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All his life, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomiesbetween reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism. The dichotomies clashed within him. He yearned to believe in marvelous thingsin flying saucers, in Martians, in glistening civilizations across the Milky Way. Yet reason usually brought him back to Earth. Usually; not always. A visionary dreams of a better world than this one. He refuses to think that modern society and its trappingsmoney, marriage, children, a nine-to-five career, and obeisance to a waving flag and an inscrutable Godare all there is. Sagan was blinded, but not by these. He was blinded by the sheer glory of the new cosmos that was unveiled by science during the first two decades of his life. This cosmos was an ever-expanding, unbounded wonderland of billions of galaxies. And across the light-years, Sagan dreamed, random molecular jigglings had perhaps spawned creeping, crawling, thinking creatures on alien landscapes bathed in the glow of alien suns.
This vision blinded Sagan, sometimes, to the needs of the people around him. These included friends who worshiped him, although he hurt them; wives who were entranced by his passions, although they were enraged by his absenteeism and often illogical "logic"; sons who were enthralled by his example, even as they struggled to escape his shadow; and colleagues who envied and honored him, even while they scorned his wilder notions and mocked his pomposities. Hardly anyone who knew Carl Sagan intimately has an unmixed opinion of him. In the finalanalysis, he was the dichotomy: the prophet and the hard-boiled skeptic, the boyish fantasist and the ultrarigorous analyst, the warm companion and the brusque colleague, the oracle whose smooth exterior concealed inner fissures, which, in the end, only one woman could heal.
Sagan's inner war stemmed, in part, from his childhood relations with his parents. Rachel and Sam's marriage epitomized a great philosophical principle: Opposites attract. Sagan later traced his analytical urges to Rachel, a cunning, acid-tongued neurotic who had known extreme poverty and been abandoned by her family. Her intellectual ambitions had been thwarted by the grand irrationalisms of her timeby societal bigotries against the poor, against Jews, against women (and wives in particular). She worshiped her only son, Carl. He would fulfill her unfulfilled dreams.
And Carl's sense of wonder came from Sam, a quiet, soft-hearted escapee from the czar. Sam gave apples to the poor and soothed labor-management tensions in New York's tumultuous garment industry. He was awed by the young Carl's brilliance, his boyish chatter about stars and dinosaursbut not overawed. Sam would have adored his son had he been just another Jewish kid in wartime Brooklyn who played kickball in the streets while Nazi subs haunted the coastline.
Posterity's judgment of Rachel Molly Gruber Sagan (1907-1982) is wildly contradictory. "Vivacious," "a witch," "brilliant, very perky, very bright," "insanevery paranoid," "you knew she was coming from a mile away," "completely loving," "a waif ... who needed all the affection she could get"so say those who enjoyed or endured her. Her education was meager, her looks unlovely. Neglected by her family, she grew up almost homeless in New York City during World War I and the 1920s. Yet she had flash and charisma, a feisty sense of fashion, and a rapid, eloquent tongue. She made (and dumped) friends fast, and boyfriends faster. She wrote well, too. Her first child, Carl, would inherit her literary skill.
Her prose style might be described as "Take no prisoners." Shortly before her death, unmellowed by age, she gleefully wrote to two married friends about Carl and his third wife Ann Druyan's new Ithaca mansion, describing it as
a weirdo of a house, most of it underground (great protection from a nuclear blast) ... the result of a lurid nightmare of the architect. Because I was aghast and against it, they don't speak to me.... [Carl] must and will have installed a sophisticated burglar alarmthere are threats against him by some crazy people who claim he appears in their dreams and keeps them from sleeping. One such was apprehended.
Rachel's bilious prose camouflaged her pride. How far she had come from her rotten beginnings! Through the Depression and Hitler and Alger Hiss, she had raised to adulthood a boy who, by the century's twilight, had become the world's best-known living scientist, a multimillionaire TV star and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and recently wed to a brainy, luminous brunette (a lady so desirable that a prior suitor had written a novel about her). He was so famous, in fact, that he haunted the minds of the mad. My son, the specter!
Bragged Rachel, the onetime waif, at the end of her letter:
We are not the run of the mill, are we, or the rank and file or the ordinary plebeian.
Aren't you glad you know us?
Rachel's origins were vague; she preferred it that way. She and her family tended to be secretive about embarrassing family matters, Carl Sagan wrote in a November 28, 1994, letter to lifelong friend Lucille Nahemow, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, who specializes in family issues and who studied Rachel's life.
Carl's sole sibling was his sister, Carol, nicknamed Cari. A social worker, she is married to a Union Carbide executive. In the living room of their handsome home in Houston, she showed this writer a faded black-and-white photo of a middle-aged couple standing on a boardwalk at the beach. The man in the photo is Leib Gruber, Rachel's father. Tall and unsmiling, he wears a dark suit and a big black hat. He looks like a movie mobster. "The rumor," Cari said as she served coffee and Passover muffins, "is that he was a murderer."
