Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan

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We lived in a sandy-colored stone house with an engraved winged serpent and solar disc above the door. It seemed like something straight out of ancient Sumeria, or Indiana Jones — but it was not, in either case, something you’d expect to find in upstate New York. It overlooked a deep gorge, and beyond that the city of Ithaca. At the turn of the last century it had been the headquarters for a secret society at Cornell called the Sphinx Head Tomb, but in the second half of the century some bedrooms and a kitchen were added and, by the 1980s, it had been converted into a private home where I lived with my wonderful mother and father.

My father, the astronomer Carl Sagan, taught space sciences and critical thinking at Cornell. By that time, he had become well known and frequently appeared on television, where he inspired millions with his contagious curiosity about the universe. But inside the Sphinx Head Tomb, he and my mother, Ann Druyan, wrote books, essays, and screenplays together, working to popularize a philosophy of the scientific method in place of the superstition, mysticism, and blind faith that they felt was threatening to dominate the culture. They were deeply in love — and now, as an adult, I can see that their professional collaborations were another expression of their union, another kind of lovemaking. One such project was the 13-part PBS series Cosmos, which my parents co-wrote and my dad hosted in 1980 — a new incarnation of which my mother has just reintroduced on Sunday nights on Fox. 

After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.

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.

Written By: Sasha Sagan
continue to source article at nymag.com

25 COMMENTS

  1. What a lucky daughter to have had a father like Carl Sagan, and what a lucky father to have had a daughter like Sasha. This was a very moving piece of writing. “Star stuff”, indeed.

    Steve

  2. A touching essay. Reading it made me envious of her upbringing. While my parents were wonderful in so many ways, their strong religious beliefs did little to prepare me for the existential crisis that I went through.

  3. My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

    My wife came home from work one day (she teaches kindergarten) an was telling me a story about her day and what the lunchroom conversation was. One of her colleagues inquired about my daughter and was blown away that she’d chosen chemical engineering as her pursuit. My wife said to her, “well, it is not at all surprising to anyone in our family because her and her brother’s lives have been one long awesome science lesson because of Jimi (me).”

    In 25 years of “I love you’s” and all the things that two people say to one another when they are passionate about their relationship, I had never been so humbled and touched by words.

    To hear Prof. Sagan’s daughter saying these things about him and his wife and their home, well, it is real proof that you make your own meaning in this life and that it doesn’t take religion to make you moral. Very touching, indeed.

    • In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

      My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

      “…well, it is not at all surprising to anyone in our family because her and her brother’s lives have been one long awesome science lesson because of Jimi (me).”…

      Its at times like this that the possibility of dying happy seems quite feasible…Not that I’m hurrying you along there, Jimi… But, Bravo!

      • It was the proudest I’ve ever been of myself. And, thank you for the kind words!

        In reply to #6 by phil rimmer:

        In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

        My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

        “…well, it is not at all surprising to anyone in our family because her and her brother’s lives have been one long awesome science lesson because of Jimi (me).”…

        Its at times like this…

    • In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

      My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

      My wife came home from work one day (she teaches kindergarten) an was telling me a story about her day and what the lunchroom conversation was. One of her colleagues inquired about my daughter and was blown away that she’…

      Well done sir. Although I did, and still do, try my best, I’m afraid I’ve often fallen short.

      Notwithstanding which, my proudest moment was at a parents’ evening at their school when all the teachers were praising them to the skies for their presentation and quality of work, and talking in terms of them getting double firsts. In the event they gained places at Trinity College Cambridge, and Imperial College London to read Life Sciences.

      Anyway, we’re good friends, they come to me for advice, and they’re on their way, so all is not lost.

      • Stafford,
        You have most certainly NOT fallen short. In fact, puff your chest out and tell ten people your story. Do it before today is done!!!

        In reply to #8 by Stafford Gordon:

        In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

        My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

        My wife came home from work one day (she teaches kindergarten) an was telling me a story about her day and what the lunchroom conversation was. One of her colleagues inquired about my daug…

        • In reply to #10 by crookedshoes:

          Stafford,
          You have most certainly NOT fallen short. In fact, puff your chest out and tell ten people your story. Do it before today is done!!!

          Thanks for that Jimi.

          In reply to #8 by Stafford Gordon:

          In reply to #4 by crookedshoes:

          My daughter has decided to pursue Chemical Engineering as her college major.

          My wife…

  4. He is the first example I give to anyone who suggests that a scientific world view leads to reductionism (in a bad way). Such profound optimism mixed with reasonable doublts and clear thinking about what he hoped for and what he knew. An inspiration.

  5. What an inspiration Carl Sagan is. I am convinced that his legacy will endure for all of humanity and not just for the people actively involved in science. He had that rare combination, being both an outstanding scientist and an exceptionally gifted educator. He was also a humanist, a dedicated pacifist and probably the first scientist to present a global vision of not only our planet but the entire universe.

