Three years ago, I read The Varieties of Scientific Experience, the Carl Sagan book I hold closest to my brain and soul. Edited by his widow Ann Druyan, this is a collection of the Gifford Lectures that he delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1985. Yes, it’s the same Gifford Lectures series that gave us The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. In her Introduction, Ms. Druyan confirms the link between those two titles: “Carl admired James’s definition of religion as a ‘feeling of being at home in the Universe.’”
I admire Sagan’s prescience (warning us about global warming and nuclear war, discussing mind-altering substances that can trigger religious visions and treat mental illness). In The Varieties, he expounds on everything, from UFOs to LSD, from the Cold War to the Milky Way. I am in awe of his breadth of knowledge, his humor and humanity. He has turned me into a wonder junkie. Each time I go back to this book, it feels like coming home—to that childlike comfort and curiosity, asking questions no matter how silly, dangerous, or unanswerable they may be.
Sagan uses the phrase “wonder junkie” to describe Ellie Arroway, the protagonist of his novel Contact. She’s a scientist who gets high on awe. She’s the leader of a group on a search for extraterrestial intelligence (SETI). She’s a dreamer, an explorer of possibilities. In the movie version, she’s played by Jodie Foster—smart, feisty, deep, relentless, someone you don’t want to mess with. Someone who, like the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty (so goes Seth MacFarlane’s controversial joke at the Oscars), exemplifies “every woman’s innate ability to never let anything go.”
And why dis her for that? There’s just so much out there—universes of constellations and wormholes and mysteries—to keep her mind hungry for more. Says Sagan: “[Ellie’s] romanticism had been a driving force in her life and a fount of delights.” Who would want to let go of that? (And please don’t hate MacFarlane too much. Last year, he “donated funds to the Library of Congress so it can acquire the personal papers of Carl Sagan,” including the astronomer’s letters to other scientists, drafts of academic articles, and screenplay drafts for Contact. Seth, you are so forgiven.)
It was International Women’s Day last week (March 8). There’s much to celebrate, yet there’s a sad irony to the fact that till now we have to be told to celebrate one day (or one month) in honor of women and girls. I’ve never thought of Sagan as a poster boy for feminism. But looking closer into his work, including The Demon-Haunted World, I find him breaking many stereotypes and often advocating women’s rights. I also realize that in describing the beautiful strength of Ellie (see Chapter 18) he could be referring to himself as well. A wonder junkie on the verge of “discovery and escape and an end to loneliness.” Someone whose heart would “sing in anticipation.” “An incurable romantic.”
It’s no secret that Sagan was one of the smartest creatures to have roamed this planet. He’s also one of the most eloquent to have romanced it. He was in love with science and the search for truth. He was in love with Earth, this pale blue dot, and the stars and everything else beyond. In Contact (the novel, not the movie), he gave the U.S. its first female president. (Isn’t that romantic?) He wrote passages (see Chapter 9) that can rival the cutest repartee in a Nora Ephron romcom. And he dedicated Cosmos to his wife, Ann Druyan: “In the vastness of space and the immensity of time, it is my joy to share a planet and epoch with Annie.”
In Billions and Billions, my favorite parts are (1) the final chapter, in which Sagan writes about his illness (myelodisplasia) and about hope, and (2) the Epilogue, written by Ms. Druyan on Valentine’s Day 1997, two months after her husband’s death. Her prose, like his, is lucid, tough-minded, heartbreaking:
Now Carl’s fever raged. I kept kissing him and rubbing my face against his burning, unshaven cheek. The heat of his skin was oddly reassuring. I wanted to do it enough so that his vibrant, physical self would become an indelibly etched sensory memory.
The Epilogue tells us about Sagan’s final days in 1996, then takes us back to that moment in 1974 when Carl met Annie “at a dinner party hosted by Nora Ephron in New York City.” (Bless you, Nora.) The man who felt at home in the Universe also basked in “the sustained incandescence” of love. Ms. Druyan ends the book with the reassurance that, in the hearts and minds of those he has inspired, “Carl lives.”