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"so alive in the minds of those who loved him and so painfully gone"
April 15, 2014 7:52 AM   Subscribe

Sasha Sagan talks about Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan.
posted by DigDoug (28 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Carl Sagan is one of those people that others get really tired of me going on and on about.
posted by DigDoug at 7:58 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


Is DigDoug going on and on about Sagan again? Sheesh!
posted by mazola at 8:04 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


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.

Doesn't get better than that. She's a great writer, like her father.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:10 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


Wow! Thanks for posting.
posted by wittgenstein at 8:55 AM on April 15


I really like her reference to her father's "form of joyful skepticism." It's a good reminder to be a skeptic and a critical thinker, and also try to find joy and wonder in the world every day.
posted by onehalfjunco at 9:13 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


.
posted by humanfont at 9:17 AM on April 15


To me, the idea that "life is meaningful because it's finite" / "life would be meaningless if it was not finite" is one of those things people believe, not because it's necessarily true, but because it provides them with comfort in the face of death.
posted by tybeet at 9:25 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


Sphinx Head Tomb would make an excellent name for a doom metal band.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:27 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Sphinx Head Tomb would make an excellent name for a doom metal band.

I was kind of hearing it to the tune of "Black Hole Sun", actually.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:36 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah I could conceive of a universe designed with permanence for living beings that was in fact quite lovely and meaningful. I don't think there's any innate goodness about the way things are... it's just the way they are... and we like to experience good feelings so we ascribe a purpose to the way things are so we feel better about them, even when they sort of suck..


I mean... death is lame. Seriously. I vote for eternal heaven and the angels and cool awesome stuff, and alternate realities and multiple lives and you know etc. Not that reality particularly cares about my vote but in the event I have any influence I'd like it to be stated quite firmly
I want a super awesome heaven where I see all my loved ones and we go on even more wonderful adventures than in this world.

This was wonderfully written, thanks for sharing it.

I also like to think that it is completely concievable if we do everything right (or course that's a huge if) and continue to grow as living beings in intelligence and empathy, that we could eventually create a world where disease and early death are so rare as to be mostly something one hears about happening in the brutal olden days of our species past. And I think it could still be a meaningful, deep, and beautiful reality even if there were far fewer tragedies. I don't think tragedies make life beautiful, they might accentuate it if you've forgotten to look, but there are better ways to open our eyes to seeing the beauty and meaning of what is right here in front of us than to wait for tragedy to force us to see.

Let us not get so caught up in seeing tragedy as having "purpose" or some sort of good attached to them that we are actually perpetuating a world that requires tragedy to be meaningful if that's not even necessary and we are sort of idealizing some purpose in tragedy and creating more of it just for that purpose.
posted by xarnop at 9:46 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I'm just shocked that no one wanted to house Sagan's papers. McFarlane's oeuvre has become tiresome, but good on him.
posted by notsnot at 10:11 AM on April 15


To me, the idea that "life is meaningful because it's finite" / "life would be meaningless if it was not finite" is one of those things people believe, not because it's necessarily true, but because it provides them with comfort in the face of death.

What's wrong with that? Finiteness is just something we're stuck with, we can't get away from that. But meaningfulness is a subjective, human concept, we can decide whatever we like is meaningful. If saying that life is meaningful because it's finite brings people comfort, I can't really see that as intellectually dishonest in the same way as saying that we're all going to spend eternity on clouds with angels and harps. There's a big difference between "human life is finite, it's all there is, the universe is indifferent to us" and "human life is finite, it's all there is, the universe is indifferent to us, and you really ought to be miserable about it".
posted by AllShoesNoSocks at 10:13 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


I don't think you have to miserable about the way things are, I just don't think you have to lie to yourself about the fact that things MUST be the way they are in order to be good, in order to help yourself deny that they really hurt a bit they way they are. I actually find the just world fallacy and finding meanings in the suffering that happens- are instincts that are also as harmful as many of the other myths we tell ourselves Carl Sagan was against.