Leib Gruber was born in the late nineteenth century in the village of Sassow, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empirean empire "creaking in all its multi-national joints," as Arthur Koestler put it, "waiting to fall to pieces." Across the continent, the vipers of anti-Semitism stirred: the Dreyfus case in France, village slaughters in rural Russia. Conspiracy theorists touted the fraudulent Protocols of Zion as "proof" of a global Jewish conspiracy. In reality, few Jews outside an intellectual and artistic eliteFreud, for examplefound influential careers within Emperor Francis Joseph's doomed empire. Leib's father sold fish. Young Leib was big-boned and strong, and raised cash in a medieval mannercarrying travelers on his back across the shallow stretches of a river. In the words of his grandson Carl Sagan, he was "a beast of burden."
According to one version of a family legend, in 1904 Leib killed an anti-Semite. He fled to the New World, leaving behind his young wife, Chaiya. (His loyal brother supposedly stayed in Austria to take the rap for the crime.) Leib got a job in the United States. He made enough money to transport Chaiya to New York on a Hamburg-based ship, the Batavia. She arrived with one dollar in her bag. The couple anglicized their names, from Leib to Louis and from Chaiya to Clara. Then they settled down and bred two children. The first was Rachel, whose official birthdate was November 23, 1907. (The true birthdate is uncertain because Rachel was secretive about her age.) Chaiya died during a second childbirth.
For whatever reason, Leib/Louis decided that he couldn't manage little Rachel. He sent her to Austria, where she lived with relatives. In the meantime, he remarried. Unfortunately, the Austrian relatives didn't wantor couldn't standthe energetic little girl. After a few years, they shipped Rachel back to New York, to her father and her stepmother, Rose (the woman in the photo). Rose received her stepchild with less than open arms. "By the time she was eight," Professor Nahemow observes, "Rachel was rejected on two continents."
Rachel's family was dysfunctional before "dysfunctional" was a cliché. Leib gave his children nasty nicknames. He called Rachel "hair lice" (she had returned from Austria with lice in her hair). Rachel's stepbrother Abraham was institutionalized for mysterious reasons; his very existence was a family secret. (Carl Sagan first heard about his stepuncle at Rachel's funeral in 1982.)
Leib had a good side. On one occasion, Rachel's schoolteacher reprimanded her for misbehavior. Leib protected Rachel from Rose's wrath by lying to his wife, claiming that the reprimand was actually a compliment. Still, Rachel avoided home as much as possible. She hated Rose. Rachel "never accepted Rose as her mother. She knew she wasn't her birth mother," Cari Sagan says. "She was a rather rebellious child and young adult ... `emancipated woman,' we'd call her now." Professor Nahemow obtained many details about Rachel's childhood from Nahemow's mother, Flora Bernstein, one of Rachel's closest childhood friends. Once Rose stormed into Flora's childhood home, accusing Rachel of being a "whore." Flora's mother "unceremoniously threw her out."
Flora, a resident of Liberty Avenue in Brooklyn, met seven-year-old Rachel when she was skipping rope with friends. Rachel invited the shy, pretty new girl to play. Rachel, Flora learned, "was inventive and fun to be with." In turn, Flora offered Rachel access to her home. The Bernstein residence was much nicer than the Grubers' grubby digs. The Bernsteins threw many parties with interesting people (none of whom were wanted for murder in Austria). Ambitious, Rachel seized her opportunity: she became "outgoing and very affectionate" toward Flora's mother. In turn, Mrs. Bernstein adored Rachelenough to make Flora jealous. Rachel, Flora now believes, "was a waif, an unfortunate child who needed all the affection she could get."
Rachel had a reputation for taking "chances." She "would come to [Mrs. Bernstein's] Hebrew school and pick up boys," Flora recalls. "She was always ... very conscious of the opposite sex. She dressed well and had a good sense of fashion. Rachel was the first one in the crowd who bought a bathing suit. There was a law about the length of suits and Rachel's was too short. She was thrown off the boardwalk in Coney Island."
Rachel was smart. She completed an equivalency test to receive a high school diploma. "Brilliant, a very perky little woman, smart, well read, very interesting to talk to," recalls one of her relatives, Beatrice Rubenstein. Rachel explored New York's high culture with the guidance of a savvy relative, Sarah Cohen. They lacked money but managed to get into concerts, plays, and ballets via hook, crook, and subway. Sarah "learned to get through turnstiles without paying, and took Rachel along. Sometimes they entered [the show] at intermission and stood in the back."
As the war-mad 1910s became the money-mad 1920s, Rachel and her female pals formed a club. They called themselves the "`It' Girls" after screen heartthrob Clara Bow. By that time Rachel was a brassy, bold, five-foot-two cyclone. She was hardly a beauty. But no one, male or female, could resist her allure as she blew into a room and leveled it with her street-smart mouth and radiant eyes. "Rachel was unpredictable," recalls Flora Bernstein. "She sometimes stole other girls' boyfriends just to show that she could do it. But at other times she was very protective of her friends. I once went in a car with a boy. Rachel wrote down the license number and said, `You take good care of my friend. If anything happens to her, I have your number.'"
At a party, "`It' Girl" Mary Brodsky introduced Rachel to a quiet young man. He was skinny, red-haired, and covered with freckles. When they went swimming, she gasped at the extent of his red-splotched flesh. "Are you freckled everywhere?" she demanded. "Everywhere!" he boasted. Samuel Sagan made Rachel's hormones race, and she his. "She saw dad's red hair and immediately fell in love," Cari Sagan says. "And he was swept off his feet by her, which is understandable because she was very, very charismatic and vivacious." They were married within weeks.
