20 December 2006
Dear Friends of Carl Sagan,
Chances are, if you have come here to join me in an act of remembrance on this tenth anniversary of Carl’s death, you are already well aware of the numerous scientific and cultural achievements of the man. It is likely that you know he played a leading role in the exploration of our solar system, that he added to our knowledge of the atmospheres of Venus, Mars and the Earth, that he opened the way to new branches of scientific investigation, that he attracted more people to the scientific enterprise than perhaps any other human being and that he was a conscientious citizen of both the Earth and the cosmos. Maybe you are one of the many who were nudged into a different life trajectory by the gravitational pull of something he said or wrote or dreamt. In my biased estimation, he was a world historical figure who beckoned us to leave the geocentric, narcissistic, “supernatural” spirituality of our childhood behind and to embrace the vastness – to come of age by taking the revelations of the modern scientific revolution to heart.
Today, I want to share with you some things about Carl that are not as well known, moments that have more to do with his goodness than with his greatness. These are recollections that have come to me throughout the past ten years. I offer them to you because these memories make me feel so impossibly fortunate and because I want this personal Carl to live on, as well.
I see him striding off the gangplank of a Circle Line tour boat on an exquisite June day, about a week after we had declared our love to each other. Somehow, we decided that circumnavigating the inspiring towers of Manhattan would be the ideal setting in which to plan our lives together. As we disembark, after mapping out the journey that the next two decades would fulfill and exceed, I glance back towards him and I see that dazzling smile. He takes the sweater that had been casually tied around his neck and he throws it high up in the air in a gesture of exultation. For a moment the blue sweater hangs there against the blue sky and our eyes meet.
I see him putting his napkin aside and getting up from the table countless times in restaurants all over the planet to properly greet yet another person who wants to thank him for “giving me the cosmos.”
I see us riding around the Ithaca countryside at dusk with seven-year-old Nick Sagan. The top is down on Carl’s little orange sports car. He has adopted the mythic persona that would later become a favorite of Sasha and Sam’s, too, the “Freenie,” a visitor from Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. The Freenie has all sorts of arcane information about the outer solar system but he is absolutely clueless about how things work here on Earth. I recall our children savoring the heady, novel pleasure of being able to set an adult straight and possibly grasping for the first time a radical notion -- that the way things are done here and now, is not an immutable, universal constant.
I see Carl lying on the living room floor, holding one-year-old Sasha high above him and moving her this way and that as he cries “Unidentified Flying Baby!” and she giggles with delight, always wanting more.
I see him walking with two-year-old Sam in the small forest near our house. Sam spies something on the ground and toddles over to retrieve it. He then solemnly presents this special twig in the shape of a “y” to Carl and Carl carries it with him for the rest of his life.
I hold the magical little “y” twig in my hand. Ten long trips around the sun since I last saw that smile, but only joy and thankfulness that on a tiny world in the vastness, for a couple of moments in the immensity of time, we were one.