December 20, 2006
I remember ten years ago today very well. I was in Hawaii and received a phone call very early in the morning from a fellow colleague and friend of both mine and Sagan’s, telling me that Carl had died. We talked for a long time. It was such a shock: We had all thought he was out of the woods.
I had the privilege of knowing Carl ever since I was a young graduate student in planetary sciences, and working with him on the Voyager imaging team. He was a very special individual. And very old world, too. I always half expected him to kiss my hand and bow whenever we greeted each other. Such a gentle man was he.
I remember being thrilled to be asked to work with him, his wife Ann Druyan, and others in crafting the on-screen character of the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, in the movie he never lived to see, Contact. I decimated the original script, had very little to say about it that was any good, and yet he graciously, even eagerly, accepted all my criticisms. It was just the way he was.
In my mind, he set the standard for how a scientist should conduct himself: Open to all ideas and opinions, and with grace and dignity, ready to do intellectual battle in defense of the truth.
There have been many people who have been touted as `the next Carl Sagan’, but he was truly irreplaceable. I, for one, miss him a great deal, and often find myself wishing that he were around to calm the hysteria and steer us right.
To paraphrase his own words: In a hundred billion galaxies, we will not find another.
The day he died, I was asked by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to submit my thoughts on his death for their on-line memorial. This is what I wrote:
“Of all the people I have met in the course of my scientific career, no one was more gracious, understanding, respectful and encouraging towards me than Carl. From my very first professional presentation at the age of 21, to my current position as the Cassini imaging team leader, Carl was there, always, with a kind, gentle word of support. I believe that he cared for people, genuinely, in that special way that distinguishes great humanitarian leaders. And I believe that underlying his life’s work was a bedrock faith in the fragility, dignity and goodness of all humankind.
“His passing is a heartbreaking loss – for his family, for the community of scientists that he walked among, and for the world. We who remain on Earth have lost our guardian angel. He is part of the cosmos now.”
Perhaps a bit over the top at the end, but then again, it was a sad day and I was crying when I wrote it.
Cassini Imaging Team leader
PS: For those who might want to read about Carl’s life in brief, here is a review, published in the Guardian, that I wrote of one of the biographies about him that came out soon after his death. It is here, at the Guardian.