In Carl Sagan's lakeside home in upstate New York, his widow, Ann Druyan, keeps a black-and-white photo of the young Sam and Rachel. They are kissing enthusiastically, Hollywood-style, on a boardwalk. They wed in the early 1930s, the bleakest days of the Great Depression. At that time, Sam was a poorly paid usher at a movie theater. In Germany, Nazis were marching. American Jews feared an upsurge of local fascism. "The apprehensiveness of American Jews," Fortune magazine observed, "has become one of the important influences in the social life of our time." No matter; Rachel and Sam were in love. They married, had two kids, survived it all. They lived long enough to retire to Florida, to play Scrabble and shoot pool, to watch their son grow famous on television. Sagan's secretary Shirley Arden recalls how playful the couple remained to the end: "Sam took the golfer's stance à la Johnny Carson, gave Rachel a lecherous look, and said, `Just you and me, babe.' Rachel was a sensuous woman. Sam adored her and put up with her foibles."
Rachel, Cari Sagan Greene recalls, would fuss over Sam's hair and "make sure that the little dip in my father's hair was just so.... She wanted the man that she married to look the way she thought `good' looked.... He was sort of indulgent; he knew it was inevitable; it didn't bother him a bit." In 1979, at age seventy-four, Sam lay in a hospital dying of lung cancer. Rachel slipped into the bed with him, to hug and comfort him.
When Sam Sagan was five years old, he left the Ukraine and joined the hungry, hopeful millions then streaming to America. As an adult, he would recall little about his Ukrainian hometown, save one detail: it was near a prison. An appropriate memory. The entire Pale of Settlement, a vast expanse of farmland between the Baltic and the Black Seas, was effectively a prison where the Jews of the Russian Empire were forced to live, subjected to many governmental restrictions. Incorporating fragments of dismembered medieval states, the Pale seethed with ever-growing numbers of impoverished peoples, including former serfs. Their lives were humdrum at best, nightmarish at worstmore like Bernard Malamud's The Fixer than Fiddler on the Roof.
Sam was born on March 2, 1905. It was a triumphant year in the history of science, and an ominous one in Russian history. Outside Russia, "the year 1905 was the turning point in several areas of science, heralding radical changes," says historian of science Stephen G. Brush. That year brought pivotal accomplishments by many researchers, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein among them.
Freud and Einsteintwo Jews, who overcame anti-Semitism and rose to fame by challenging our view of reality. In 1905, Freud published Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, one of his classic explorations of the unconscious. As he explained, the mind is not merely a "reasoning" machine, as Victorian optimists had believed. Rather, the mind is haunted by ghosts, by irrational forces of desire and repression. Freud believed that these ghosts surface in symbolic forms. One form is the self-destructive group behavior called war.
Also in 1905, Einstein published three historic papers. The most radical was his theory of special relativity, which transformed concepts of time, space, mass, and energy. Special relativity paved the way toward his later, even stranger work on general relativity. In general relativity theory, gravity is not a Newtonian "force" or action-at-distance; rather, it is the consequence of the "curvature" of space. General relativity implied a whole new cosmology, a cosmos that (as it turned out) expands over time. As astrophysicists later showed, the cosmos expands because it was born billions of years ago from the big bang, a kind of "explosion" whose ejecta cooled into innumerable galaxies. And each galaxy is an ocean of stars, whose light may illumine countless planets, many of them perhaps inhabited.
The Freudian and Einsteinian revolutions posed big questions, questions that tormented Carl Sagan much of his adult life. Reason and irrationalismpolar opposites, yet uncomfortably united. Earth and the cosmosdifferent realms, yet part of each other. Sagan explored such dichotomies in many of his books, in cosmological ruminations such as Cosmos and Contact, and in his essay-poems on consciousness and evolution, The Dragons of Eden and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Humanity, he believed, must reconcile its rational and irrational sides. Succeed, and empyrean vistas open before us; the cosmos is ours to explore, with all its strange and wonderful sights and (perhaps) peoples. Fail, and we won't make it out of the solar system alive. All our bright promise will be lost; all our long progress will end in a bright, noisy flash.
Freud's outlook grew dark as Europe tore itself to bits in one war, then rearmed for a worse one; and darker as the cancer attacked his mouth. By contrast, Sagan was an optimistalways was, even as the blood disease ravaged his body, even as he waited to be arrested at an atomic site, even as he gazed into the poker faces of nuclear weaponeers and realized that they really believe in their research, believe that instruments of annihilation will forever keep the peace. Sagan experienced all this yet still believed in the future, in humanity, in the eventual triumph of reason. At heart, he was a child.
