Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Unknown Sagan

When you care enough to send the very best

My boss was in one of those exempt positions that exist in the upper reaches of state service. Those of us who labored under her direction were all civil servants. We had quite a bit of job security, while she had essentially none. She served at the pleasure of the elected statewide official who had appointed her. Such people come and go with elections and changes in policies. The lower levels of state government are more stable.

“Laura” had already done a certain amount of skipping about in state service, having put in time on the legislative staff as well as with state agencies other than our own. We had taken her measure after a few months and knew that she was not an asset to the agency, but she was unlikely to be a significant liability unless she began to interfere in our operations. She did eventually begin to mess things up—and got dismissed for it—but that was still in the future when I told her I needed a day off.

“There's a conference in Pasadena that I want to attend. I'm really looking forward to the keynote address on the first day. The speaker is going to be Carl Sagan.”

Laura looked at me blankly. My enthusiasm was high, but she was serenely unaffected. I wondered for a moment whether she was about to object to my plans (surely the agency could spare me for a day or two!), so I was completely unprepared for her words:

“Who is Carl Sagan?” she asked.

My jaw did not drop, but I fear that my eyes did bulge. Who is Carl Sagan? Carl Sagan? I couldn't credit it.

“Sagan is the astronomer who did the series Cosmos on PBS a few years ago. He's been on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson several times. He's the author of Contact, which was a bestseller last year.” (And parodied on Saturday Night Live and [mis]quoted everywhere—including Peanuts—as saying “billions and billions.” How was it possible to be alive yet not know about Carl Sagan?)

Laura shook her head slightly and gave a microscopic shrug. She drew a blank.

The Pasadena Hilton

The conference was great. It had been sponsored by CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and its title theme was “Controversies in Science and Fringe Science.” Sagan spoke in his usual engaging and enlightening manner, suggesting that skepticism had an important role to play in evaluating the words and policies of our political leaders, as well as judging controversies in science. (Oh, Carl, if you could see how things are today!) James Randi gave a presentation at lunch. Penn & Teller had provided the after-dinner entertainment on the second (and final) evening. A good time was had by all.

I was staying at the Pasadena Hilton, which was within easy walking distance of the convention center where the CSICOP meeting had been held. Ending the conference with the perfect tired but happy cliché, I caught the elevator to head up to my room. The elevator doors opened, and there was Carl Sagan.

He was in his trademark turtleneck and blazer, looking calm and relaxed. Next to him stood a young boy who looked like Carl's clone, complete with matching turtleneck. I assumed it was his son.

I gave a small, nonchalant smile (at least, I think that's what I did) and stood to one side in the elevator car as it rose in its shaft. Although I was pleased that I was not acting goofy and gushy (at least, I didn't think I was acting goofy and gushy), it wasn't like I was going to get many more opportunities to spend time in the company of Carl Sagan. I made up my mind to seize the day. Or the moment, at least.

“Dr. Sagan, it was a pleasure to attend the conference and hear your speech. I came down from Sacramento for it. I told my boss you were going to be the keynote speaker, and you might be amused to learn that she said, ‘Who is Carl Sagan?’”

I don't know if Carl was actually amused, but the boy appeared to be on the point of convulsing with laughter. Carl's expression, in fact, was nearly as blank as Laura's had been. He considered my remark for a long moment, and then gave a small smile. In his roundest oratorical tones, Sagan said, “Please give my best to your boss.”

I have no idea what I said in return. I hope it was something cool like “I will indeed” or “It will be my pleasure,” but I don't remember. The elevator stopped at my floor and I got off. I presume I gave a polite and dignified nod as I stepped off. I'm fairly certain I would have remembered if my exit line had been, “Oh, golly gee, Dr. Sagan, you bet. I will for sure. Gosh. Thanks! Good night.” And somewhere halfway through all that the elevator doors would have closed between us and I'd be babbling at a blank wall. Pretty sure that didn't happen.

