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Heroes of Science Episode 5


What Sagan always comes across with is the excitement.

I think for my generation of, kind of, middle aged humans, Cosmos was probably the core science show.  Obviously you do have natural history shows, things like, you know, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth – tremendously important – but there was something about Cosmos.  Had I been a little bit older it would probably have been Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, which is filled with many, many beautiful things.  I’m sure a huge number of people have seen the very, very intense scenes where he actually talks about the nature of how science began dogma in fascist Germany but, Carl Sagan…I would’ve been eleven years old when that show started and that is the perfect age to suddenly go on, as it was, ‘the ship of the imagination’, where, ah, travelling through, I think…the first thirty minutes of the first show is travelling through the universe giving you some sense of the magnitude of the universe.  And just throwing out these occasional, incredible statistics.  I mean, he was famous of course for saying ‘billions’ and there’s a…so anyone who did an impersonation of him would also go ‘billions and billions’ and there’s a rather nice story actually, he was quite annoyed about the fact, because he never said billions and billions, because billions…he did say billions a lot, because as he said himself, ‘The universe is a big place.  It needs big numbers’, he said, ‘But I never said billions and billions.  How many billions and billions?  Ten billion?  A hundred billion?  Billions and billions is pretty vague’. But, ah…and so I think more than anyone else I can think of – including something like ‘Ascent of Man’ – it was about beginning to give some sort of sense of hugeness, of the enormity, of, you know, the idea of just how big our Milky Way alone is.  It means that by the end of the first episode you’re staggered, you’re confounded, you’re intrigued and you were hooked by someone who had…again, I think also the same way in which Feynman spoke; there is something interesting about those people who came out of New York at that time, um, quite often second generation or third generation immigrants.  The way that their parents had brought them up to ask questions, to know about the world; the parents wanted them to be educated.  I think, as far as I remember, Sagan’s grandfather’s job – which he talks about in Pale Blue Dot – for a while was a bridge.  When he was actually in Europe, before they moved to America, his grandfather just gave piggybacks to people across a river and now here was Carl Sagan, two generations later, and he’s talking about journeys, not just across a river but journeys across the Solar System and beyond.

And I think when you look at the work that was done on Voyager, with him, Frank Drake – who was, of course, author of the Drake equation – and Ann Dryuan, a wonderful science communicator who also became Carl Sagan’s wife, you see the ideas they had as they were putting together the Golden Record, which is such a beautiful idea.  This placing on a small metal vehicle designed to go across the Solar System…placing on it a message, from the planet Earth.  Not merely a message from the planet Earth: music from the planet Earth, noises from the planet Earth.  Actually, I once did a show where the last ten minutes as the audience were coming in was the bit from Voyager which is just noises of the planet Earth and this very, kind of, disconcerted audiences, who looked almost as if they were gonna be the victims of some kind of, you know, CIA based torture technique.  And so this Golden Record was put together, all just these little samplings, the sampler tape of human beings, and when you read about what they did as they sat around: Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Ann Druyen had sat down and put together, with others as well, put together this magnificent scrapbook of humanity.  I just think it…what Sagan always comes across with is the excitement, this tremendous excitement about the idea that we might find life somewhere else.  You know, he was desperate, unfortunately in his lifetime, and of course as yet, we’ve not found traces of life on other planets, certainly no traces of definite life on other planets, and that was something that he was desperate to find before he died and I think what comes across with him in the way he talks about science is the sense of an adventure.  Sometimes it’s a physical adventure, for those astronauts who went to the moon, and sometimes, you know, it’s a physical adventure for those explorers in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries going around the globe and for other people it’s an adventure of the mind.