He descended from a hopeful people. Pessimists stayed in the Ukraine, scratching their meager existences from the dark soil. Optimists said to hell with it and headed west, usually to America. The 1900s were a good time to leave: the Russian Empire quaked with revolts and pogroms, foreshocks of the greater revolution to come, in 1917. The czarist regime struck back with typically cloddish brutality. Six weeks before Sam Sagan's birth in 1905, troops killed more than a hundred peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg. In June, sailors mutinied aboard the battleship Potemkin in Odessa. The revolts triggered an anti-Semitic backlash. Thousands of Jews, including many women, were arrested on political grounds. According to Moses Rischin, "In 1904, of an estimated 30,000 organized Jewish workers, 4,476 were imprisoned or exiled to Siberia." Young Leon Trotsky observed one of the 1905 pogroms. He noted how "the gang rushes through the town, drunk on vodka and the smell of blood."
According to family legend, after Sam's mother died in childbirth, his Ukrainian relatives sent him to New York to join his father, who had already journeyed there. Five-year-old Sam and his uncle, George, first glimpsed the New York skyline in 1910, from a ship approaching Ellis Island. Many immigrants' hearts raced as they read this passage in a guidebook: "Hold fast, this is most necessary in America. Forget your past, your customs, and your ideals. Select a goal and pursue it with all your might.... You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal.... Do not take a moment's rest."
"Do not take a moment's rest." This might have been George Sagan's credo, or his grandnephew Carl's. George was old enough to join the booming New York garment industry. In 1916 he founded his own firm, the New York Girl Coat Company. Eventually he became a wealthy man, a country-club type and a member of the board of educational and public-spirited institutions. When the firm celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1966, the New York Times ran a story on the front page of its business section. The story included a photo of a grinning George Sagan admiring a little girl modeling his wares. As a joke, Carl Sagan mentioned the firm in his 1985 novel Contact.
Sam had more intellectual ambitions. Like many immigrant Jews, he believed in the transformative power of education. He eventually enrolled at Columbia University, hoping to become a pharmacist. Then his father died. End of dream. To support his family, Sam went to work for Uncle George as a garment cutter. "[H]is job," Carl Sagan later wrote, "was to use a very scary power saw to cut out patternsbacks, say, or sleeves for ladies' coats and suitsfrom an enormous stack of cloth. Then the patterns were conveyed to endless rows of women sitting at sewing machines." Textile fibers wafted through the air; some, perhaps, found their way into Sam's lungs and hastened his ultimate end. This proletarian fate did not embitter Sam. He was good with people, liked them; they adored him. By the late 1940s he was a factory manager. He made enough money to send his son to a great university, to be taught by noted scholars who would escort him to fame.
"You will experience a bad time but sooner or later you will achieve your goal." The guidebook had been right. This was America; optimism, it seemed, made sense.
Carl Sagan was born in Brooklyn on November 9, 1934. His mother, Rachel, named him in honor of her biological mother, Chaiya/ Clara, "the mother she never knew," in Sagan's words.
As a science popularizer, Sagan sometimes drew on childhood memories to illustrate scientific points. "Most of us have a memory like this: you're lying in your crib, having awakened from your nap," he and his wife, Ann Druyan, wrote in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. "You cry for your mother, at first tentatively, but when no one comes, more emphatically. Panic mounts. Where is she? Why doesn't she come? you think, or something along those linesalthough not in words, because your verbal consciousness is still almost wholly undeveloped. She enters the room smiling, she reaches in and picks you up, you hear her musical voice, you smell her perfumeand how your heart soars!"
Rachel was madly in love with her little boy. She told him he was brilliant. He believed her. Throughout Sagan's life, Rachel's devotion to her son awed or amused or disgusted outsiders. "She worshiped the ground he floated above," joked Peter Pesch, the best man at Sagan's first wedding. "He could do no wrong. That's got to be a good start in lifea mother that thinks you are the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth." Sagan's boyhood friend Robert Gritz recalls Rachel bragging to everyone about Carlfor example, gloating, "Oh, Carl got an A!" The writer Timothy Ferris, who befriended Sagan in the 1970s, remembers the aged Rachel as "an ur-mother who'd made a kind of shrine to Carl in the spare bedroom with all his awards and everything, and to whom every accomplishment was just a step toward the next accomplishment."
"There's no way of understanding him without understanding her very well," says Sagan's first wife, scientist-author Lynn Margulis. "His mother had made him so dependent on this one relationshipon her. He was worthy of every attention, all the time, every need [was] always filled."
Despite this adoration, there were hidden fears in Sagan's life. He later wrote that starting at age two, he was "frightened ... by real-seeming but wholly imaginary `monsters,' especially at night or in the dark. I can still remember occasions when I was absolutely terrified, hiding under the bedclothes until I could stand it no longer, and then bolting for the safety of my parents' bedroomif only I could get there before falling into the clutches of ... The Presence." Sometimes he awoke "drenched in sweat, my heart pounding." (A child is terrified of the dark, then grows up and becomes an astronomer. Psychoanalysts may make of this what they will.)
Rachel's devotion to Carl was double-edged. She had experienced life's darker side. She had little patience with thoseeven childrenwho fantasized about life. The slightest whimsical observation might irk or anger her. In his final years, Sagan recalled a "blustery fall day" when he was about age five, looking out the living room window at Lower New York Bay. The water was choppy and the sun was about to set. His mother came by the window and they gazed toward the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side of the sea, World War II was beginning. "There are people fighting out there, killing each other," she told him. Carl replied: "I know. I can see them." She fired back: "No, you can't. They're too far away."
