Carl Sagan Is a Busy Man in the Universe

Times Staff Writer

Halley’s Comet is coming--and so is Carl Sagan, that charismatic tour guide to the cosmos, with a book on comets. Astronomy’s prolific superstar is at work, too, on a novel about the first contact with extraterrestrial life and on a book about nuclear war and weaponry.

At 50, Sagan has a toddler daughter, Alexandra, 2; an infant grandson--and a cause to which he is passionately committed--bringing about a halt to the nuclear arms race.

The seemingly indefatigable scientist-educator-author’s dreams include an eventual television series, a follow-up to 1980’s wildly successful “Cosmos,” a 13-hour journey through space that attracted 150 million viewers around the world.


His dreams do not include a whirl through real space courtesy of NASA, for whom he has been an adviser on the Mariner, Viking and Voyager unmanned missions. “I’ve never really been interested,” Sagan says. “To be in a tin can 200 miles up is not my idea of adventure.

‘Ideal Mission’

“Oh, I think it would be a lot of fun just to sit up there and watch the clouds go by. That’s an aesthetic experience. But in terms of real exploration . . . I think the ideal mission is to Mars.”

Sagan was in Los Angeles recently to accept honors from Physicians for Social Responsibility for his work on the “nuclear winter” theory of a planetwide climatic catastrophe resulting from even a small nuclear war. He looked at his luncheon plate and pondered, “So what are the political implications of Physicians for Social Responsibility serving quiche?”

Then, hardly skipping a beat, he was talking once more of nuclear war, of the arms race--which in his perception is a race neither side can win--and of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal (for developing lasers and other technology to intercept Soviet warheads), which, in Sagan’s view, is “not only foolish and ruinously expensive but exceptionally dangerous.”

Sagan contends that both the United States and the Soviet Union are “transfixed” with the idea of an attempted preemptive first strike by the other side; he insists a major first strike is “self-deterring,” that is, “it’s an elaborate and expensive way to commit national suicide.”

He has a name for those who make nuclear weapons--"senior practitioners of dark arts"--and, in his view, nuclear weapons “are not good for anything, and certainly not for preventing a nuclear war. You will have a safer world if you get rid of most of these weapons.”

Sagan ponders the deadly potential of these 50,000 nuclear weapons, “the destructive equivalent of 1 million Hiroshimas,” and he asks, “What are we thinking of?”

“I would be very happy,” he says, “if the United States and the Soviet Union decided that they would move toward a posture of minimum deterrence . . . each side would have the capability to literally destroy the other” but the weapons in their arsenals would be perhaps 10% of the present total.

Carl Sagan’s proclivity for, and adeptness at, promoting Carl Sagan annoys some of his colleagues in science, few of whom are, like Sagan, household names, let alone wealthy media personalities and recipients of both the Pulitzer prize for literature (“The Dragons of Eden,” 1978) and the Peabody award for television excellence (“Cosmos,” 1981).

One observer noted, “Never before in the history of science or mass media has a scientist’s name, face and voice been as familiar as Brooke Shields’ or Bo Derek’s.”

He shrugs: “It’s a big mistake to spend a lot of time worrying about it. I can’t tilt everything I do” to keep other people happy.

He has the credentials--a doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Chicago, as well as honorary doctorates by the handfuls and numerous prizes and medals.

And, if there are those in science who think it’s just not nice to make money off of science, well, Sagan says, “a number of scientists have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for making me a hero to my kids.’ ” Further, he says, science should not be some esoteric thing whose secrets are zealously guarded by some self-appointed “high priests” and understanding the world is not “just for funny people in white lab coats.”

“In this country we use tax money to support science . . . . It’s clear if we wish to keep doing science it’s important that people understand what science is about.”

One thing it is not about, he notes, is astrology, a view that has not endeared him to dedicated astrology buffs. “There are people,” he acknowledges, “who wish to believe that their future is somehow tied to the stars. Should I say there is something to astrology? There is no connection between (their fate and) the stars rising. . . . “

And, he adds, putting labels on people according to their zodiacal signs is akin to labeling them on the basis of “racism or sexism.”

(For the record, Sagan is a Scorpio, born in New York City Nov. 9, 1934.)

Nor has he endeared himself to dedicated UFO watchers or, with his stated belief in the theory of evolution, to creationists. (He once said he was equally uncomfortable with dogmatic atheists and with dogmatic believers, as he knows of no evidence to support either view.)

Fascinating Possibilities

Sagan is much more intrigued with exobiology, and he has surmised that there are perhaps a million advanced civilizations in this galaxy alone. (Exobiology is the investigation of the possibility of the existence of life somewhere besides Earth.)

The Planetary Society, which he founded in 1980, has been promoting the use of giant radio telescopes to eavesdrop on other possible civilizations--without, he notes, hoped-for government funding. Even if no messages could be decoded, proponents of the plan contend, a huge amount of knowledge would have been gained. And, if years of search were to bring no response, Sagan wrote in Smithsonian magazine, the most likely conclusion will be “that societies destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to establish a high- power radio transmitting service.”

(While Sagan thinks E.T. is “very sweet,” he won’t speculate on what form of life may exist on other planets).

“Some of the most exciting work I’m doing,” he says, is research on Titan, the biggest and brightest of Saturn’s 21 satellites, rich with “stuff that 4 billion years ago, when this planet hadn’t yet come to life, was sitting out there. The clouds are oozing it. The surface is covered in it. In a certain sense of exobiology, it’s the stuff of life. But there are no instruments on any spacecraft in the foreseeable future to look for life on another satellite.”

