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Apr 18 2014

What Carl Sagan Taught His Daughter About Life

Sasha Sagan, daughter of the late, great Carl Sagan, has an article in New York magazine about how her father taught her about the nature of life and death with the humanity and sense of wonder that made him such a treasure to so many of us over the decades.

One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.

“Because they died,” he said wistfully.

“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.

He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.

“Why?”

Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.

“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.

When my mother died, I gave the eulogy at her funeral and I said something similar, though nowhere near as eloquent. I said that I would like nothing better than to know that I would someday be reunited with her, to see her again in the afterlife, but that I had no reason to believe that I would. The only immortality I knew of was that we live on in the memories of those whose lives we touch while we are alive. Carl Sagan touched far more lives than any of us ever could and we are all the better for having been inspired by his joyful and hopeful humanism.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    vilstef

    I have a friend living in Ithaca, New York and I have given him detailed directions to find where Dr Sagan is buried. Giving respects in proxy is good, especially when my friend greatly admired him too.

  2. 2
    caseloweraz

    I, too, admired Carl Sagan — and not least for the way he faced his own untimely death.

    By coincidence, I just finished re-reading The Dragons of Eden (in hardcover, with the Don S. Davis painting on the jacket.) There are many words there that ring as true today as when the book was published in 1977, if not more true.

    “As a consequence of the enormous social and technological changes of the last few centuries, the world is not working well. We do not live in traditional and static societies. But our governments, in resisting change, act as if we did. Unless we destroy ourselves utterly, the future belongs to those societies that encourage diversity rather than conformity; to those societies willing to invest resources in a variety of social, political, economic and cultural experiments, and prepared to sacrifice short-term advantage for long-term benefit; to those societies that treat new ideas as delicate, fragile and immensely valuable pathways to the future.” (– page 189)

  3. 3
    caseloweraz

    Two more…

    There is today in the West (but not in the East) a resurgent interest in vague, anecdotal and often demonstrably erroneous doctrines that, if true, would betoken at least a more interesting universe, but that, if false, imply an intellectual carelessness, an absence of toughmindedness, and a diversion of energies not very promising for our survival. (– page 237)

    …without these experimental tests, very few physicists would have accepted general relativity. There are many hypotheses in physics of almost comparable brilliance and elegance that have been rejected because they did not survive such a confrontation with experiment. In my view, the human condition would be greatly improved if such confrontations and a willingness to reject hypotheses were a regular part of our social, political, economic, religious and cultural lives. (– page 184)

  4. 4
    zbeeblebrox

    Thank you, Ed.

  5. 5
    vilstef

    A bit of trivia, Carl Sagan was one of the few (very few) people Isaac Asimov acknowledged as smarter than himself.

  6. 6
    bryanfeir

    @vilstef:
    Last I heard, there were only two people on that list. (The other being, I believe, Marvin Minsky of the MIT AI lab.)

    Of course, anybody who’s read much Asimov knows that while he was a brilliant man, humility was not one of his virtues.

  7. 7
    caseloweraz

    Hmmm… I deduce from that (perhaps incorrectly) that Isaac Asimov never met Donald Knuth.

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