This seemingly trivial incident gnawed at Sagan. His adoring mother had contradicted him! He later wrote: "How could she know whether I could see them or not? ... Squinting, I had thought I'd made out a thin strip of land at the horizon on which tiny figures were pushing and shoving and dueling with swords as they did in my comic books."
Rachel "could be utterly charming," Lynn Margulis recalls. Yet Rachel also could scan a newcomer, find her or his vulnerability, and "stick it in"make a caustic remark that deeply hurt. Sagan's sister, Cari, remembers how as a child, "I always had a deep voice and she would imitate it, not in a pleasant way, just in a way that wiped me out emotionally.... It was devastating." Cari's mother gave Carl more attention: "I can never remember her hugging me," Cari said.
Sagan's son Nick, a television writer, recalls his grandmother as a delightful fireball. She was a great cook and loved to make him spicy spaghetti and meatballs. But "she was insanein a sometimes wonderful, and sometimes not wonderful, way ... very paranoid. She was convinced that restaurants weren't sanitary and that the waiters would always spit in the food." Rachel's eccentricities affected Sagan emotionally. Her dedication to logic, like his, sometimes bordered on the illogical. Once Carl, smelling her cooking, made an "Mmm!" sound. "What do you mean?" she snapped angrily. "You haven't even tasted it yet!" Over the long run, Nick believes, his father compensated for Rachel's wackiness: "She was irrational in certain ways, and that led to his very ultra-rational kind of way with things."
Arrogance often hides insecurity; pretentiousness usually conceals ignorance. These are psychological truisms. Rachel was touchy about her limited education. Once she and some friends went to an Arthur Miller play and argued about it afterward. Feeling slighted, Rachel reportedly stormed off, declaring: "You'll hear from me when I get my degree." She wanted to go to college, but Sam vetoed the idea. He also forbade her to get a job. Uncharacteristically, she complied; no other man could have said no to Rachel and lived. She was resentful, but she didn't let her mind rot. She "read a great deal ... was very interesting ... an intellectual person," Cari says. "When I was taking piano lessons, she would be resting on the couch, reading the New York Times."
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sagan, Ann Druyan, and their intimate friend the movie producer Lynda Obst, met in southern California to plan the film Contact. Obst recalls how they sat around for hours, telling stories about their mothers: "Hours! ... We were all really interested in psychology and figuring ourselves out." Sagan revered his mother's memory, but by that time he didn't have any illusions about her; he had seen how she treated his first two wives. He was also beginning to look into his own soul, to understand the kind of person he wasthe kind of person Rachel had made him. "All the time we talked about Rachel ... [Carl] wasn't angry with her ... but he also knew how controlling she was, and how tough and mean she was to his other wives, and how selfish she made him in certain kinds of wayshow `entitled' is a better word," Obst says. "Rachel had so many secrets and so many issues.... I think she had a lot of rage. And Carl was her productionCarl was a `Rachel Production.' And she launched him into the world to stake her claim. In some sense he was shot out of a cannon."
Indeed, little Carl was an impressive kid, sometimes too impressive. "I was thrown out of Sunday school," he recalled. Someone had asked, How did Pharaoh's daughter know that Moses was a Hebrew child? The answer was, "He was circumcised," but the teacher was too embarrassed to say it. Carl kept "pushing and pushing and pushing" the teacher to answer the question. "Did [the child] have a Hebrew letter on it? How could you know? ... And the teacher couldn't give me the answer, even though he knew it, because he was embarrassed."
Jews were a large fraction of the populace in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood. The Sagans lived in a modest apartment a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby was Coney Island, a site of frequent Sagan family outings. Old photos show Carl lolling on the beach, with baby Cari on his back.
The 1930s. The Great Depression (which fascists blamed on Jews). Framed pictures of FDR (attacked by bigots for his "Jew Deal") on kitchen walls. Edward G. Robinson (born Emmanuel Goldenberg) movies at the Bijou. Father Coughlin on the radio, denouncing Jews. "My family never hid the fact that they were Jewish, [but] didn't shout it from the rooftops," Cari Sagan says. The exact nature of the family's religious faith is unclear. In a 1991 interview, Sagan recalled that they were Reform Jews, the more liberal wing of Judaism's three main groups (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform). Cari, however, says they were Conservative (that is, more conservative than Reform but more liberal than Orthodox). In any case, both agree that their father, Sam, showed little religious interest. Cari says Rachel "definitely believed in God and was active in the temple.... My mother only served kosher meat.... There [were] never any pork products or shellfish in the family or household." The couple occasionally quarreled, but not over religion. Carl said: "My mother and my father were deeply in love with each other, and so my father went along for my mother's sake." In turn, Cari noted, Rachel was flexible: "My dad liked bacon and eggs. And so he would go out on a weekend or some time and have it at a restaurant. And my mother was okay with that because it wasn't brought into the house." In this Judaically fluid atmosphere, the teenage Carl would nurse primal doubts.
Secularization was in the air. The great rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the originator of Reconstructionist Judaism, a new, fourth branch of Judaism, urged Jews to abandon superstition, to rebuild their lives around ethnic identification rather than ancient folk tales. The Humanist movement was well under way; its diverse band of intellectuals, leftists, and religious skeptics urged Americans to concentrate not on a doubtful hereafter but on the certain here and now. Trotskyists passed out literature on street corners. One's aunt or uncle might be an active member of the Communist party. "In the park right across from Carl's, on a Sunday afternoon," his friend Gritz remembers, "it was like Hyde Park in London: guys would stand up and give speeches for or against Stalin."