Sacramento

On Monday I showed up at work and regaled my coworkers with the highlights of my Pasadena trip (including a visit to my alma mater, where one of the undergraduates on campus had actually addressed me as “sir” when asking if I needed directions). The boss arrived on the scene and I delivered Carl's message:

“Oh, Laura, Carl Sagan sends you his best. He made a particular point of asking me to do that.”

She was puzzled, of course, but took it in stride. She took it in stride until the next day, that is. On Tuesday Laura came in and made a bee-line for me. She was unusually energized and chirpy (remember: this was before her sullen and paranoid period, which came near the bitter end).

“Okay, I guess Carl Sagan really is famous,” she announced. “Last night my daughter and I were wrapping presents for my son's birthday party. I just dropped it into the conversation that one of my agency's staff members had met Carl Sagan at a conference in Pasadena and that Carl had sent me his best.”

I raised my eyebrows quizzically. “So what happened?”

“My daughter went nuts! She said, ‘Carl Sagan! How do you know Carl Sagan? Why is he sending you his best? What's that all about?’”

This went on for a few days, as it rippled through the circle of Laura's and her daughter's acquaintances. Laura was enjoying the attention and all the puzzled questions, although she had never heard of Carl Sagan before. Nevertheless, she knew he was famous. And he had sent her his best.

8 comments:

hobot said...

Genius.
He made her give a damn about him by making him relate to her life, so she would have to look him up someday.

Blake Stacey said...

Oh, that is too funny!

Blake Stacey said...

Oh, before I forget, this might be a good place to spread my observation that Richard Feynman actually said "billions and billions" long before Carson put those words in Sagan's mouth.

I noticed this while watching the Messenger Lectures, which Feynman delivered at Cornell in 1964; they screen these each January at MIT, and various university libraries probably have copies (I can't find them online).

In the fifth lecture, Feynman discusses the reversibility of physical laws, the idea that at a basic level, physical interactions look equally valid when seen going forward and going in reverse. Record a movie, conceptually speaking, of two atoms colliding. The collision obeys several principles: momentum is conserved, total energy is conserved and so forth. Now, run the movie through the projector backwards and check the energy and momentum. Lo, the collision when seen in reverse obeys the same natural laws. This is not like our everyday experience, in which wind-up toys run down and people grow old, where a direction of time seems very well defined.

Exploring this question, Feynman raises the point that any familiar object is made of a staggeringly large number of fundamental pieces. A box full of gas contains "billions and billions" of gas atoms.

I checked in The Character of Physical Law, the book made from these Messenger Lectures, and sure enough, "billions and billions" appears just where it should in chapter 5.

anomalous4 said...

Unbefrackinlievable. What parallel universe was she in?

Zeno said...

"Parallel"? I don't know. Whatever universe it was, it was a narrow one.

"Laura" was a political in-fighter and survivor who was alternately rewarded and punished for her efforts, depending on whatever faction was in control at the time. She was totally focused on the insiders' game and I gather she had no interests outside the State Capitol and its immediate environs. Apparently that included not paying any attention to Johnny Carson, Saturday Night Live, the NYT list of bestsellers, the comics, etc., etc. It's amazing to me that anyone could have been so blinkered, but she was.

tyro52 said...

Recalling Carl Sagan always makes me feel wistful. I have a handful of personal heroes, and Sagan is among them. What prompted you to write about him now? After reading your reminiscence, I wondered if something was up regarding him, and sure enough, there is the 10th anniversary of his death on the 20th, with a blogathon scheduled for that date. I wonder why you didn't save your post for then.

Zeno said...

You're right, Tyro, there's a special commemoration planned for next week, at which I plan to add a postscript or header with some links to the blogathon. Next week, however, is also finals week for me and it's likely I'll be quite out of touch. Hence I put this post up which I had the opportunity to do it this week.

It was a privilege to have met Carl Sagan.

SaganGatheringATyahooDotCom said...

Wonderful story. Wistful, funny and other things too.

I also encounter many people who don't know who Carl is/was. Even in Ithaca. Mostly people under 30, but plenty over 30 as well.

Many people who know and value his work suggest that at a minimum, viewing COSMOS should be required in all high schools.

I quite agree.