Carl Sa­gan’s in­side story

Al­though Nick Sa­gan did not fol­low in the foot­steps of his fa­ther, as­tronomer Carl Sa­gan, his nov­els, TV shows, movies and videogames have clearly been in­flu­enced by his love of space

All About Space - - Contents -

…as re­vealed by the late as­tronomer's son Nick Sa­gan

As a child, were you aware that you had a fa­mous fa­ther?

Well, there were cer­tain signs that were hard to ig­nore. When I was in el­e­men­tary school they would show episodes of Cos­mos in both my sci­ence and so­cial stud­ies classes, and I would sit there watch­ing my dad talk­ing to us on TV. I also had a very nice, if strange, up­bring­ing where sci­en­tists and sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers would come to the house and we’d go to rocket launches and all that kind of stuff. But none of this seemed pe­cu­liar to me and it just seemed to be what the fam­ily did. It was only later when I re­alised my up­bring­ing was sur­real. At the time it was per­fectly nor­mal.

Would your fa­ther try to en­gage with you about space and, if so, were you ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested?

I was fas­ci­nated, but then I should say that I was also rather spoiled be­cause my dad was one of the great­est teach­ers ever. He was so giv­ing of his time and truth­ful. Whereas a lot of par­ents who get a ques­tion they don't know may try and fudge some­thing to make it sound plau­si­ble or say, “I don't know kid, go look it up,” he would be hon­est. If there was some­thing he didn't know the an­swer to – which I have to say was rare – then he’d say, “that is a great ques­tion and maybe you'll be the first to dis­cover the an­swer”. That was very sweet, lov­ing and hon­ourable.

At the age of six you recorded a greet­ing that was placed aboard NASA's Voy­ager Golden Record. Do you re­call mak­ing that record­ing?

I do re­call it. I re­mem­ber be­ing plopped in front of a mi­cro­phone and be­ing told to say what I wanted to com­mu­ni­cate to aliens if they hap­pened to ex­ist, and "Hello from the chil­dren of Planet Earth" is what came to mind. It seemed in­ter­est­ing, fun and fas­ci­nat­ing, but also very nor­mal.

It was only in later years that I looked back and saw how as­ton­ish­ing the Voy­ager mis­sion was and be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the amaz­ing feat of ex­plor­ing outer plan­ets and get­ting a close look for the first time. I just think there is a mes­sage from me on board the far­thest hu­man-made ob­ject in the uni­verse and it's flee­ing us as quickly as it can and never com­ing back. It con­jures a whole range of emo­tions of pride, hu­mil­ity, awe and wist­ful­ness.

So it's fair to say that your fa­ther has had a mas­sive im­pact on your life?

Ab­so­lutely. My dad was a sci­en­tist and my mother a writer and I have taken the pro­fes­sions of both par­ents and kind of weaved them to­gether in some way. But also, when I was a kid my dad in­tro­duced me to some of the grand­mas­ters of sci­ence fic­tion, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs. He read the A Princess of Mars se­ries as a child and I just de­voured those lit­tle paper­backs as a kid. I'm sure that had a ma­jor ef­fect on me too.

What made you de­cide to pur­sue a ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood?

I was in Los An­ge­les as an angst-rid­den teen and I wasn't sure what I wanted do, but I had an epiphany in a video store. A friend sug­gested I try a British se­ries from the 1960s called The Pris­oner,

which was a re­ally strange but ground­break­ing pro­gramme, and I re­mem­ber tak­ing it home and watch­ing it. My mother likes to say that when I came out of my room there was this nim­bus of light around me, but that's be­cause I knew at that point what I wanted to do. I re­alised it was pos­si­ble to cre­ate some­thing that was not only en­ter­tain­ing, but func­tioned on a so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and even re­li­gious level. I also saw that you can por­tray your soul in a cre­ative, sub­ver­sive piece. I was re­ally in­spired, es­pe­cially so be­cause Pa­trick McGoohan had cre­ated, writ­ten, di­rected and starred in the se­ries, mak­ing these amaz­ing cre­ative con­tri­bu­tions.

What did you do next?

Well, I went on to take my Cal­i­for­nia High School Pro­fi­ciency Exam, which is like the equiv­a­lent of a high school diploma, and I en­rolled in the Santa Mon­ica Col­lege be­fore trans­fer­ring to UCLA Film School. The scriptwrit­ing chair­man Richard Wal­ter was im­pressed with a script I wrote and sent it to an agent who also read and loved it. It was then op­tioned by a pro­duc­tion com­pany and I was hired to adapt a sci­ence-fic­tion novel into a screen­play. Sud­denly, I was a work­ing Hol­ly­wood screen­writer.

Had you ever con­sid­ered fol­low­ing your fa­ther in ex­plor­ing as­tron­omy or sci­ence?

