝bernerd Carl Sagan shuffled off this mortal coil in 1996, but today would have been his 76th birthday.

The Brooklyn-born child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Sagan first illuminated my childhood with his thirteen-part educational series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, in which he traveled the universe in a dandelion floof, delivering Vincent Price monologues about Heaven and Hell. While doing so, he shied away neither from apocalyptic pronouncements of potential doom nor dopey optimism about humanity’s future.

He managed to get most famous for incessantly saying something he never said, “billions and billions” with a couple of over-emphasized B-sounds hurtling at you like a pair of double-ought loads from a twelve-gauge coach gun or a couple of massive — okay, let’s not take this metaphor too far.

In fact, just the one “billions” usually got the point across, though he sure could work that initial B sound.

He wrote and cowrote a number of truly amazing books I loved including Broca’s Brain (a collection of essays), Murmurs of Earth (about the Voyager interstellar record), Pale Blue Dot (about long-term travel in space) and the novel Contact, the movie of which once made Mr. Garrison on South Park throw up.

But the hands-down winner in the Carl Sagan is Awesome category, in my opinion, is a book he was not even remotely qualified to write: The Dragons of Eden, in which he speculates on why humans evolved the way they did. He wrote it anyway. It got him his first Pulitzer. It’s is some of the most mind-blowing stuff I’ve ever read.

A lifelong atheist, he was famously skeptical of pseudoscience, and was openly hostile to astrology. He also didn’t like UFO nuts all that much. He was a Scorpio. They’re so like that.

Oh, and did I mention he was 420-friendly? That he partook in the the funky ganja? That he visited all regular-like with Mother Mary and her Sister Jane? That he was cozy with the fine contents of a bowl or two, possibly as a precursor to the consumption of Ben & Jerry’s as dip for Cool Ranch Doritos, the viewing of Cheech and Chong: Up in Smoke and the discussing of Greek philosophy between backrubs?

He did, though I made up the part about Up in Smoke. Sagan’s friend Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Professor of Psychiatry, disclosed after Sagan’s death that under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan wrote a now-famous essay about the use of marijuana, in which he celebrated the herb’s impact on his life. (The comments on that post are pretty uproarious.)

One of the most heartbreaking essays I’ve ever read is his brilliant wife Ann Druyan‘s article from Parade magazine about Sagan’s death from cancer. In it, both she and he come to terms with the ultimate meaning of atheism: that the love affair they’ve been enjoying is ending forever. Sagan, clearly a little bit scared, stares down death without once flinching from his belief that it’s over, and that is what it is. Druyan is an agnostic, and not quite so sure. Its one of the best treatments of death I’ve ever read.

Sagan’s still dead. You’re alive. Smoke some weed, if you’re into that, or get high on life, if you’re into that; Sagan would have approved of either or both. Speculate on the origins of human intelligence even though you may be even less qualified to do it than Sagan was. Enjoy it all while you can — the speculation and the human intelligence. Life may not be perfect, but it could be worse; you could be an inanimate dust speck whirling around Alpha Centauri. Most people are.

“We are the way for the universe to know itself,” said Sagan. So give Old Corduroy a little birthday gift and know something. If you’re into that.

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