A new essay from Sasha Sagan shows how a great popularizer of science answered his own kid's big questions.
We lived in a sandy-colored stone house with an engraved winged serpent and solar disc above the door. It seemed like something straight out of ancient Sumeria, or Indiana Jones — but it was not, in either case, something you’d expect to find in upstate New York. It overlooked a deep gorge, and beyond that the city of Ithaca. At the turn of the last century it had been the headquarters for a secret society at Cornell called the Sphinx Head Tomb, but in the second half of the century some bedrooms and a kitchen were added and, by the 1980s, it had been converted into a private home where I lived with my wonderful mother and father.
My father, the astronomer Carl Sagan, taught space sciences and critical thinking at Cornell. By that time, he had become well known and frequently appeared on television, where he inspired millions with his contagious curiosity about the universe. But inside the Sphinx Head Tomb, he and my mother, Ann Druyan, wrote books, essays, and screenplays together, working to popularize a philosophy of the scientific method in place of the superstition, mysticism, and blind faith that they felt was threatening to dominate the culture. They were deeply in love — and now, as an adult, I can see that their professional collaborations were another expression of their union, another kind of lovemaking. One such project was the 13-part PBS series Cosmos, which my parents co-wrote and my dad hosted in 1980 — a new incarnation of which my mother has just reintroduced on Sunday nights on Fox.
After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on skeptical thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner table conversation at a time. My parents would patiently entertain an endless series of "why?" questions, never meeting a single one with a “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is.” Each query was met with a thoughtful, and honest, response — even the ones for which there are no answers.
One day when I was still very young, I asked my father about his parents. I knew my maternal grandparents intimately, but I wanted to know why I had never met his parents.
“Because they died,” he said wistfully.
“Will you ever see them again?” I asked.
He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason — and no evidence — to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn’t give in to the temptation.
Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.
As far as I can remember, this is the first time I began to understand the permanence of death. As I veered into a kind of mini existential crisis, my parents comforted me without deviating from their scientific worldview.
“You are alive right this second. That is an amazing thing,” they told me. When you consider the nearly infinite number of forks in the road that lead to any single person being born, they said, you must be grateful that you’re you at this very second. Think of the enormous number of potential alternate universes where, for example, your great-great-grandparents never meet and you never come to be. Moreover, you have the pleasure of living on a planet where you have evolved to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the warmth of the closest star. You’re connected to the generations through DNA — and, even farther back, to the universe, because every cell in your body was cooked in the hearts of stars. We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way.
Sasha and her father in his office, 1988.
My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — becauseit’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.
When I was 7, we moved to another, larger house five minutes away in preparation for my brother, Sam. The Sphinx Head Tomb was left empty for a little while before my parents began the process of renovating it. They wanted a space to write and read and collaborate in peace. The remodeling was a long process, as it always is, but when the beautiful new incarnation was done, it didn’t get much use. Soon after, my father started looking pale and feeling a little weak. A checkup led to a blood test, which came with the news that he had a rare blood disease.
We moved to Seattle, so he could be treated by the best doctors. Remission, relapse, bone marrow transplant; relapse, bone marrow transplant number two, remission; relapse, bone marrow transplant number three. And then just at the winter solstice of 1996, he was gone. I was 14 years old.
The Sphinx Head Tomb was left unused, slowly filling up with my father’s papers, handwritten notes, photographs, to-do lists, birthday cards, childhood drawings, and report cards. Thousands of individual items, boxed away in 18-foot-high filing cabinets. My mother searched for a home for these keepsakes and manuscripts — the evidence of a great life lived by a great man — but no university or institution was willing to give them the preservative care and prominence she felt they deserved.
As the months turned into years, she devoted herself to carrying on my father’s legacy, somehow continuing their union and collaboration after his death. When my mother had the idea to do a new, updated version of Cosmos, she embarked on four years of pitches and meetings and maybes. Then she met Seth McFarlane, creator of Family Guy, who was a great fan of my dad’s work. And soon, in no small part thanks to Seth, a new Cosmos was underway. With my mother at the helm and the charming Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, tens of millions more people are now being exposed to the grandeur of science and my dad’s form of joyful skepticism.
But there is something else Seth did for my father’s legacy that has been significantly less tweeted about: He made it possible for all the contents of the Sphinx Head Tomb — all the essays on nuclear winter, the papers on the climate of Venus, the scraps of ideas, a boyhood drawing of a flyer for an imagined interstellar mission — to be preserved in the Library of Congress.
It’s an enormous honor that makes me feel that my father has, in death, achieved a kind of immortality — albeit a tiny, human, earthly immortality. But that’s the only kind a person can hope to achieve. Someday our civilization will crumble. The Library of Congress will be ruins, someone else’s Library of Alexandria. In the biggest sense, our species will eventually die out, or transform into something else, that will not revere what we revere. And then, a few billion years later, when the sun meets its own end, all life on Earth will die with it.
Growing up, I had learned all the reasons why real immortality is impossible from my father, yet I could not help but imagine 23rd or 24th century schoolchildren looking at my dad’s penmanship under glass and feel his life was really extended in some tangible way.
On the brisk, gray day this past November, during the week that would have been his 79th birthday, my family, our friends, and many of my father’s colleagues and former students gathered in Washington D.C. to celebrate the new Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive. But when I entered the massive cathedral to the history of the country, I was overcome not with a sense of immortality but its antithesis. In front of the famous original copies of the Gutenberg Bible and the Gettysburg Address it hit me: This was not a monument to eternal life but a mausoleum.
In the way couples sometimes renew their vows, we renewed our grief. And in that moment my father was both so alive in the minds of those who loved him and so painfully gone. The conundrum of mortality and immortality was crystallized for me in the Library of Congress that day, but it’s the same paradox of our small place in the enormous universe that my parents first taught me in the Sphinx Head Tomb.