I did, but sci­ence is chal­leng­ing. So while I love it and I love the hu­mil­ity at the heart of the sci­en­tific method, my brain doesn't nec­es­sar­ily bend that way. I was thrilled to get an A in a col­lege as­tron­omy class – that was by far my top achieve­ment there – but I ad­mire and to a cer­tain ex­tent envy peo­ple who have the minds that al­low them that kind of path. So no, I've never seen my­self fol­low­ing in his foot­steps. It would be like try­ing to be a suc­cess­ful baseball player when your fa­ther is Babe Ruth: how do you top that? I like this com­bi­na­tion I pur­sue where I take the big ques­tions be­hind a lot of the sci­ence that he did and ex­plore them in dif­fer­ent ways.

So you never felt a weight of ex­pec­ta­tion?

To his credit, my dad never pushed me into as­tron­omy at any point. He just wanted me to find my own path and be happy and pro­duc­tive, and I never felt pres­sured to be­come a sci­en­tist. I'm very grate­ful for that.

You pitched ideas to the Star Trek writ­ing team and ended up work­ing on some of the episodes. Was your in­ter­est in sci­ence fic­tion sparked by be­ing sur­rounded by sci­ence fact?

Well, I'm sure that it was a mix of things, but there are also dif­fer­ent kinds of sci­ence fic­tion. Hard sci-fi is sci­en­tific and it'd look at how a warp en­gine might work or ex­plore the physics of time travel. So­cial sci­ence fic­tion raises sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions about hu­man­ity and our species: how did we get started, where are we go­ing, what’s it all about, do we carry the seeds of our own de­struc­tion within us and so on. That’s where my heart lies. So while I was in­flu­enced by my dad’s plan­e­tary sci­ence, I think I was just as much, if not more in­flu­enced by the sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers he in­tro­duced me to. I also grew up watch­ing the orig­i­nal Star Trek and fell in love with those episodes.

As well as work­ing for the screen, you co-wrote a book that looked at how sci­ence fic­tion had im­pacted on real-life tech­nolo­gies and ideas. How did that come about?

I think there's a won­der­ful re­cip­ro­cal re­la­tion­ship between sci­ence and sci­ence fic­tion that doesn't get talked about quite as much as it should. Quite of­ten a sci­en­tist will cre­ate some­thing

“It was only in later years that I looked back and saw how as­ton­ish­ing the Voy­ager mis­sion was and be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate the amaz­ing feat of ex­plor­ing outer plan­ets”

or ad­vance some area of knowl­edge that sci­encefic­tion writ­ers will take in­spi­ra­tion from, and that in turn would in­spire other sci­en­tists.

There are peo­ple out there de­sign­ing robots who were orig­i­nally in­spired by R2-D2 and C-3PO, for ex­am­ple, and if you go back in time you'll find the fa­ther of mod­ern rock­etry Robert H. God­dard and see that he had pre­vi­ously sent fan let­ters to H.G. Wells about how much he loved War of the Worlds, talk­ing about how we would ac­tu­ally get to Mars and all of this kind of stuff. So you see this re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing and won­der­ful re­la­tion that serves a use­ful pur­pose in so­ci­ety where fact and fic­tion work hand in hand to ei­ther imag­ine a bet­ter fu­ture, or at least warn against the con­se­quences of where we might go if we're not care­ful.

Is that blurred line of in­ter­est one of the rea­sons why your two-part Alien En­coun­ters se­ries mixed sci­ence-fic­tion drama with com­men­tary from sci­en­tists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson?

It is tricky be­cause you do get peo­ple who feel like we're mix­ing things that shouldn't be mixed, but at the same time there's a real op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing. With Alien En­coun­ters for the Dis­cov­ery Sci­ence net­work we were able to present a fic­tional sce­nario and then have sci­en­tists talk about the pos­si­bil­ity of it hap­pen­ing, what it would mean and the larger ques­tions. I think it worked well, and I don't think any­one was con­fused about it.

Was it the same ap­proach for The Searcher which was shown at the Adler Planetarium in 2011?

Yes, and that was par­tic­u­larly mean­ing­ful to me be­cause my dad went to the Univer­sity of Chicago so the idea of cre­at­ing a show for a planetarium that he had vis­ited many, many times as a col­lege stu­dent res­onated. This story in­volved an ex­trater­res­trial who ef­fec­tively com­man­deers a planetarium show and leads us on an ad­ven­ture look­ing for his lost peo­ple.

We vis­ited dif­fer­ent as­tro­nom­i­cal phe­nom­ena along the way, and I found the planetarium to be a nice en­gine to take us to those won­der­ful places. But what we also felt was that there were cer­tain things that were sci­en­tific fact that planetarium show view­ers might have thought was sci­ence fic­tion. For ex­am­ple, there is a whole seg­ment on col­lid­ing gal­ax­ies and how the An­dromeda Galaxy is go­ing to col­lide with the

Milky Way at some point in the dis­tant fu­ture and peo­ple thought that it was fic­tion. When you're blur­ring the lines, you need to make sure peo­ple un­der­stand what's real and what's not.