Sam was no intellectual, and as a factory boss he was certainly no Marxist. But he gave his children a social conscience. Cari was awed by his warm relationship with his workers at the factoryno mean feat in the highly unionized and combative garment industryand decided to become a social worker.
As for Carl, he was four or five years old when his parents took him to the New York World's Fair of 1939-1940. Holding their lunches, they walked by a man selling pencils. Sam took Carl's apple and gave it to the man. Carl disliked apples; nonetheless, he started wailing. It was his apple! To avoid embarrassing the man, Sam carried Carl away until their voices were out of earshot. "We don't really need that apple," he explained to his son gently. "That fellow was hungry." Carl never forgot the lesson. Many decades later, his enemies would include the nation's most virulent right-wingers.
At the nadir of the Depression, Sam Sagan had been a miserably paid movie usher in New York City. Six decades later, his only son's name would glisten on the movie screen. Sagan recalled his parents: "My relationship with them was really very good. I missed them often. Still miss them....
"Every now and then, when I am working or I am shaving or something like that, I hearas clear as a bellone of them saying my name: `Carl,' just like that.... It's unmistakable. I know whose voice it is.... I turn around before I can do any cerebration on it.... [Memory of their voices] has to be in many different parts of my brain. And it's not surprising that my brain would sort of, you know, play it back ... every now and then."
When Sagan repeated this story publicly, parapsychology buffs misunderstood his meaning. They excitedly spread the rumor (in words to this effect): "Carl Sagan, the king of skeptics, is in psychic contact with his dead parents!" Pseudoscientists and occultists were always misunderstanding Sagan. He was the best-known scientist of his time, and they yearned to convert him to their various causes. And it is true that throughout his life, Sagan proposed many unusual ideas, some so unusual that his more conventional colleagues scorned him as a sensationalist, a headline grabber. But for all his fancies, Sagan was too good a scientist to be fooled by his brain's neurological mirages; he was too confident an atheist to think he would ever see or hear his parents again, no matter how much he loved and missed them. The skeptic inside himthe "Rachel" inside himknew better.
During the depression, Thomas Wolfe observed a new intellectual force afoot: thousands of bright young Jews, the children of immigrants. In You Can't Go Home Again, Wolfe described "the Jew boy" eagerly reading in a New York tenement building. "For what? Because, brother, he is burning in the night. He sees the class, the lecture room, the shining apparatus of gigantic laboratories, the open field of scholarship and pure research, certain knowledge and the world distinction of an Einstein name."
New York City, 1939. The nation was still groggy from the Great Depression. Evil was afoot around the worldHitler and Mussolini in Europe, militarists in Japan. Yet pessimism did not come easily to Americans. They loved to talk about the future and the wonders it would bring. Fabulous new technologies would eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy. Synthetic foods would feed the starving. Miracle drugs would heal the sick. Television would bring high culturefor free!into every home. An ordinary Joe could afford his own small airplane. (And would keep it, one presumes, in a backyard hangar.) Aviation would make long-distance travel routine. Hence, national and international cultural barriers would dissolve; hence, different societies would better understand each other; hence, farewell to war!
The Depression had stirred radical juices. Socialists and Communists were on the march, radicalizing workers, threatening to redistribute wealth and topple the greedy few. But technology's propagandists promised to improve society without any need for class revolts or ideological bickering. How? Simple! Technology was the physical embodiment of Enlightenment rationalism. Rationalism or reason was the royal road to Truth, to optimal solutions for all problems, solutions that would satisfy everyone regardless of class or ethnicity or nationality. (Gender was not on the intelligentsia's radar screen at that time.) Therefore (the propagandists argued), technology, being reason's physical embodiment, was inherently nonideological. Its control could be entrusted to politically neutral "experts," professional Benthamites whose goal was the greatest good for the greatest number.
Who could question such a noble agenda? As in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, where Emerald City looms miragelike beyond the poppy fields, the "City of Tomorrow" beckoned on the horizon of 1939. It would be a city of superhighways and robots and televisionof everything, in fact, displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair. While Hitler blitzkrieged into Poland and France, Americans fantasized about a coming techno-utopia that satisfied all needs while requiring a minimum of societal self-criticism or personal introspection. There was no need to question who would control the technology, or for what ends. Carl Sagan's generation was raised on this technological faith. It is little wonder that for decades afterward, Sagan collected Fair memorabiliapostcards, ashtrays, and the like.
At the Fair's Futurama exhibit, operated by General Motors, participants "flew" over a moving map of the America of Tomorrow. They passed futuristic cities with elevated highways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers. Fairgoers were informed about future wonders: weather control, robots, atomic energy. "It showed beautiful highways and clover leafs and little General Motors cars all carrying people to skyscrapers, buildings with lovely spires, flying buttressesand it looked great!" Sagan remembered.
