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By Sgan, Dorion | Whole Earth, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Partial Closure


Sgan, Dorion, Whole Earth


Of the several cartoons in which my father's image appeared, perhaps the most famous, published in the New Yorker, depicts two aliens coming to Earth. "No, not Carl Sagan," says one of the saucer-bound spacelings, "too . Let's grab somebody less obvious." He will forever be associated in the popular imagination with the cosmic, the extraterrestrial, the post-religious scientific sublime. 6'2", with bass voice (I heard it in the womb), perfect diction, encyclopedic memory, um-less speech, and a preternatural (if to me privately aggravating) way of orating reasoned paragraphs that made other people's speech sound like illogical jabberwocky, he was -- and is -- larger than life. When I was twelve, listening with great frustration to conservative talk show host Avi Nelson in Boston, I used to daydream that my father would call in and put the smarmy rhetor in his place -- blow him away with reason.

My father was the greatest contemporary spokesperson for science. He was a passionate defender of the truth as he saw it, revealed by the scientific method. And he was a good scientist. He postulated that Venus was so hot because the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere had led to a runaway greenhouse effect; this was later confirmed. Although he would have loved finding life on Mars, he theorized that the changing surface of the red planet was due not to seasonal vegetation but violent dust storms. His theory was not only proved true, but also provided the starting point for the notion that a similar dust-raising, sun-obscuring nuclear winter could threaten Earth's agriculture and life on a global scale. Any historical account of the end of the Cold War must certainly ascribe a role, perhaps the pivotal role, to the dissemination of this theory. And he showed that brownish substances similar to those found on Jupiter and its moons could be synthesized in the laboratory; unfortunately, these organic compounds, called tholins, may have contributed to his death by leukemia.

Considering that my mom and he split when I was so young, I was secretly gratified when his career later took a turn from the extraterrestrial to the worldly. He and his third wife Ann Druyan were arrested at a Nevada nuclear test site, protesting nuclear arms policy. He took his message and his indefatigable reason to the floor of the Senate; he successfully debated Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on national TV; he refused three invitations to the Reagan White House; he showed the power of the intellect and moral authority are still forces to be reckoned with in this political age of sound bites and sloganeering. At the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine memorial, physicist Roald Sagdeev, a former adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and director of the Space Research Institute in Moscow, credited my father with ending the Cold War. If, I reasoned at some unconscious level, I was to be passed over for the sake of his career, it was more pleasant to imagine I had been set aside for world peace than exobiology one of those rare disciplines which, like parapsychology, is a science without a subject).

The White Knight of Science

My brother Jeremy, who shared the podium with Vice President Al Gore at the February 27 memorial service, described my dad as a "noble truth teller." I do believe this is largely true and the source of much of my father's authority. He had an exquisite integrity and thirst for knowledge; he was in love with science and the search for truth. Many of our most intense discussions were epistemological. But I find it interesting, at this late date, to see where my father and the truth were at variance -- not only because it shows his humanity, but also because it touches upon some of the weaknesses of the positivist tradition, to which he gave such an eloquent, consistent, and ardent voice.

The avidness with which my father attempted to protect the hallowed realm of science from the encroachments of pseudoscience was admirable. …

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