You can find joy in things as they are while also admitting maybe they could be as good or better in other constructs. And without making excuses for suffering that are actually kind of harmful to those that are in or have been in suffering and don't particularly like it or want to be made to like it.
posted by xarnop at 10:17 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.

That was Joni Mitchell, and she had a much better take on the meaning of life than Sagan ever did:

"We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon.
We are golden..
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
posted by three blind mice at 10:28 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Sagan's take on life was that it was our job to build the garden. I don't see how that's inferior to Joni's
posted by DigDoug at 10:35 AM on April 15 [6 favorites]


Can we agree Joni Mitchell wrote better songs than Carl Sagan?
posted by mazola at 10:37 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I also am not much of a fan of McFarlane in general, but he's done very good work both in helping bring about the new Cosmos and in helping preserve Sagan's papers.
posted by tavella at 10:38 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


Can we agree Joni Mitchell wrote better songs than Carl Sagan?

No.

Okay, "wrote" is a stretch. Whoooop, ah...
posted by BrashTech at 10:41 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


This is heartbreaking. As usual. "If we lived forever it would not be so amazing."

There's a solid link - crooked and twisty, but solid - between my watching Cosmos in reruns as a child, reading Broca's Brain as a teen, and grad school in astronomy at Cornell. My one regret is that I arrived in fall 1996 and so never met Carl in person.

I never tire of pointing people to this paper as a great example of creative lateral thinking in science:

A search for life on Earth from the Galileo spacecraft
Carl Sagan et al. 1993, Nature 365, 715 - 721.

In its December 1990 fly-by of Earth, the Galileo spacecraft found evidence of abundant gaseous oxygen, a widely distributed surface pigment with a sharp absorption edge in the red part of the visible spectrum, and atmospheric methane in extreme thermodynamic disequilibrium; together, these are strongly suggestive of life on Earth. Moreover, the presence of narrow-band, pulsed, amplitude-modulated radio transmission seems uniquely attributable to intelligence. These observations constitute a control experiment for the search for extraterrestrial life by modern interplanetary spacecraft.


(Direct PDF link)

I think the Sagan Fellowship for exoplanet exploration is a wonderful tribute to his legacy, much more so than any dead mausoleum would be...
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:04 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Lighting one for you Carl, peace be in fact and in our hearts and new discoveries for everyone, seems only fair.
posted by Freedomboy at 11:11 AM on April 15


He made it possible for all the contents of the Sphinx Head Tomb — all the essays on nuclear winter, the papers on the climate of Venus, the scraps of ideas, a boyhood drawing of a flyer for an imagined interstellar mission — to be preserved in the Library of Congress.

[IthacaResidentFilter] This maybe explains the rumor I recently heard that Ann Druyan was going to be putting the Sphinx Head house on the market. It hasn't looked like anyone was living in it for a long time, despite the fact Ann Druyan and Nick Sagan both live in Ithaca. It appears it was unlivably stuffed with Sagan's papers and manuscripts. Now, I suppose, the road is clear for one of the rich frats to buy the place!

It does seem odd that it took the intervention of Seth MacFarlane of all people to get a major library to house Sagan's papers. There must be more to the story of the papers sitting around all these years, and (not to be cynical) I suspect it involves MacFarlane injecting a lot of money into the process; I don't think most libraries, university or public, would pay a large sum to the heirs/donor to archive famous papers for posterity. (Maybe I'm wrong - If there are any large university librarians with experience in manuscript collections reading this, I'd be curious to know how that works.)

