If you wish to talk about what Carl Sagan means to science fiction, you must first invent the universe.
It’s a universe filled with science. That doesn’t mean a universe in which science is the order of the day — that’s unavoidable and ever-present. Carl Sagan’s particular cosmos is a universe in which the existence and interaction of natural forces according to the rules of science is, in fact, a recipe for endless and amazing things with which the sky is just bursting – a fourteen-billion-year-old box of secrets waiting to be examined and marveled over, a series of marvelous stories the universe just couldn’t wait to tell.
When I was a kid, Contact was the gateway book that brought me over from fantasy to the world of science fiction. It was a woman-led space opera mostly concerned with women’s opportunities in science and the tangles of earthly politics, one that ends with first contact and never even touches another planet, but I didn’t have the genre vocabulary yet to classify it. I only knew without a doubt that that first step had been worth all the trouble to get there (and that the scene in which people across the world verify the Signal still gets me good). When I hit high school, I started in on Cosmos, and found a stark contrast between the physics class I struggled through during fifth period as it slowly drained all my enthusiasm for science, and the Sagan who seemed utterly overwhelmed with the fantastic news that through numbers we could unravel the mysteries of the stars.
He did a lot of concrete work – the Voyager plaque might be one of his most visible, but his contributions to the field are many. However, he is most remembered as an ambassador of the field. Not just astronomy, either, although that was clearly his passion; he was an emissary of the idea that science wasn’t a series of calculations designed to lock you out, but instead a set of keys just waiting to welcome you in, and his enthusiasm and turn of phrase has made him duly famous. (The maker of Sagan’s autotunes knows just what I mean.)
He also contributed greatly to the field of science fiction. Contact is a beautiful work of the genre in itself, though here again, his legacy largely includes what he inspired in many of today’s SF writers – science fiction with a focus on implementation, on the little dangers and rivalries that riddle applied sciences today, on the idea that the stars aren’t the destination, they’re only a point in a journey that necessarily includes humanity’s understanding of itself and its place in the cosmos, that great history of everything
I, of course, am one of those. I’m a latecomer, having just recently approached the field of study like it’s coated in angry bees, after many years of post-formal-education wariness about math and science in general. I continue to feel that the more I study, the less I know, since one of the amazing and terrifying things about science is that the scope widens as wide as you’re willing to look at it. However, I remember watching Cosmos on VHS, back in the mists of time, and the sheer delight Sagan took in talking about facts – not even because of what they were in themselves, but because of what they meant, and the humanitarian mandate these analyses contained. I cherish this approach, and though I’m always a new kid in school, discovering patterns and traits and facts never loses its luster, and looking up at a night sky packed with stars still takes my breath away.
(The mapped universe looks just like a nerve cell. How beautiful is that to think about?)
And, like every Sagan Day, we should be thinking about moving forward. This year, Curiosity landed on Mars, reviving popular interest in the space program, just after the last of the space shuttles was decommissioned. Now the platforms at Kennedy Space Center are being re-fitted for SpaceX transports. Videos taken on the International Space Station show us stunning worldscapes that are, I hope, quietly shifting our view of geography from the micro to the macro.
And, as Sagan would be pleased to know, we’re still calling out for life.
Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Jill Tarter, the director of the Center for SETI, which Sagan co-founded (you can find it here). I’m still immensely honored to have had the opportunity. What struck me most — and strikes me still — is the easy coexistence of rigor and wonder in her approach to her work. I suppose that, when you’re engaged in the endeavor Tarter is engaged in, a little wonder doesn’t hurt, but the rigor is just as necessary a part of the process, and is fascinating on its own.
It encourages me to no small degree that the results of SETI’s work are already being seen, palpable data that’s proving to be of infinite interest even to those who don’t believe in extraterrestrial life – the list of charted exoplanets is growing exponentially, and in the last two years (the last two weeks, even) have supplied some illuminating information about exoplanets in the “Goldilocks Zone,” located an ideal distance from their home stars to support life. Gliese 581 d and g, HD 40307g, and the nearly 2,500 other current Kepler candidates, are orbiting chances at which we point our antennae; they’re exciting, crucial mysteries that we’re just beginning to solve.
It’s an exciting time on this pale blue dot. Happy Carl Sagan Day.
Photo via my Tumblr.