Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Carl Sagan

By Louise SweeneyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 1982


This rainy winter morning is Carl Sagan's birthday, and you can't help wondering if the superstar of ''Cosmos'' will rumble about billions and billions of years, the Saganism that Johnny Carson mimics for a big laugh.

Skip to next paragraph

But no. Dr. Sagan just glances across the hotel room to a cosmically chocolate birthday cake, a gift from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Sagan seems nuarly as pleased with the cake as he would be with a gift-wrapped supernova. The reason he's pleased, he explains, is the same reason he did the hit ''Cosmos'' series on public television: ''The idea was to get across to people that science is a basically human enterprise, that it's not an activity of socially inept people in long white coats who live in ivory towers.''

Carl Sagan, astronomer, Pulitzer prize-winning writer as well as poet laureate of the planets, has probably done more than anyone in the United States today to popularize the humanity of science. A showman of ability, it's no accident that he's the most well-known scientist in the country today. Even the most abstract concepts he translates into vivid and understandable examples. He is creator and star of his 13-part public television series and author of the companion best-seller book ''Cosmos.'' And to produce these Carl Sagan rummages through his gorgeous attic of history, ransacking it for images, music, philosophy, writing, paintings, places, and events that will excite the eye and mind of the viewer into learning the concepts he's teaching. Shakespeare, Giotto's ''Adoration of the Magi,'' Thomas Huxley, the Book of Job, ''Alice in Wonderland,'' Vincent van Gogh, Sir Isaac Newton, Bach, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the voices of humpback whales are among the hundreds of stimuli with which he bombards the viewer.

Sagan begins one episode with a giant closeup of an apple being split, cut up , baked in a pie in a huge oven, and emerging from a kitchen at Cambridge University, where the nature of the atom was first understood. He shows the viewer that ''if you want to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe.'' Or we may see him wind-swept at the prow of a ship, piloting us through the Aegean Sea and the 6th century Ionian concept of an ordered universe they call cosmos, the opposite of chaos.

In person he wears the familiar ''Cosmos'' working duds: the trademark turtleneck, this time navy blue with a blue and white microchecked shirt, open at the neck, worn over it. With it, a na y blazer, gray flannel pants. Dr. Sagan is one of the few media celebrities who appear very much in person as they doon the tube. The familiar, deep velour voice with its compelling rhythms and cadences is slightly less resonant, but his intensity is even more pronounced. Carl Sagan, live, blazes like the Pleiades with wonder at his subject. It is the sort of wonder that you connect with children who are learning about the world for the first time. The secret of Sagan's success may be that he shares that wonder, makes his viewers and readers feel it too.

''I think everybody isPqOn with that wonder,'' he says, ''and the society beats it out of you. That's why people say nostalgically, 'When I was little, I was interested in astronomy also.' And I think it happens like this: Youngsters who are slowly examining the world around them and wondering about it ask perfectly good questions, like 'Why is the grass green?' Because they can imagine it purple, or orange. Why should it be green?