Tag Archives: name-dropping

Name dropping: Carl Sagan

9 Dec

It´s been one of the great privileges of my privileged life to have known Carl Sagan personally.  It happened like this: when I was a student at Cambridge, I was going out with a very bright medical student, who had met Carl through mutual friends in Cambridge (Jewish law of attraction!).  Carl wanted someone to run some experiments for him and S filled the bill.  It was Carl´s own project, nothing less than the origins of life – to be carried out in the summer holidays of 1970.  He generously extended his invitation to S to me, so we stayed in his house in Ithaca, Upper New York State, with him and Linda.  During the week, S went off daily to watch over a centrifuge in which the primeval soup was swirling round, to see if, shaken, life would stir.  At the weekends we often travelled somewhere, all together.
Having time for people was one of the things that really impressed me about Carl. I thought of him as a dogged Renaissance man: Renaissance because he was interested in everything, and dogged, because he would stick in there with students, really determined to get at what they might have inside – even someone  apparently dull, to my youthful world´s my oyster outlook.
This interest in people lead him to recognise and choose people to work with based on his perception of their capacity, rather than conventional qualifications: a case in point was S, a medical student, and I still remember seeing Paul Fox for the first time, pure hippy, sat at his desk in Cornell gazing out of the window at his Harley Davidson.  From looking at all the photos sent back by Voyager he became the expert on Mars´surface, from what I understand.
Somewhere I´ve got a photocopy of a New York Times headline “Lev Bronstein (Leon Trotsky) Lived in the Bronx” which tickled Carl tremendously as such a class example of the journalist´s ability to relate world news to the familiar.  His support for radical causes wasn´t just verbal: thanks to him, we visited in Boston with people who were active in community politics to prevent the University from eating up the local housing supply (as I roughly remember).  In that house I heard Roberta Flack on record for the first time, and a fabulous lp of Dylan covers by the Rev James Cleveland choir. (I lost my own copy of that ages ago, and even youtube can´t find it for me now!) Most memorably I met Don Stone, an Afro-American activist from the south.
I was peripherally involved in Greek politics, S and I both having been involved in a student “riotous assembly”  targeted at Greek tourism efforts (this was when the military junta ruled in Greece).  Always “happy to help out” I was trying to bring something back from Montreal for the Greeks, which had to be aborted because they introduced radar scanning just at that time.  Carl was aware and not afraid of being – to this extent – a party to it.
His capacity for explaining things:  S told me with awe about how Carl had explained to a class of 7 year olds about black holes.  It´s probably difficult for today´s reader to imagine how it was before these concepts were current, and in kids´cartoons. This was shortly before Carl filmed Cosmos.

It´s too easy to title this “I´ve smoked spliffs with Carl Sagan” – so I haven´t.  Titled it thus, I mean.  But I vividly remember beautiful slide shows, where after a photo of earth, from space, the next slide would be a wave – again, hard to imagine what an extraordinary visual luxury this was, now that any one of us could summon it up in our front room.  But this was 1970 and it was Carl´s front room.
Just writing this has stirred up so many memories that I´m dazed: a meal in Boston, I think, where I was horrified by the size of the portions, the astronomical waste, and seeing about half the food carried back to the kitchen.  Ice cream was served on an oval dish, the size of a meat plate in England, as an individual helping.  Looking at some large types eating away there, someone said jokingly they looked like mafia, and Carl remarked quietly that they probably were.
So – a big thank you, to all those little atoms and molecules which once composed Carl Sagan – and to Linda, for that wonderul summer 44 years ago.