    Nobody before him or since has succeeded in conveying in such a compelling way the sense that everything in the cosmos, including ourselves is intimately connected. All this without resorting to superstition and unsubstantiated belief.

    I hate to admit it but I hadn’t watched the original Cosmos series when it came out in 1980. A few months ago, I was about to start watching the new Cosmos series with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and I thought I should watch the original one first to acquire some context so I went out and got the DVD set. I went into it expecting something interesting but dated and a bit stale….

    I was floored. And I was (and still am) moved to tears listening to this remarkable, eloquent, even poetic man talking about the past, present and future of our universe. It was nothing short of a revelation. On the day Carl Sagan died, it was a huge loss for his family and for all of humanity. But he will not be forgotten. He lives in the hearts and minds of all the people he has touched.

  6. i came upon the same conclusions around the age of 3, when just after the forced nightly prayers our sadomasochistic mother were finished and i was climbing into my bunk bed. i thought to myself, “is this god stuff really true?” i just couldn’t swallow the bunk. of course it took till i was about 15 to really break away from the full cultural trap but i did and never looked back as an adult. i fell very secure just as sasha does.

  7. Thanks Sasha, I love this post. Carl Sagan was a great inspiration to many people. I write about a similar theme in my post “The Cardboard Coffin” on my blog http://deborahgoemans.blogspot.com/ I suffered from life-threatening asthma as a kid, and when our three pet rabbits died a sad and sorry death in a mass plague, I became terrified of death—of not ever being able to breathe. Other people’s grandpas might have comforted them by speaking of eternal life and the joy of one day reuniting with Twitchy, Richie, and Rabbie in heaven. But not my grandpa. He put me on his knee and said there was no such thing as heaven; dying was just like going to sleep, “and then we will be eaten by earthworms and the earthworms will heal the earth.”

    • In reply to #19 by LucioGutierrez:

      We should be grateful? To whom?

      Gratitude does not require an object; it can be a state of mind. It is possible to be grateful “in general”. If that’s not good enough for you, it’s possible to be grateful to “the Universe”. It certainly isn’t necessary to be grateful to an imaginary being.

      Steve

  8. I said a bastardized version of Sagan’s “we are all made of star Steff”, at my son’s funeral last year. It gained a lot of praise and interest from everyone that heard it. I even had a few religious people mention how beautiful it was.

  9. Yes, he did make astronomy interesting. And he loved his wife Ann Druyan as is poignantly obvious from the dedication of his book Cosmos. But being a skeptic and a critic, he did not focus on the relevance of ancient religious texts, especially Hindu and Buddhist. Had he done so, like modern quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf (FAW) he would have had no problem answering in the affirmative to the “life after death” question that is implied in this article. Yet, it is to his credit as a skeptic and a critic that he came up with the statement “Anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.” Amazing as it might seem, this is the exact idea (if not the exact words) that forms the central theme of the teachings of the great Sage Bhagwan Ramana. And “every cell in your body was cooked in the heart of stars” is again consistent with the central theme of many religious texts. The only limitation of this statement is that he is referring here only to gross physical matter that makes up our bodies, while the ancient texts extend this argument to the “continuity of thought” which is the central basis on which Buddhism ratifies the truth of life after death.

    • In reply to #22 by vicky.gill.733:

      Yes, he did make astronomy interesting. And he loved his wife Ann Druyan as is poignantly obvious from the dedication of his book Cosmos. But being a skeptic and a critic, he did not focus on the relevance of ancient religious texts, especially Hindu and Buddhist. Had he done so, like modern quantum…

      The thing about religious texts is that they aren’t analytical much less mathematical or scientific. They are essentially the same as poetry and like poetry they can be interpreted all sorts of ways. So I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps you can tell a good story about how these ancient texts are “consistent” with some truths we know from science. Even if that is true it’s totally meaningless. I’m sure if we had an alternative and totally contradictory scientific theory that someone could tell an equally convincing story about how the same texts are “consistent” with that theory.

  10. Loved reading this. This is exactly what I imagined living in the Sagan household would be like.

    What strikes me is how some of the most loving and caring people, the people that focus on creating value for our world, are the ones who make the most effort at eliminating irrational beliefs. On a personal level, the times I have strayed from making my beliefs stand up to scrutiny have always been the most painful and the least productive for my well being and creating value for others.

    I am interested to learn more about Carl Sagan. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s tribute to Carl Sagan in the first episode of Cosmos left a strong impression on me. I have hesitated to go back and view the original Cosmos series because I wonder if the science would be outdated…but if so it seems there is value in finding out more about the way he thought, and seeing his passion for knowledge and discovery first hand.

  11. Some moving and powerful words here and not just by Sasha. I have done my own thinking since I was at least 14 and hardly a day goes by without me quoting Carl or referencing him in some way. I am feeling most inspired by what I have read. Both my sons do their own thinking and they in turn inspire me. What goes around…

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