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
…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
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