In retrospect, Sagan acknowledged, he had accepted the Fair's "extremely technocratic" message in "an uncritical way." Young Carl thought: "That's what tomorrow is going to be like. Gee! And I'm going to live in it!" He gasped at a display in which a flashlight illuminated a photoelectric cell, creating a crackling sound. In another exhibit, a sound wave from a tuning fork registered as a sine wave on an oscilloscope. "Plainly," Sagan observed, "the world held wonders of a kind I had never guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a noise?" He also witnessed, for the first time, the technology that would make him famous: television.
One of the Fair's most publicized gimmicks was the burial of a time capsule at Flushing Meadows. It contained mementos of the 1930s to be recovered by our descendants millennia hence. The time capsule thrilled Carl. Imagine, relics of our day, unearthed and pored over by inhabitants of an epoch unimaginably more wonderful than ours! How they will smile as they examine the pop-culture artifacts of our century, or struggle to decipher the script of old documents, written in languages as obscure to them as Chaucerian English is to us.
As an adult, Sagan and his colleagues would create his own time capsulescapsules destined to survive not for millennia inside the Earth, but for millions of years in the galaxy. The Pioneer plaques and the Voyager recordsall are long-term spinoffs of Sagan's wide-eyed scamper through the Word's Fair. These metallic messages to the cosmos may drift through the Milky Way for billions of years, never to be found. And if they are found, it'll be by creatures not of this world. But space is terribly vast; there is only an infinitesimal chance that aliens will one day scrutinize these micrometeorite-scarred ambassadors of Earth, these relics of A.D. 1939, of the spirit of Flushing Meadows, of the high hopes that soon crashed and burned in the chaos of Word War II.
A New York boy, particularly a Jewish boy, could not fail to be aware of the Second World War. The headlines were full of strange words such as Blitzkrieg and Anschluss. Parents whispered about the fate of European relatives. In 1942, when Sagan was seven, the struggle between fascism and democracy took place literally within earshot. His friend Robert Gritz remembers lying in bed at night and listening to the far-off "boom!" of exploding merchant ships, more victims of Hitler's "wolf packs." Kids on Brooklyn beaches stumbled on the resulting debris binoculars, jackets, body parts.
"Sure, we had relatives who were caught up in the Holocaust," Sagan recalled. "Hitler was not a popular fellow in our household, even before the war. But on the other hand, I was fairly insulated from the horrors of the war.... I spent time drawing Grumman Avengers shooting down Stukas." "Fairly insulated" is correct. Rachel, Cari says, "above all wanted to protect Carl from the horrors of war.... She had an extraordinarily difficult time dealing with World War II and the Holocaust. This was something that was never talked about, essentially, that I can recall.... We had relatives who were slaughtered." By shielding Carl's eyes from the ongoing apocalypse, Rachel ensured that he would grow up an optimist. Emotionally, that optimism would be his greatest strength; intellectually, it would be his greatest liability. It was a mental blinder that kept him politically naive until he was in his fifties, when he finally opened his eyes and faced the dragon in his mental Eden: the nuclear age, the threat of global annihilation. Carl inherited this mixed legacy from Rachel.
"I wouldn't say she was ugly or plain," Gritz says of Rachel. "You wouldn't give her a second look, but you wouldn't say, `Oooh, she's funny-looking.'" Rachel frequented a beauty salon run by Gritz's father. Sometimes she brought Carl. "She dressed nicelya skirt, makeup, her hair coiffed. She took good care of herself." While Rachel submitted herself to Mr. Gritz's handiwork, Carl and Robert played outside. "Cops and robbers, Americans versus the Nazis, and so on." Young Carl was "well builtvery athletic," in contrast to the exercise-averse, skinny adult he would become.
Sagan "kept his nose in the air" and had little to do with most children, Gritz recalled. "He was aloof`standoffish' is the best description. Head in the clouds.... I think his mother inculcated in him an idea that they were somehow better than the riffraff in the street.... I could speak to him about things I couldn't speak [about] to my other friends. My relationship with my other friends was almost one-dimensionalthere was no intellectual or cultural interaction. But with Carl, it was on different levels."
Sagan's parents were liberal Democrats. That was nothing unusual in the Brooklyn of that day, where FDR was second only to Moses and where many neighbors were farther left. (Gritz recalls assuming that Carl's parents weren't Communists simply because they didn't greet friends as "comrade.") This politically lively atmosphere nurtured Sagan's lifelong liberalism. Also, the culture tolerated oddballs (to quote Irving Howe: "Attitudes of tolerance, feelings that one had to put up with one's cranks, eccentrics, idealists, and extremists, pervaded the Jewish community"). This tolerance may explain Sagan's adult willingness to converse calmly with, rather than to eviscerate, his ideological oppositesfrom pseudoscientists to theologians to militarists.
Sagan's parents, too, knew the fine art of restraint: "I never saw his parents lay a hand on him," Gritz says. "He was an only child for a long time. He was the apple of their eye. He got a lot more from them than we did from our parents, materially speaking." The Sagans didn't have much money in the early days; Carl slept in his parents' bedroom. Yet Sam and Rachel managed to create a cultivated, upscale atmosphere. They even bought a small piano. Sagan recalled "a lively intellectual life. ... Both my father and mother read, there were wonderful arguments about politics and other matters, friends and visitors that I got to listen to [while] sitting in the corner. We had Shakespeare in the house." Other boys in the neighborhood built toy ray guns "out of old orange crates," Gritz says, but Carl "didn't have to do that; his parents would buy [toys] for him." A half-century later, Sagan wrote evocatively about the day that his parents bought him a pricey electric train with tracks and a headlight.
