Sunday, October 4, 2009

Carl and Me

I can't call myself a colleague of Carl Sagan, but I knew him, talked personally with him, and corresponded with him. Carl Sagan was a very bright guy to say the least. He also discovered early in his academic career that he was living in an imperfect world. That world placed restrictions on what this enthusiastic explorer of the Universe could write or even say. Ironically, that was exactly why Sagan had rejected religion in favor of science. Well, in my opinion, he shouldn't have rejected spirituality alongside religion, but that is another story, and his loss. He died searching for meaning in a Universe devoid of the spiritual and unable to find it ["satisfying" himself with vague thoughts of the wonder of it all]. But Sagan couldn't even feel free about what he thought about non-spiritual matters, especially extraterrestrial visitations to our solar system. When he was still a young man, in the 60s, he did a statistical thought experiment which, regardless of its validity, thrilled him. This calculation, sort of a superior "Fermi Paradox" type of thing, concluded that advanced extraterrestrials could easily be imagined to have visited our solar system thousands of times in the past. That opinion, given at an astronomers convention in the mid-60s, "stole the show" and made national headlines. His colleagues did not greet this news as appreciatively. It got even worse when Sagan published it in a book co-authored by himself and the Soviet astronomer Shklovskii. Irritatingly, the Soviet included in the book his idea that the moons of Mars were artificial satellites made by aliens [his "evidence" turns out to be in error, by the way], and Sagan himself speculated that the Mesopotamian legends of the creation of humanity sounded awfully like an extraterrestrial visitation and "intervention" [oddly enough, they do. But don't go crazy yet; it's just a thought]. Sagan's reward for these open-minded explorations was thorough rejection, personally, by the guardians-of-orthodoxy. During the University of Colorado study of UFOs, project chief scientist, Edward Condon, and old UFO debunker, Urner Liddel, corresponded on the topic of Sagan's lack of trustworthiness in thinking, and consequent inappropriateness for inclusion in membership in the prestigious Cosmos Club of luminaries in DC. The reason: he was "soft" on UFOs. One day I was walking with Sagan's [theoretical] academic boss [the head of the Cornell astronomy department]. As we trudged up a San Francisco street towards a good Chinese meal, I asked him why Sagan wasn't more highly regarded in the astronomy community. He said: "Carl has made some mistakes". That is, he has let his opinions on the "wrong side" of certain forbidden subjects be known. [His fellow enthusiastic explorer into extraterrestrial life, Frank Drake, is essentially the same guy, by the way. Drake was very interested in UFOs once upon a time and probably still is, though now he is far too savvy to admit that again. Drake wrote Condon, for instance, saying that the Colorado project needed to be continued some way or another, and thought that some money should be dedicated to an ongoing study. Of course, Condon was appalled]. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I once chaired a sub-section of a meeting at Cornell, which Sagan attended. Now completely aware of what acceptable behavior was, he loyally pretended to sleep through the UFO-sympathetic talks [especially the one by David Jacobs on abduction claims] and paid attention to the safer ones. Pretty pathetic, actually. Once the session was over, audience members streamed forward to talk with the great man. He held court on the edge of the raised platform of the stage with me sitting beside him. He was uniformly careful to hint at no personal enthusiasm at all. As the disappointed questioners drifted away, and we were alone, I asked him about something that I had little personal acceptance of but was interested in what he thought. That was the "Face-on-Mars", a hot topic at the time. He began with his public pooh-poohing persona but it just wasn't in him. All of a sudden the old "little boy" came out and he was nearly bouncing up and down, recalling the excitement of "when we called up those images" and looked closely. He began saying things like "if this were true it would change everything we believe about the origin of the human race". [that is pretty close to a quote, my friends, as it was one of those things which impressively shocks you]. I mildly protested that "according to thinking in convergent evolution..." but he knew right where I was going and cut me off before I could finish my sentence on how one would expect such a face to be generally commonplace in the universe on physical and selective pressures grounds. He simply said: "No. That's a human face." [and that IS an exact quote]. Sagan, constricted by the tribe-of-morons [and cowards] as he was, still rollicked in the possible, even though now deep inside. Later, out in the corridor, he, Dave Jacobs, Marcello Truzzi, and I were by ourselves---no cameras nor microphones around. Carl said to Dave about his work with "abductees": "I don't think that what you're dealing with is extraterrestrial, but it is a real anomaly and needs to be researched. " He would never have gone on record with such a comment. In fact, shortly thereafter, he mockingly excoriated the abduction work of Jacobs and Budd Hopkins in the nationally-popular newspaper insert, PARADE. [ despite having written myself and others for advice on how to present his article---the only suggestion of mine that he took was to tone down his commentary about Budd Hopkins to below libelous levels, by the way]. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Once upon a time Carl wrote something that almost everyone liked. I'm going to repeat it here. His words will be exactly intact. But I'm going to, alongside a few of his own, insert simple substitutions of mine. Let's see what you think: "Nothing depends on there being a million civilizations (visitations) as opposed to a billion or a thousand. The only question is: are there many or are there few or are there none? As long as there is the plausible argument for many, we ought to keep looking. I think that if there's a plausible argument for a few, we ought to keep looking. And further than that, if there's a plausible argument that there isn't anybody out there (visiting us), bearing in mind that we could be wrong, we ought to keep looking. Because the question is of the most supreme importance. It calibrates our place in the universe. It tells us who we are. And so it is worthwhile trying to find other civilizations (visiting us) no matter what." Carl's quote was greeted with round cheers. Guess what mine would receive? Sagan knew that all this was the height of hypocrisy on his part. But he had a reputation and position to guard, and a subject (SETI) to defend. We know all this well in the UFO research community. I occasionally indulge in a revenge fantasy where Carl is captaining a Debunker Basketball Team [him, Oberg (who is 6'8"), Donald Menzel (who thought he could beat you at anything) and two other guys who they could find to walk-and-chew-gum at the same time. Carl played ball in high school in Brooklyn]. I'd take Bill Murphy, Leo Sprinkle (who played for Colorado), Don Schmitt, and a-player-to-be-named-later, and insist on guarding Sagan mano-a-mano. [as an aside, can you imagine that debunker's team functioning as a unit at all? There may be some wisdom embedded there]. Anyway revenge is sweet as I get to burn up the nets, while Carl shoots nothing but "unidentified flying objects". Hey, get your own fantasy.

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