Sand and Stars

The Irreplaceable Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan… how I miss this extraordinary man and astronomer

20 Dec 2016

Carl Sagan died twenty years ago today at the far-too-young age of 62. Sitting out in the dark with my telescope, looking up at the universe, I could hear his wonderful voice, lingering luxuriantly on his consonants… 

“There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.

This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.

Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, “I am the great silent spaces between worlds.”

It sounds like vintage Sagan, but in fact he wrote those words in the early 1950s when he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago (the undated, handwritten text is in the Sagan papers, housed at the US Library of Congress).

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering splendour, as well as Sagan did. By the time he died he had given us a universe that was no longer strangely frightening and that had become increasingly familiar. He gave us our place in the universe.

Earth caught in a sunbeam

And then he showed it to us. 

In 1990, Voyager 1 was heading toward the outer reaches of our solar system, and taking an image of Earth was not part of NASA’s original plan, but Sagan, a member of the Voyager imaging team at the time, had the idea of pointing the spacecraft back toward its home for a last look. Thus, on the 14th February, 1990, from a mind-boggling distance of 6 billion kilometres, Voyager 1 took its last look back and gave us the famous photo that, 26 years later, still continues to inspire wonderment about the place we call home.

As Sagan wrote in his book, Pale Blue Dot

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… Every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every revered teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

But Sagan also gave us something of incalculable value: he inspired a love of science, learning, and freedom of inquiry. In 1980 we set sail with him on the vast dark cosmic ocean in his “spacecraft of the imagination” in the series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. It was the most incredible journey through space and time, and with Carl Sagan at the helm there was no boundary on mankind’s outer-space (or inner-space) aspirations and possibilities.

I wonder how many of us were launched on our own pursuits of a cosmic personal voyage as a result of Cosmos?

I was. I still am on that journey. And thanks to Carl Sagan will stay on it to the end.

Carl Sagan at the helm of his spacecraft of the imagination

Copyright © Susan Young 2016