[Star dust/stuff] That was Joni Mitchell, and she had a much better take on the meaning of life than Sagan ever did :

Well more melodic perhaps, though the religious Devil and Garden of Eden stuff at the end has always ruined the song for me. In any case, the sentiment that the elements that make life possible had to have been created in the cores of an earlier generation of stars (that originally there was only hydrogen and a little helium, and it required stellar nucleosynthesis to produce heavier elements) has been a common one since the early 1900s. Famous quotes by astronomer Harlow Shapley and novelist Doris Lessing along these lines predate Sagan's. (Though, whoever said/says it, I am not denying it's a compelling notion!)
posted by aught at 1:32 PM on April 15


the new Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive.

I lol'd. It's like the Cracked Magazine Collection of Einsteiniana at The Institute For Advanced Study.

There must be more to the story of the papers sitting around all these years, and (not to be cynical) I suspect it involves MacFarlane injecting a lot of money into the process

It does seem odd that there were no takers on the collection, not even Cornell—I mean, where's the Ransom Center when you need them?—but aside from any other conditions that institutions may have been unwilling to meet, there's the cost to store and the cost to process an archive which, if it filled a house, must be huge. Maybe institutions looked at it and just decided the ratio of content to size wasn't worth the cost. MacFarlane's money might have made either of those (the latter, more likely) easier. And depending on the kind of order the archive was in at the house, it may have needed some initial ordering there, as well.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:59 PM on April 15


To me, the idea that "life is meaningful because it's finite" / "life would be meaningless if it was not finite" is one of those things people believe, not because it's necessarily true, but because it provides them with comfort in the face of death.

Hell, it provides me with comfort in the face of life. Who'd want to be immortal, constantly working, constantly suffering and worrying and quarrelling and dealing with governments and growing endlessly sick of the burden of each breath? The promise that "it ain't nohow permanent" is what keeps me going. Someday, I can hope again to be within a star.

Mind you, I'm clinically depressed, so no one should probably listen to me on this.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:13 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


But there is something else Seth did for my father’s legacy that has been significantly less tweeted about: He made it possible for all the contents of the Sphinx Head Tomb — all the essays on nuclear winter, the papers on the climate of Venus, the scraps of ideas, a boyhood drawing of a flyer for an imagined interstellar mission — to be preserved in the Library of Congress.

I just completely unexpectedly burst into tears reading this.

How wonderful that Cagan's legacy is going to be preserved in the Library of Congress. How wonderful that Seth McFarlane brokered this arrangement. HOW INCREDIBLY ODD THAT NO INSTITUTION WANTED IT AND IT TOOK SETH MCFARLANE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN!

I hope that sometime in the future some scholar is inspired to go through all this material in a very deep way and issue several volumes of material from Sagan. Having this giant archive somehow be distilled down into science insight and "joyful skepticism" that households could have for adults and children, all developing minds alike, would be a true gift to the culture.
posted by hippybear at 5:39 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


All of human religion, science and philosophy is variations on the phrase: You are Going to Die, and That is OK.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:08 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Ernest Becker would agree with you. I'm not so sure we can chock ALL of human ambition and creation up to the fear of death, though certainly a great deal of it.
posted by tybeet at 5:21 AM on April 16


hippybear, as other people said above, I'm pretty sure that there were plenty of institutions that would have taken them, which suggests it was a case of potential archives and Druyan not seeing eye to eye on the conditions of donation.
posted by tavella at 9:10 AM on April 16


HOW INCREDIBLY ODD THAT NO INSTITUTION WANTED IT AND IT TOOK SETH MCFARLANE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN!

It seems likely at this point that there was a monetary cost to the papers that made them unattractive despite Sagan's ongoing fame, and that McFarlane was willing to finance the deal (if for no other reason to get his name on a bunch of plaques and brochures at the LoC... no, no, I know he loves science as much as he loves stupid poo poo jokes, yadda yadda). All the articles mentioned that he paid someone some undisclosed amount of money to make it happen.

Since I last posted to this thread I've been idly pondering how one would go about finding what various major libraries might have paid for the right to house famous people's archives. It never occurred to me anyone would ask for money, I guess that was pretty naive.
posted by aught at 11:51 AM on April 17


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