Happy Birthday, Carl: A personal tribute

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us— there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

-Carl Sagan.

In 1980, Carl Sagan created a TV series for a general audience about the universe and how it came to be. Made at a time when special effects were feeble compared with what is possible today, Cosmos aired on PBS and became an enduring classic, thanks largely to Sagan’s extraordinary gift for explaining science to the layman.

To my knowledge, Cosmos – the TV series – did not make it to India’s national network. The book, however, became available in bigger cities in the early 90s. I remember going to a bookstore in Pune’s Cantonment Area with my pockets stuffed with the money that my parents had given us to buy books. I think it was the largest sum of money I had ever carried in my pocket, and remember feeling that I had better spend it on something good. We bought many books that day, only two of which I remember. One was Gone with the Wind; the other was Cosmos. It took a lot of effort for me to read Gone with the Wind, and I don’t think I finished it entirely. But I read Cosmos from cover to cover. Then, I read it again.

Many times, I would read the passages aloud at home to share them with my mother and we would both shake our heads in happy disbelief. How could someone explain science so beautifully and eloquently? It was one of those times when one is galvanized and desperate to do something. While preparing for the pivotal Grade XII exams, I made up my own English Composition titles just so that I could write essays extolling the “immensity” and the “eternity” that Sagan spoke of. These were strange pieces, much longer than the minimum word limits, giddy with exhilaration, drunk on Sagan; raging with all the arcane facts that came gushing to me from my middle-school experience of writing and illustrating a personal astronomy book that couldn’t go beyond Saturn.

With Cosmos, I embarked on a meandering, somewhat arbitrary but extremely satisfying journey in scientific non-fiction. I read almost all of Sagan’s books, relishing The Dragons of Eden, Broca’s Brain, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. With each book, I discovered more and more of what Sagan called “the romance of science.” I like to think that I imbibed a little bit of it, that it played a part when I decided to pursue graduate research. Later, in my own personal voyage, I would discover Russell and Feynman and Dawkins – all debts that I owe to Carl Sagan.

It was only in graduate school that I finally found out that Cosmos was actually based on a TV series. One day, deflated by the grueling midterms that I never got used to no matter how many courses I took, I went to the university library to unwind, and on a whim, asked for a video cassette of the first episode of Cosmos. Since I didn’t have a TV, I had to watch it in the library, so I asked for headphones and went to a room in the back where you could pick a TV set with a VCR and privately watch your video in the comfort of a well-worn sofa-chair. This was how the series began; this was how I heard Carl Sagan speak for the first time.

The room was very dark and and people were separated from each other by a dozen feet of space and by the virtual worlds on their screens. It was just as well; nobody saw me wipe away a silent tear.

Two years after the heady winter of 1994 when I first read Cosmos, Carl Sagan would die of an uncommon disease of the bone marrow. He would have been 74 years old on November 9.

[Note: The video preview linked above was uploaded by threedotsdead, a youtube user.]

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2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Carl: A personal tribute”

  1. Hi. I happily discovered your blog a few weeks ago via the blog “So Many Books”.

    I’m afraid my familiarity with Sagan is limited largely to the movie “Contact” — a favorite of my wife’s and mine — but I also happen to be reading a collection of scientific essays: “Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the nature of Nature” by Lynn Margulis (Carl’s ex-wife) and Dorian Sagan (Carl’s son).

    It seems Carl Sagan had a profound influence on many.

  2. Wil, Thanks for stopping by!

    Yes, indeed. “Contact” was an excellent film with a big heart. It is extra-special to me (a long time ago, I did some antenna work for a telescope array much like the VLA).

    I haven’t read anything by Lynn Margulis but would like to. I will see if I can get a copy of Dazzle Gradually. Amazon says that the book is pretty new (2007 reprint).

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