At the edge of our solar system, 18 Billion km from earth, there is a spacecraft. Launched in 1977, the voyager 1 space probe is soon to be the first man-made object to enter interstellar space. Aboard the probe is a golden record. The speed at which the record should be played has been conveyed, in pictures, relative to the time a hydrogen atom takes to change between its two most basic states. It’s a message from earth to intelligent extraterrestrial life. But this message was never meant to be heard.
The message was the brainchild of the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan was 43 when the probes were launched, and was already a professor at Cornell University, and had written seven books, mostly on the subject of extraterrestrial life and the potential of communicating with it. He would go on to publish 13 more, as well as creating and presenting the Emmy award winning program ‘Cosmos’, which became the most watched PBS program of all time, seen by over 500 million people. His novel ‘Contact’ was made into a film in 1997, grossing over $170 million at the box office.
Sagan’s father had been an immigrant garment worker and his mother a housewife. As a child he lived in a family apartment in Brooklyn, where he and his sister were cherished. His interest in science was not inherited from his parents, though he credited them with his scientific fervor because, in his words, they introduced him simultaneously to skepticism and wonder “the two uneasily cohabiting modes of thought that are central to the scientific method”.
Skepticism and wonder. Holding both characteristics in mind gives insight into Sagan’s achievements. He held a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of science, a master’s in physics and a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics. During his studies he’d worked with two Nobel Prize winning scientists, writing a thesis with one not on astronomy, but on the origins of life. His passion for knowledge drove him forward with an ever-questioning mind. He was a humble man, who sought questions with the same fervor with which he sought answers.
If we are to be inspired by Carl Sagan, and in some small way follow our own path to fulfillment and success, then we should remember where his success came from. He was not driven by the desire for money, or fame, but by the potent combination of skepticism and wonder, and the burning thirst for knowledge it created within him. All his gifts to the world came from this fire, which illuminated his path. As fellow travelers his example is his gift to us.
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Jack Kerouac"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."