Since “nuclear winter,” Sagan has emerged as one of the darlings of the nuclear freeze movement.

At public meetings, such as the activist physicians’ conference here, and in meetings with the press, he voices his opposition to Administration defense policies:

On “Star Wars”: “What’s wrong with it? First of all, it is much easier for the Soviets to overwhelm or outfox it (with sophisticated fastburn boosters, decoys and penetration aids) than (it is to) build it. If it can shoot down, say, half of the incoming Soviet warheads, then all the Soviets have to do is to double their offensive inventories and they can then inflict a desired level of damage on the United States.

“Imagine 10,000 Soviet warheads aloft, coming at the United States, surrounded by, and largely indistinguishable from, hundreds of thousands of decoys and penetration aids. And the life of the country depends on finding which one is a real warhead and shooting all the right ones down because only a percent or less of 10,000 warheads landing is enough to destroy the country.”

‘Didn’t Fight Back’

He doesn’t go along with the idea that a country that can land a man on the moon can build a fault-free “Star Wars” system. “The difference,” Sagan says, “is that the moon didn’t fight back. The Soviets would not sit on their hands.”

Further, Sagan argues, “Star Wars” is too costly, it abrogates solemn treaties signed by the United States and it could provide the Soviet Union with the incentive for a first strike.

So, Sagan says, “Put all that together--it can be outfoxed, overwhelmed, underflown, is ruinously expensive, violates solemn treaties and is likely to bring about nuclear war. That’s some package. Apart from that, it’s a terrific idea.”

He pauses and suggests, “If a man from Mars came to Earth and just looked, what would he, she or it see? A lonely world 4 1/2 billion years along, burgeoning with life. One kind of life on the planet has a certain little modest degree of intelligence, and what are they engaged in? One trillion dollars a year for the accumulation of weapons as a means of destruction.

“You would think that they’re crazy. You would think they’d absolutely lost their minds. It’s clear that something has gone badly wrong. What you could do for a trillion dollars a year to a planet which has endemic poverty and malnutrition and infant mortality and a crying need to improve education. . . . “

The nuclear-winter threat will, he believes, “galvanize nations that before might have thought they could sit this nuclear war out, that the United States and the Soviet Union might destroy each other, but they would not be significantly harmed. Now it’s clear that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union could utterly destroy nations on which not a single weapon fell.”

The “nuclear winter” theory is that dust and smoke from even a very limited nuclear war would form a cloud cover that would absorb light for months or more and the resulting darkness could not sustain photosynthesis; freezing temperatures would destroy crops and animals.

(For those who dismiss nuclear winter as unproven theory, or view it as another scare tactic to gain converts to the nuclear freeze movement, Sagan has a reply: “Nuclear winter is not an assumption, but a conclusion (based on computer models of nuclear war exchanges).” And he adds, “It is true that we cannot be sure. It is a problem that is not amenable to scientific verification. You can’t perform a small global nuclear war to find out.”

Sagan lives with his third wife, novelist Ann Druyan, and their 2-year-old daughter, Alexandra, in a large house in Ithaca, N.Y., within walking distance of the campus of Cornell University, where he is director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies and professor of astronomy and space sciences.

(He and Druyan met in 1974 at a dinner party given by novelist Nora Ephron. Sagan has been twice divorced, from biologist Lynn Margulis, with whom he had two sons, now grown, Dorion and Jeremy, and from artist Linda Salzman, who now lives here with their son, Nicholas, 14.)

No More Porsche

He no longer drives the orange Porsche with license plates reading PHOBOS (for his favorite Martian moon) as he did while based in Los Angeles during filming of “Cosmos.”

In Upstate New York, he explains, “It rusted out” and has been replaced by a VW Rabbit.

Sagan insists that, despite celebrity, “left to my own devices,” he would be content forever in academia, teaching and doing research on exploration of planets.

Astronomy has been his passion since, at the age of 5, he looked up at the Brooklyn sky one night and was filled with awe; the son of a Russian immigrant, a garment cutter, had decided on the course of his life.

Sagan’s idea of fun is “spending time with Annie,” doing “anything"--perhaps a spirited game of pinochle, a game he learned from his father.

He reaches for his wallet and pulls out pictures of Alexandra, a little Ann look-alike, and of his first grandchild, Tonio, the son of Sagan’s eldest son, Dorion, a science writer and magician--"a very good magician,” says Sagan--who lives in Florida. Sagan’s son Jeremy lives in Boston and is vice president of a computer software firm.

Sagan, a prolific writer who sometimes wakes in the night and dictates into his tape recorder, is working simultaneously on his book on comets, as yet untitled, for publication next year by Random House; on his nuclear war and weaponry book, “Nucleus,” and on his novel, “Contact,” about the first contact with extraterrestrial life and “what happens to the world as a result.”

Of his first plunge into fiction, he says, “I find it relatively easy. All the things you read other writers saying, that it doesn’t matter what you had imagined the plot would be, as soon as you establish the characters, they decide the direction. It’s absolutely true. My protagonist fell in love with a totally different person than I had imagined.”

Meanwhile, Halley’s, the most famous of the comets, is returning after an absence of 75 years (backyard astronomers should get a good glimpse in November and again a year from April) and, Sagan foresees, “There will be people putting the word comet on T-shirts and trying for a fast buck off the thing.”

His Planetary Society was not able to persuade the government to send a spaceship out to meet Halley’s, but other countries will have probes up. “Most exciting,” says Sagan. “Who knows what they’ll find?”