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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan is always on my mind this time of year. I've been planning on writing a piece about him for some time. As it turns out, today is the tenth anniversary of his death. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has called his readers' attention to Joel Schlosberg's plan to have a Carl Sagan Memorial Blog-A-Thon to commemorate his life and influence. So what better time to write this post than now?

Carl Sagan's Cosmos came onto the scene when I was twelve years old, at the same time as a great many other influential events in my life. Star Wars had exploded onto movie screens just a few years before. The Viking missions had shown us Mars, and the Voyager missions were sending back amazing images of Jupiter and Saturn and their many moons. The Space Shuttle had been tested and was being readied for flight. Jupiter and Saturn were engaging in a long, complicated series of maneuvers in the evening sky. The Hitchhiker's Guide to The Galaxy was hitting the airwaves in America for the first time. I had discovered Dungeons & Dragons (with the polyhedral dice so well explained in the back of the Cosmos book) and begun reading Tolkien and Niven and Ellison and OMNI magazine.

And there was Carl Sagan on the cover of TIME magazine, standing on the shore of the cosmic ocean. There was Carl Sagan on television every Sunday night, showing us the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and saying "Look at this! Isn't it amazing?" To us. To me. He didn't just bring the beauty and wonder of the cosmos to the general public. He brought it to me, and that was infinitely more valuable - in my mind, anyway.

(A side note: Carl Sagan appeared on the cover of TIME magazine on October 20, 1980. But I associate Sagan with Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, the lighting of the Advent Wreath in the upstairs hallway of my school, a chorus of children's voices singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel". Why? Because my grandmother was my one source for TIME magazines, and she would get them from my uncle in Maryland, who had a subscription. He would gather up his old magazines and bring them up to my grandmother when he would visit throughout the year. He would have brought the October 20, 1980 issue to her when he came in to visit at Thanksgiving. So I would not have seen this issue until after the start of Advent.)

I graduated from Catholic grade school in 1981 and survived four years of High School. When I started college in 1985 I double-majored in Physics and Philosophy - perhaps more influenced by a certain pointy-eared Vulcan than by Carl Sagan and Cosmos. But as I neared the end of college I began to formulate a plan: I would become the next Carl Sagan.

No, I would not become brilliant or influential or directly involved in planetary exploration. But when I entered graduate school at age 21 my goal was to have a Ph.D. by age 27 and to have published my first book by age 30. Carl Sagan had brought the wonder of the Cosmos to the people. I would carry on what he had started. I would use my unique blend of knowledge, experience, and skills to write books on advanced topics in science that would appeal to and be comprehendible by the common layman.

It didn't work out that way. Graduate school was the single most horrible and humiliating event in my life. I have compared it to being mugged while drowning. Maybe at another school, in another program, things might have been different. Maybe not. Maybe I just wasn't up to the challenge.

Besides, there already was a Carl Sagan.

He's gone now. Dead these past ten years. This blog is the closest I've come to my dream of being a writer who would share his love of the universe with the rest of the world. But Carl Sagan's work lives on. He touched and influenced many, many lives. Maybe no one of us will ever be the next Carl Sagan, but maybe, just maybe, each of us can carry a small spark of the flame that he touched us with. And somewhere along the line, we can share that spark with others.

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