November 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sagan. ~ Sue Jackson

“We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still…”

Today, November 9, 2010, would have been Carl Sagan’s 76th birthday.

In the winter and early spring of 1982, my world seemed full and busy with the essential ordinariness of my life. I was the mother of a gifted little boy, wife of a popular radio personality, the unseen administrative support structure of a national media consultancy, homemaker, active in my church, pregnant with my second child, and constantly juggling dozens of details all at once. It wasn’t easy, and the intervening years have not diluted my perception of the stress that permeated my life during that time.

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

But, once a week, for one hour, everything came to a screeching halt. For 13 Sunday nights I commandeered the entire couch square in front of our television set and demanded complete silence for a rebroadcast of the Cosmos series. Cosmos is the landmark science documentary co-written and narrated by the brilliant Carl Sagan.

I would never have believed that astronomy, physics, and biology on such a grand scale as discussed in this series could have been made understandable to me. But they were. I was mesmerized each week. These subjects were presented with all of the visual and dramatic effects of an award-winning feature film, immediately capturing the attention of the viewer; a musical soundtrack of such sensitivity and beauty that it engaged the heart as well as the ears; and, a script of such eloquent rhetoric that the intellect processed otherwise dry facts, calculations, and histories, origins and genetics, as if they were sheer poetry.

Science was the subject, but Dr. Sagan was the object. He entered living rooms much like an uncle or other family member, just stopping by for a visit and, while there, to casually tell some amazing stories about where we all came from. For baby-boomers who had grown up glued to the television set for Leonard Bernstein’s weekly “Young Peoples’ Concerts,” Dr. Sagan assumed a wonderfully familiar and beloved role as subject expert and expert communicator, filling our minds with big thoughts, entertaining us while teaching us, expanding the base of our experience and understanding of fields of specific knowledge, making easy the difficult connections to the everyday life of everyone.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

The Internet is full of sites that chronicle Dr. Sagan’s life, so on the anniversary of his birthday or any other day, it is easy to research his accomplishments. Although his reception as the public spokesman for science was not always universal among the academic or scientific communities, Dr. Sagan succeeded in opening the eyes and hearts of millions people, during his life, and like expanding ripples on the surface of the water, the effects of his work continue on.

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

His deep understanding of facts enabled him to predict things that we have seen come true. He wished to find life on other planets, yet was honest enough to admit that had not happened. He fused scientific knowledge with a call to stewardship of the Earth and all of the natural order, warning of the dangers of exploitation not only of the non-sentient elements of our world and our cosmic neighbors, but of every human being traveling through the universe on our little planet.

For me, his legacy will always be that even for an internationally respected scientist, the details of life—sometimes microscopic in size—contained infinite possibilities of connection to all living things. This filled Carl Sagan with awe and wonder for the universe that he studied, and this led me to share that awe and wonder.

“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan.

Sue Jackson is one of a small percent of people who say they live in St. Louis who actually live in the City of St. Louis.  She divides her time between being a freelance writer, amateur artist, arts supporter, non-profit volunteer, and political activist; and, working full-time in order to support these endeavors.

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