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Does the Universe Ask Us to Love?

Twenty-five years after Carl Sagan's untimely death, we should heed his message.

Key points

  • Carl Sagan, a renowned American astronomer, died 25 years ago on Dec. 20, 1996.
  • A pioneer in the research on extraterrestrial life, Sagan promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project.
  • A great science communicator, Sagan wrote "Contact" (1985) on humanity's first encounter with aliens.

We know of skin hunger, the physiological deprivation of human touch. But sometimes, in some places, sun hunger may be just as acute, at least for me. Where I live, Ithaca, New York, is one such place these days. A warm winter day is hard to come by, but occasionally the piercing winds take their day off, and I can put my lighter jacket on, and go for a longer walk, without destination or route. Fifteen minutes from home, downhill, I found myself in Sunset Park, looking at the sun playing hide-and-seek with the help of some too-willing clouds. Fifteen minutes later I was alone with the dead, entering a cemetery I’ve never been to before.

Uriel Abulof
Gate to Temple Beth El
Source: Uriel Abulof

Beyond the gate of Temple Beth El, the Jewish section of the cemetery, I saw the unruly rows of graves, their headstones popping out of the ground, declaring their residents’ passing time above it. Just around the first bend, at level with the ground, I saw the most unassuming tombstone—covered with leaves, flowers, some ornaments, and a handless yet resilient Batman—and I saw a familiar name.

 Uriel Abulof
Sagan's headstone.
Source: Uriel Abulof

He lived here, I now read, and spent most of his academic life at Cornell University, as a professor of astronomy and space sciences. He was, in so many ways, a man ahead of his time: woke, not least for Wookiees, and combating post-truth before the term was invented.

But I knew Carl Sagan first as an author of a lovely book I read as a kid, a book that cast on me a spell I still feel today: Contact.

She had spent her career attempting to make contact with the most remote and alien of strangers, while in her own life she had made contact with hardly anyone at all.

[All citations are from Carl Sagan's 1985 Contact.]

Sagan wrote this of his protagonist, Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, and I sensed, firsthand, what he meant: looking at the stars, wondering what’s out there—too shy or dreamy to look closer at those around me.

Ellie found her aliens—the first "contact." Leading the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), the earthly signal eventually gets through, and is bounced back by aliens located in the Vega system, some 26 light-years away: a retransmission of Adolf Hitler’s opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the first television signal powerful enough to escape Earth’s ionosphere. Knowing now Sagan’s Jewish origins, I wonder what that signal meant to him.

Adolf Hitler! Ken, it makes me furious. Forty million people die to defeat that megalomaniac, and he’s the star of the first broadcast to another civilization? He’s representing us. And them. It’s that madman’s dream come true.

What made, however, Hitler’s original dream come true—what facilitated his ascent to power? Alienation, I think, is partly the answer, for it is when people are lonely that they become most vulnerable to charlatan abusers of power.

She had studied the universe all her life, but had overlooked its clearest message: For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

Fighting alienation by seeking aliens, Ellie could hardly see this “clearest message,” seeking that extraterrestrial sign instead.

‘Ever been in love?’ The question was direct, matter-of-fact.
‘Halfway, half a dozen times. But’—she glanced at the nearest telescope—‘there was always so much noise, the signal was hard to find.’

Sagan found “the signal” quite late in life, and that connection led him to Contact, or perhaps it was, like for Ellie, the other way around. The best-selling science fiction novel in fact started as a film treatment he wrote with Ann Druyan in 1979.

What if, despite all our pretense and disguise, it was necessary to appear in public with the person we loved most of all? Imagine this a prerequisite for social discourse on Earth.

Sagan and Druyan married two years later and stayed together until his untimely death in 1996—Sagan was just 62, Druyan 47. Throughout their life, they continued to work together, co-writing numerous books, most becoming New York Times best-sellers, including Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

She came to admire him so much that his love for her affected her own self-esteem: She liked herself better because of him. And since he clearly felt the same, there was a kind of infinite regress of love and respect underlying their relationship. At least, that was how she described it to herself. In the presence of so many of her friends, she had felt an undercurrent of loneliness.

Druyan felt well how that undercurrent can undercut you. She once told the story of how she was ridiculed by her junior high school teacher when she asked about the universality of π: “I raised my hand and said, ‘You mean this applies to every circle in the universe?’, and the teacher told me not to ask stupid questions. And there I was having this religious experience, and she made me feel like such a fool. I was completely flummoxed from then on until after college.” It is perhaps, sometimes, when we can re-connect to our own inner child that we can better connect to others, and together seek the great beyond.

She began to understand why lovers talk baby talk to one another. There was no other socially acceptable circumstance in which the children inside her were permitted to come out. If the one-year-old, the five-year- old, the twelve-year-old, and the twenty-year-old all find compatible personalities in the beloved, there is a real chance to keep all of these sub-personas happy. Love ends their long loneliness. Perhaps the depth of love can be calibrated by the number of different selves that are actively involved in a given relationship.

 CC0 Public Domain
Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889.
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Courageously seeking such depth, we may do well to gaze occasionally at the starry night, getting some guidance from wonderers like Sagan and Druyan.

You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.

References

Sagan, Carl (1980). Cosmos (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Sagan, Carl and Druyan, Ann (1985). Comet (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Sagan, Carl (1985). Contact: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Sagan, Carl and Druyan, Ann (1992). Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

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