Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Carl Sagan

The very first episode of Cosmos should have hooked anybody:

“We will encounter galaxies and suns and planets, life and consciousness coming into being, evolving and perishing. Worlds of ice and stars of diamond, atoms as massive as suns and universes smaller than atoms … The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen out toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”

Here was a scientist who was also a poet – a slightly cheesy poet maybe, but definitely a great communicator of “awesome” ideas.

Cosmos was a TV series first transmitted in the UK at the start of the 1980s. Sagan’s definition was “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be” so it had quite a wide remit. In the show, the American professor traversed the Cosmos in his “spaceship of the imagination”, a dandelion seed that he would blow on – the next moment he was inside, hair streaming in a non-existent breeze, hands waving over multi-coloured controls while he quoted from the Encyclopedia Gallactica. In this remarkable vessel Sagan traversed the universe, past and present. Readers of Johnny Mackintosh should recognize elements of this description and understand that Emperor Bram Khari bears a striking resemblance to the cosmologist from Cornell.

I always felt meeting Sagan was a highlight of my time at Cambridge University. He came to give a talk on the new theory of nuclear winter, the idea of which had come out of studying volcanoes on Mars. Afterwards I spoke to him and he signed by (battered) copy of Cosmos that I’d taken along.

When Brian Cox first started doing his Wonders of the Solar System TV  programme I was determined not to like it because I thought nothing could compete with Cosmos, but I quickly changed my mind when I saw how superbly put together Wonders was – not another dumbed down trite computer-graphics-laden programme but something of real substance, and I could see Sagan’s influence shining through. I first met Cox at the Royal Society and we talked about our shared love of Cosmos. Later, in the second series of Wonders, I found it funny  to see that the Manchester and CERN professor had carried his battered copy of Cosmos on location and referred to the photograph of the Anasazi rock painting, possibly depicting the supernova of 1054, that he’d first seen on this wonderful TV series from the 1980s.

Sagan didn’t only write and present nonfiction – though we should remember his fact was often far more extraordinary than most made-up traveller’s tales. If you ever saw the Jodie Foster movie Contact, it was based on a Sagan book of the same name. As is almost always the case, the book’s much better than the film, and a brilliant combination of science, faith, dreams and aliens to the extent I always thought it was the story I wished I could have written myself. But in many ways Johnny Mackintosh covers all these themes.

A final note is that Sagan and then wife Linda Salzman Sagan actually designed the plaque that went on the side of Pioneer 10, one of the early robotic probes. In some ways it’s unfortunate that it contains a map, using pulsars, showing where the probe was sent from (ie where to go if you wanted to wipe humanity out). Nowadays I think we’d want to be more careful about advertising out presence, but there’s very little we can do as the cat’s already out of the bag. Ever since the invention of radio and then television we’ve been broadcasting into space at the speed of light, so there’s now a bubble a hundred light years in diameter around the Sun to tell ET where we are, and no way to turn it off. Once someone, somewhere on a planet orbiting a distant star, watches an episode of Cosmos and decides to pay us a visit, let’s just hope they’re friendly.

One Response to “Influences on Johnny Mackintosh: Carl Sagan”

  1. […] work-in-progress is a novel that revisits this same territory. I find it unfathomable now that I asked Sagan to sign my copy of Cosmos, which he kindly did, but not my copy of Contact – what was I […]

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