Given your work in­volv­ing aliens, does the po­ten­tial for life else­where fas­ci­nate you?

Well, it is, of course, one of the big­gest ques­tions we can think to ask, and it goes back to the very heart of our ori­gin. What I find fas­ci­nat­ing is that my dad, back in the 1960s, put out a pos­si­bil­ity that there might be life in the clouds of a planet as in­hos­pitable as Venus. And in the past few months there have been ad­vances in sci­ence sug­gest­ing that it ac­tu­ally might be a re­al­is­tic pos­si­bil­ity, with sci­en­tists say­ing we should check the clouds to see if it's true. It is stag­ger­ing to me that in all these years after his death he con­tin­ues to be in­volved at some level in the search for life.

Do you keep up to date with the ef­forts to find ex­trater­res­trial life?

Ab­so­lutely. I'm fas­ci­nated by the idea of pansper­mia and the po­ten­tial that life on Earth could have orig­i­nally come from the ice of the comets that im­pacted our planet, but I'm also in­ter­ested in what this would mean: we'd learn so much more about our story if we could find that we're not alone. I'm also in­trigued by the Drake equa­tion; the sug­ges­tion that the uni­verse should be teem­ing with life.

I have a deep, lonely, long­ing feel­ing about such mat­ters and I very of­ten won­der if the rea­son we haven't found ex­trater­res­trial life is be­cause in­tel­li­gence evolves to the point where it takes over a planet, only for the same skills to work against a species. Do species sim­ply blow them­selves up when they get in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy and is that why we haven't heard from any­one out there? If that's the case, then what a les­son that is for us to be care­ful. But then as my dad would also say, if we are in a strange, un­likely sce­nario where we're unique, then it makes it even more im­por­tant for us to treat each other with great kind­ness and rev­er­ence. Don't harm a hu­man be­cause there's a chance you won't find an­other one any­where else in the uni­verse.

When you look at the pos­si­bil­i­ties to­day, such as space travel, it is an ex­cit­ing time?

Ab­so­lutely. If we don't blow our­selves up then we're at the dawn of an amaz­ing new era where the­o­ret­i­cally we could be­gin to not only dip our toes in the vast cos­mic ocean, but start to truly reach out to species. I re­mem­ber Stephen Hawk­ing was talk­ing about the need for us to es­tab­lish an of­f­world colony ideally within the next hun­dred years, the idea be­ing that we should not keep all of our eggs in one bas­ket and in­stead take an op­por­tu­nity to safe­guard the species by hav­ing peo­ple in dif­fer­ent places. I find some­thing deeply poignant about that. There's this amaz­ing uni­verse here and we're just now dis­cov­er­ing the abil­ity to prac­ti­cally reach out. Soon we will be able to fig­ure out how to ei­ther ter­raform or set up a long-last­ing fu­ture and live on a pre­vi­ously un­in­hab­it­able world.

Is that de­sir­able?

Well, at the same time it's un­likely that we're go­ing to find any­where else in the uni­verse that's more suited for life on Earth than Earth. We've evolved to en­joy this planet and, as much as the ex­cite­ment over the pos­si­bil­ity of space travel ap­peals to me and ap­peals to many peo­ple, I think it is a huge mis­take to ever view Earth as some kind of dis­pos­able start­ing point. It may well be that we'll have to fan out and find new digs, but we re­ally need to ap­pre­ci­ate where we started.

Would you be in­ter­ested in go­ing to space?

I missed my win­dow. I'm 47 now and I'm not sure I'd pass the as­tro­naut fitness can­di­dacy. But hav­ing said that, yes, as an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise I would love to go. It would be amaz­ing to have that fa­mous ex­pe­ri­ence that so many astronauts have in look­ing back at Earth and see­ing the planet out­side of your­self. Peo­ple who have done this talk about this amaz­ing spir­i­tual feel­ing that passes through them and just for that rea­son alone I would love to go. I'd also like to ex­pe­ri­ence life on a space sta­tion. It's some­thing I've al­ways thought about and won­dered what it would be like.

Nick made Alien En­coun­ters in co­op­er­a­tion with the SETI In­sti­tute, which was founded by his fa­ther in the early 1960s

Two phono­graph records con­tain­ing sounds from Earth – in­clud­ing a mes­sage from Nick Sa­gan, aged six – were put on board the Voy­ager space­craft

Over 500 mil­lion peo­ple world­widehave seen Carl Sa­gan’s Cos­mos

The Searcher fea­tured the voice of Tony Awardwin­ning ac­tor Billy Crudup and it was shown at the Adler Planetarium

Both Carl and Nick have writ­ten sev­eral sci­ence-based works

You Call This The Fu­ture? ex­am­ined 50 of the most pop­u­lar fu­tur­is­tic in­ten­tions thought up by sci­ence-fic­tion writ­ers

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