Yet Sagan was not spoiled. He was, in fact, unusually deferential to his parents. This amused his friends. "Carl called his father `Father' and his mother `Mother,'" Gritz says. "Nobody did that in those days! Your mother was `Ma,' your father was `Dad' or `Pa.' People laughed at him because it was peculiar." Sagan also pronounced aunt "ahhnt"more grounds for neighborhood merriment. When Carl told Gritz, "My mother said I have to be home by three o'clock," Carl left in time, Gritz recalls. "He was a very obedient person, a very conforming child to his parents' wishes, which we [other boys] were not."
Still, fires burned inside Sagan. He permitted a lucky few to feel their warmth. Gritz recalls how they cooed over a deck of "French postcards"playing cards displaying naked women. They also shared more sophisticated interests. For one thing, they listened to classical records together; Sagan was a real aficionado of the musical masters. "My mother had classical records and an old wind-up phonograph," Gritz says. "We listened to classical music together; we enjoyed that very much. [The Sagans] had a record of Toscanini playing the Rossini overture to William Tell with the famous finale, the `Lone Ranger' music." Decades later, Sagan's passion for the classics would be reflected in his choices of music to be included on the Voyager record, bound for the stars. "We also listened to the radio togetherCaptain Midnight and Superman. Sagan was very big into Superman." Gritz recalls that in one of their favorite shows (from his description, it was probably Superstition), mysteries, especially occult ones, prove to have simple, logical explanations. Did Superstition reinforce Sagan's fledgling skeptical tendencies?
The boys also experimented with lenses to make objects appear closer. Coincidentally, Sagan had begun to wonder about the stars: what were they? He recalled one winter in Brooklyn when he was five years old. The stars, he said,
seemed to me different. They just weren't like everything else.
And so I asked other kids what they were.... They said things like "they're lights in the sky, kid."
I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were theylittle electric bulbs on long black wires? ... I asked my parents, they didn't know. I asked friends of my parents, they didn't know.
[His mother suggested:] "I've just gotten you your first library card. Take the streetcar to the New Utrecht branch of the New York Public Library and find a book.... [The answer] has to be in a book."
I went to the library. I asked the librarian for a book on the stars. She came back and gave me a book. I opened it. It was filled with pictures of people like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.
I was humiliated. I gave it back to her and said, "This wasn't the kind of stars I had in mind." She thought this was hilarious, which humiliated me further. She then went and got the right kind of book. I took ita simple kid's book. I sat down on a little chaira pint-sized chairand turned the pages until I came to the answer.
And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light.... And while I didn't know the [inverse] square law of light propagation or anything like that, still, it was clear to me that you would have to move that Sun enormously far away, further away than Brooklyn [for the stars to appears as dots of light]....
The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. [It was] kind of a religious experience. [There] was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.
By the time Carl and Robert were six or seven, they found that by holding two lenses in the right positions, they "could see the craters on the Moon," Gritz recalls. They also studied "the red colors of Mars." The boys broadened their astronomical education by visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and its famous Hayden Planetarium. The displays included meteorites, rocks from space. One imagines them standing awestruck before these celestial oddities. Their very solidity proved what Sagan would later emphasize in lectures: space is a place.
Carl Sagan later wrote about his childhood trips to the museum. "I was transfixed by the dioramaslifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; okapi in the bright African veldt; a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, in a shaded forest glade; an American grizzly bear standing on his hind legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye." Like many children, Sagan became fascinated by dinosaurs and read all he could about them.
Popular culture reinforced Sagan's growing interest in science. His parents had taken him to see the 1939 New York World's Fair and Walt Disney's film Fantasia, both of which excited him about different aspects of science (the latter included a dinosaur sequence).
Sagan was also a sports buff. Contrary to stereotypes about Jewish intellectuals as Woody Allenish nebbishes, the New York Jewish community encouraged an interest in sports, especially basketball and baseball. Baseball players like Sandy Koufax (Brooklyn's own) and Moe Berg (Princeton grad, spied for the Allies during World War II) symbolized what Jews could achieve in America. Carl "was really a fanatic Yankee fan," Gritz says. "We could recite the batting averages of all the guys on the team."
Indeed, numbers enthralled Sagan, especially big ones. At age eight, the future author of Billions and Billions had the "childish compulsion to write in sequence all the integers from 1 to 1,000. We had no pads of paper, but my father offered up the stack of gray cardboards he had been saving from when his shirts were sent to the laundry." His mother interrupted the project: Carl had to bathe. The boy protested. Supportive in ways unimagined by Dr. Spock, Sam offered to continue writing the numbers while his son washed. "By the time I emerged, he was approaching 900, and I was able to reach 1,000 only a little past my ordinary bedtime. The magnitude of large numbers has never ceased to impress me."
The Sagans also subsidized Carl's growing interest in chemistry by buying him chemistry sets, with literally explosive results.