Monday, 29 July 2013

Carl Sagan and the Cosmos


Sometimes there are favourable conjunctions of planets.

Sitting in front of a TV in South London in 1980 I watched a guy, with a slightly odd posture, saying he was going to take us on a trip through the cosmos. I took the trip with him, courtesy of the BBC and its mission to educate even people who lived in Clapham.

Aside from his slightly awkward movements in the introductory trailer, Carl Sagan had an accomplished way with ideas. In one of the programs he worked through the Drake equation, which calculates the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Broadly, it looks for planets in a habitable “goldilocks” zone neither too near nor too far from the sun, but just right for the creation of life and subsequent civilization. Sagan added a wry correction factor to the equation, a sizeable reduction for those civilizations which did not survive “their technological adolescence”. As a proto-typical anti-nuclear campaigner in South London I smiled wryly at this phrase, and became one of Carl Sagan’s many fans. There were 500 million of them, so being a fan involved no great perspicacity on my part.

As an anti-nuclear psychologist I had nothing to offer as regards the cosmos, but I decided to talk the rather staid British Psychological Society into saying something on the issue of nuclear weapons. They were uncertain whether the impending destruction of civilization by nuclear war was the sort of matter on which it was appropriate to make any comment. Nonetheless, I eventually talked them into saying something, saying anything, and they invited me to write a “statement” about it, which in 1984 became a book which they endorsed: “Psychological Aspects of Nuclear War”. An odd title, if you consider it, because if we get a nuclear war the psychological aspects will be the very least of it.

As a consequence of taking on this task I called on many scientists to help me with references, and began to get invited to conferences. Eventually in 1985 I was invited to a conference at the National Institute of Science in Washington. Carl Sagan was the star speaker. He had thoroughly pissed off the organizers by criticising the lighting and the projection facilities in that august lecture theatre, but gave a brilliant talk, which included a conjectural picture of the Earth as seen from space during a nuclear war, showing the continuing flash of nuclear weapons in a dark shattered planet as a consequence of nuclear submarine captains continuing to fire their nuclear weapons in accordance with their written orders, not having realised that the war and civilization itself was actually over.

Afterwards we stood on the steps of the National Institute, while citizen after citizen came up and asked him for his autograph. He attended to them all with the greatest courtesy, answered their questions and posed for their cameras. We started talking between the autograph requests, and our talk lasted about 2 hours, during which we eventually walked through Washington to our respective hotels. We discussed the anti-nuclear campaign, the current international political situation, my perspective as an Anglo immigrant from South America, a bit about his childhood, his views on research and politics in the US, a little bit about television and the power to convince (I had just started making much cherished TV appearances, the very first one being about nuclear war risks) and thus we covered subjects from red-shift (I had ploughed through Payne-Gaposhkin as an undergraduate) to attitude shift.

Far from this being a great man briefly condescending to help an unknown psychologist, he kept in touch with me by letter, lent me the services of his literary agent, and made sure he invited me to his lectures at the Royal Institution when he came to London, inviting me and my wife to meet him and his wife, fellow author Ann Druyan, for drinks afterwards.

Like all good communicators, Sagan was disparaged by those many scientists who find it difficult to explain themselves, and see this as a limitation of their audience, and not of themselves. When data was coming in from Pioneer they would quip at him: “Here’s little green men for you, Carl.” They forgot that good explaining requires a very good understanding, both of the problem and of the audience.

Eventually, at anti-nuclear war conferences I ended up as Carl’s understudy. The vast lecture halls would fill up with an audience eager to see the famous TV astronomer, who had been heavily trailed in the pre-conference publicity, and then his unavoidable absence would be announced, immediately followed by the unconvincing statement that the audience “was very lucky to have the London psychologist Dr James Thompson” at which announcement the hall would almost empty. I would then face the diminished and resentful audience and do my best with my psychological observations. I had only one triumph. A large number of Carl Sagan fans had lost their way to the extra large lecture hall that had been set aside for him, and arrived late. I had already launched into my psychology of nuclear war talk. Either because of the high quality of my lecture or the paralysing disappointment of having been denied their TV hero after having walked so far, they all stayed.

A good man, Carl Sagan, and a fine scientist. He had the gift of understanding, and the humility to explain himself to others with humour and patience. Fine minds can often be found in fine persons. As a consequence of his intelligence and imagination, if another planetary civilization ever finds out about us, it is very likely to be because of his brilliant insistence that Pioneer 10 and 11 should carry a gold-anodized aluminium plate inscriptions to be read by denizens of other worlds.


Odd, isn’t it, that this plaque may be the only thing that will ever be known about us: we come from the third rock from the sun; close to the 14 pulsars; please use the spin-flip hyperfine transition of hydrogen as the common unit of length and time; and this is what we look like with our opposable thumbs.

So, the most interesting question to which the answer is “Carl Sagan” is the one we are likely one day to receive from outer space:

“Hi! Who sent us the message about hydrogen?”

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